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     Tire War


Over the years there have been lots of debates surrounding tire rules.  Much was written when the World Racing Group switched the sprint car series to Goodyear and more was written about WRGs dirt modified series’ using Hoosier and the non sanctioned tracks going to American Racer.  There has also been an ongoing lawsuit by one tire manufacturer that alleges that “track tire” contracts are illegal.   The articles have largely been about the generalities of the subject and opinions of top drivers, car owners, promoters and manufacturers.   But to really understand how tire rules affect racing and the cost of racing, you have to look at the whole picture, from those making the deals, to tire characteristics, to the challenges that racers have when choosing tires in an open tire rule world. 

 I guess I should say up front that after experiencing open tire competition and spec tire rules, I find that it is much easier, fairer and cheaper to have a tire rule in place.   I hope the discussion below will shed some light on how tire rules affect the big picture and the individual racer. 

Competition is the core of what racing is about and many feel that the free market approach is best.   An open tire rule allows everyone to use what works best for them and for the best product to rise to the top and win.   That works as long as all parties have lots of money to spend and the goal is to build the fastest tire for a given situation.    The problem is that tires are a large part of the cost of racing and open tire competition can be very expensive.  Here’s why.

Tires - 

First, it is important to understand that tires have had more impact on racing speeds than anything else over the past 50 years.    The improvements made in tire development have led the way to more new track records than most anything else.   Even increased horsepower only helps when you can hook it to the track through the tire.   Lighter components have been effective in increasing speeds by decreasing total car weight and even further, by reducing unsprung component weight that helps with traction during acceleration and cornering but all of those improvements are trumped by the tire. 

Making cars lighter got out of control as parts were made barely strong enough to do the job and very expensive materials like carbon fiber and titanium increased the cost of a part by four to ten times or more.   As light weight efforts became extreme, it was easily addressed by sanctioning bodies setting minimum weight limits and material rules.   Horsepower gains are always being found and the simplest way to limit them is by limiting cubic inch displacement, and specifying air intake restrictions.   

But all of the improvements and all the hardware that makes up a race car still funnels through the four patches of rubber that contact the track surface. This is what makes a car move, corner and stop.   Think about it !  Everything that is done to the racecar really comes down to making the tire grip the surface most efficiently.  Tires are that important.  The tire surface -IS- the point where the race car is not hard bolted to the mating surface. Take a minute to really think about it.   Everything comes down to the four patches sticking to the track surface.

Now on the flip side, as important as tires are, designing and building them is totally out of the hands of the racer. Tires are the sole domain of the tire manufacturers.  The composition and constructions are tightly guarded trade secrets.

 Over time, as tires got better and better, they were able to create more forward grip to get the car down the straight, more grip to slow the car for corner entry but most importantly, more grip to hold more side load in the corners, thus allowing the cars to go through the corners faster.   Typically an oval track car spends 2/3 of its lap time in the corners so increasing corner speed has a bigger effect on lap times than just increasing acceleration down the straights with more power or better forward traction.   Also faster cornering means a higher speed at the beginning of the straight and most times a car with increased corner exit speed can beat a car with more power, and a lower corner exit speed.  

Cornering is king and all the setups, springs, bars, shocks, angles, locations, lengths, power, gears and driver are designed to determine how much force will be distributed to each tire at different parts of the corner and at the entrance to the straightaway.  The fine balance of car adjustments, along with the construction of the tire, determines how much cornering force and acceleration force the car can generate before the tire breaks traction.  

 As tires have improved, lap times have gone down, and racers can now run many tracks without lifting.  This takes away the driver skills of out-braking, cornering at the limit of traction and easing back into the throttle.   Dirt track owners have compensated by preparing tracks that become slick as the race night progresses, taking away the added traction that the tire makers have created, and making a “driver’s race” out of it again.   Of course, then the tire manufacturers develop tires that work better on these slicker tracks...  it never ends.    The Holy Grail in racing is creating the best connection between the rubber and the road.

  The performance of a tire is all about its design, materials and construction.  The details are all company secrets.  The characteristics of various tires will affect a car in different ways.  Let’s take a look at dirt sprint car tires as an example.   There are basically three manufacturers that are actively competing in the sprint car market right now, American Racer, Goodyear and Hoosier.   Like everything else in racing, each one has tried to invent better (meaning faster) tires to compete in the open market.   They all have a racer’s passion to beat each other. 

Many years ago, each manufacturer had only three or four compounds ranging from soft to hard that were to be used for tracks that were slick to abrasive.  But as building tires became more refined, manufacturers made more compounds, with different characteristics.  New compounds fell in between the basic compound choices.   For a given class or type of car, compounds were developed for qualifying, for long and short races, long and short tracks, low and high speed corners.

  Compounds -

Compounds are made of natural rubber, synthetic rubber, or mixtures of the two, with processing variations to enhance different characteristics.   Some wear longer and don’t have as much traction as a softer tire but stay the same from the beginning to end of the race.   Others get better as they get hotter but do not work as well cold.    Some start strong but fade as the race wears on.  Others work great until they cool and then “seal over” and lose a lot of traction and then never gain heat or the same traction level again.   Some work better on gritty abrasive tracks, some work better on slick icy tracks, some are amazing for only one lap and are great for qualifying, some will last 10 laps, some will last 30, some will last 50.    Some can be used for several races, some don’t work again after one heat cycle.  Some wear to nothing after one race.  Some of these characteristics can be controlled by the manufacturers and others are just the side effects of a design.  Tire choice can make a car a bullet or a beast. Sometimes a tire doesn’t work in a race because it was just a bad guess by the race team for that track condition.

 Choose a compound that is too soft and it will grind off, blister or chunk and you’ll go backwards.   Choose a compound that is too hard and you may never get as much traction as your competitor and you’ll go backwards.   A great tire that seals over when cooled may win the race if it goes flag to flag but you’re dead if there’s a red.  Guess wrong on what you think the track will do and you lose.   Choosing the tire that’s been winning is the safe bet until you get beat by somebody that takes a chance with something different that works with their setup and driving style.   Try that tire and it may not work for you.

  Casing -

Although you can use a durometer to test compound hardness, it only tells you how stiff the rubber is.   It won’t tell you how it wears or how it works hot or cold.   But at least there is a compound number on a tire or a durometer reading you can use as a gauge for comparison.   When it comes to construction, however, there isn’t much meaningful information available.   Some sidewalls flex considerably and some are stiffer, some tires crown in the center, some are flat, some are belted to stay flat, some roll under more in cornering, and some are meant to grow with speed, some are a smaller diameter on one side than the other.    There are untold numbers of casings that have been tried and developed with some star driver, at some track, somewhere, and they work great for his driving style, track and car.   The problem is that the tire manufacturers don’t tell their secrets about casings (or compound mixes for that matter) and generally don’t label the tires in a way that gives the racer any information about the tire construction.  There may be some very general info about how the casing works but that is usually only passed around by word of mouth and is always suspect.   You are never given a spec sheet on a tire and you can’t take a tire apart to see what’s inside and know what it means.

 The fact is, there may be changes in the casings introduced during a season you probably won’t know about.  Few racers really know anything about the tires except from their own trial and error and what they hear.   Even then it’s hard to know if the car is different because of a difference in the tire or a change in track, weather or the car.   A construction or compound change may be something that the manufacturer considers an improvement and implements across the board or it may be something that just varies with personnel , production, manufacturing equipment, location of manufacture, local humidity at the time of manufacture or length of storage time or temperature from mold to race car.     Even if told about the design, racers wouldn’t understand what it means without the context of all the tire manufacturer’s background testing and experience, design compromises, costs, market price, and reasons for selection of the particulars.

 The only thing a team with connections to a manufacturer may find out is something like “this design doesn’t grow” or “doesn’t hump in when it rolls under” or “the edge is redesigned to not blister”, etc, etc.  There are always rumors in the pits about tires.  Sometimes a rumor will circulate about the meaning of serial numbers but it is all word of mouth and even if correct, it’s never the whole story.  In an open tire world, changes will happen and the teams that are already winning will get the most information and the best product first.

 Tires are such a mystery that even tire manufacturers can’t figure out how and why a competitor tire is beating them, despite lots of money being spent in R&D with engineers studying the competitors tire, cutting them apart, doing tests and analysis.  If a manufacturer’s brand is not winning, then they are busy developing something new and spending money and that cost eventually raises the price of the tire.

 The tire truck-

So because the average short track racers don’t have a clue about or any control of tire design, they buy what the tire truck has piled inside. They all look alike.   The tire dealer has bought what the tire manufacturer has on hand or recommends, when he places the order and he is motivated to sell all the tires he buys, which may be a month’s worth or more.  He might not want the newest thing if his customers are used to the same old.   He is stuck in the middle between a manufacturer who is telling him what the hot setup is and the racer who will abandon the brand or design if he can’t get what he feels will work for him or when something else starts winning.  Yet, the manufacturer and the dealer want to sell everything they have on hand whether it’s the best or not, or they lose money.   The dealer has to buy in quantity to get a good price and for the most part the racer has to take the tires that are available from his truck or speed shop at face value.   The dealer has to play safe and not buy tires that might not sell so in some circumstances it may be the dealer that effectively sets the tire limits at a given track.

  Tire War -

Well except, if there is another dealer nearby or at the track with a different brand (or the same), in which case the competition is really on.   Now they each have to do some homework with the manufacturer to get a tire that will beat the other guy.   Tire wars start with the manufacturers trying to beat each other.   Then in a tire war, the tire dealers want the best tire they can provide to beat the other dealers and sell more tires.   The racers want what’s winning and it’s monkey see – monkey do in the pits.  

 Then some racer with a tire deal gets a tire from their manufacturer that is their latest and greatest development tire.   No one else has it because it’s being custom built as part of R&D.   The tire may be a winner or a dog….  That’s one of the risks of being a team soldier on a tire deal in an ongoing tire war.   If it’s a winner, the unfair advantage will take them past all challengers and as long as they can keep the secret, and get the special tire, they’re the hero.   Soon however, the tire goes into production and everyone can get it, that is, after the tire truck has sold out of the old design and reorders.   Meanwhile the other manufacturer is developing his best shot and the war continues.

An open tire rule is manageable as long as there is only one manufacturer that is really committed to your type of racing.  It becomes ugly, expensive, unpredictable and frustrating when a second or third manufacturer decides to go to war, compete for that business and “ups the competitive ante.”

The Racer's Tire Deal -

When a change in the spec tire brand was announced by WRG for the World of Outlaw Sprints and adopted by the PA tracks, there was a lot of complaining from teams that had tire deals with the previous manufacturer.   These are teams that were given free or discounted tires by that previous manufacturer.   By not having to spend as much on tires, they could spend their budgeted money on other things or just race cheaper than the next guy.  This money can understandably be a large part of a team’s budget adding up to $20k to $50k (maybe more) per year and clearly teams with a deal are going to cry loudly when that deal disappears because the rules are changed to a different brand.  

 It’s great to have a tire deal when there is a spec tire but what’s worse than losing the deal is having a tire deal with a manufacturer (i.e. a contract to run only their brand) with an open tire rule.   The team may end up with free tires but also may get or have to run development tires that can be winners or dogs.   Their manufacturer may be leading in the tire war, making them a hero, or they may be concentrating on some other type of racing series with no effective development effort in your division leaving the racer with a contract for the losing tire and that can kill a season.   

  The Series' Tire Deal -

 There are also tire deals that are made by manufacturers with the sanctioning bodies or the track owners.   This sets a spec tire for the sanction or track, guaranteeing one manufacturer a known amount of business for a tire design that they can mass produce and sell all year without competition.  This helps the manufacturer cut the costs of making these tires and provides some added profit that can be shared with the track (and indirectly or directly with the racers).  The business deal with the track is confidential but it’s clear that the track or sanction body is usually paid in exchange for a rule that requires a certain brand and spec of tire to be used.    The track owners will shop around for the best deal and the tire manufacturers will try to out bid each other.  If a manufacturer can’t make a competitive tire that sells in the open market, they can effectively create sales by buying their way in with a spec tire deal.

 The only people that really make or expect to make money in racing are the track owner and the race products manufacturers. To become more profitable or just cover expenses, track owners have tried to find ways to make more money.   As fewer fans are found in the stands, other things have been done to bring in more money or offset an expense.    The “track tire” deal kickback is often used to fund the year end point fund, so the money eventually goes back to the racers, albeit more to the top teams and less or none to the rest.    And it may be the same top teams that have their own tire deal in addition.   Putting the tire money in the point fund frees up the track owner from having to come up with money for a point fund from other income or not have a point fund at all.  But to keep the pits full and the fans happy, tracks have point funds to keep racers coming back to the same track instead of hopping around.   The spec track tire deal can help keep the track and racers going financially.

 The Racer's Dilemma -

As much as racing is all about tires, it’s interesting that the tire is the one thing that no race team, at any level, can or will build themselves.   And as important as the tire is, a tire is a full mystery to most all short track racers.   They don’t know how it is made, how to make one, or much about its working characteristics or the design ideas in it.   It can only be taken at face value and evaluated by trial and error.   You buy it, you mount it, you may put some cuts in it, but outside of a few external treatments, what you can see is what you get.  So to really understand the impact of an open tire rule, you need to know about what has been said so far to understand the decisions a team has to make about tires.

 Open Tire Rule - 

What tire gets put on a car in an open tire world is a race team decision.  It’s important to understand the racer’s motivations and dilemmas to see how the decision is made.  Back in the day, when there were no tire rules the racers could choose any tire they wanted to use.   It would turn out that certain tire brands would work better at certain tracks.   So to be competitive you may need to have one brand for the Friday track and maybe another brand for Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes a track would take on certain characteristics for the night where a different brand from normal would be faster, but only for that night.  So one night a Hoosier might be best and another night or another track an American Racer  or Goodyear could dominate.   But today, it’s not just about tire brands, because within each brand there are lots of combinations that the manufacturer may build (which may be available or may be out of stock ) and lots of ways that those tires will work, or not.

So as a racer, you come to the track with tires on your car and in your trailer.   The top racers in the top series can accept no excuses and put new tires on every night and even for every time the car goes on the track.   Racers without larger budgets will race on tires for a couple of races if the type of tire that’s competitive wears well, doesn’t go bad from heat cycling and new tires just don't make a difference.

But even the racer who puts on new tires each night is faced with what tire to use.  

 The choice may come from experience or from what’s available at the track.  At big races, all three manufacturers will be there with tractor trailer loads of tires, sometimes made just for that track, other times it would be the tire they think is best for the event.   At weekly tracks, a dealer or two will have tires based on what they feel is best for them to sell.   Some teams may have their own ideas and get tires shipped to them directly, that are different from what is available at the track.   That will require some experience with the track, with different tires, and require some early thinking and planning, weeks before the race to allow for shipping time.

 The open tire rule problem for most racers is that they probably want to put on a tire that is just soft enough that it has the most traction but will last the race distance.    That means putting a really soft (or grippy) compound on for qualifying.   If it’s a time trial race, there may be a tire made for qualifying that is only good for two laps.   One company had a tire that was exceptional for qualifying but it was only good for one lap.   After the first four corners, it slowed down.   Many track records that have stood for a long time were made with this tire and many of the drivers only took one lap and pulled in.   The tread may look like new but now the edges are not crisp and the compound has changed.  Use the tire for one or two laps and throw it away.

 Next is the heat race.   How wet or abrasive is the track going to be?   Depends on the nature of the clay and how dry it gets, how many cars and classes will be on it before your race and how much time has there been for the water to evaporate or soak away from the surface.   Put on too hard a tire and you might go backwards against competitors with softer stuff.   Too soft and the tire may wear out, tear, chunk, blister, overheat and lose traction and you go backwards.  It’s safest to use the same as everyone else.  

 Then the same decisions have to be made for the feature.   Too soft or too hard is a mistake but even within that range are great tires that give up when they cool and take many laps to come back if at all.   Some tires seal over and get slick when they cool and as the track gets slicker, there’s less abrasion at the end of the race to get heat back into the tire.   You either have experience with the track surface and certain tires or you follow the rumors to make your best monkey see - monkey do guess.

 So if you are not able to afford to buy new tires for every race, you look through your trailer to find the best combination.   You may find the right compounds but it won’t give you the right stagger.   Use tires from different manufacturers and their casings may not work well together.   You may choose tires that you can get a couple of races out of to save money.   But even with that strategy, you may have to wait a while to use a tire again because of different track conditions. 

  It may be clear on a given night that a different brand is working and much faster than what you have on your trailer.   So you either use what you have to save some money or try to get the other brand.   Well it may be that the tire truck doesn’t have any of that tire or they sold out or they have that brand but a different compound or the winning tire is a new design that the manufacturer sent to the team on their deal and you can’t get it.   So if you use what you have you may already be at a disadvantage for the night.    Or you may have a deal with a manufacturer and you can’t run a different manufacturer’s better tire and what you have for tonight sucks.    

It may be that the tire you like isn’t belted and now what the truck has is belted.   So you have some left rears that are unbelted and you put on this right rear that is belted, and about the time you get to the flag stand, the car lurches two lanes to the right when the left rear stands up and changes stagger.   Who knew?  You’re stuck with it till the end of the race but worse is that there was no way to tell how your tires are constructed except for word of mouth or possibly some generalities from the guy at the tire truck.

Take all of this and multiply it by two or three for each time you're on the track that night because not only do you have all the compound and construction choices and snags but you have to make stagger changes for the qualifying track surface, heat race surface and feature.

  Then there is the rubber down problem.   As tires got better and cars got faster, track owners started preparing tracks that packed in tight and slicked up.   As tire manufacturers worked to make tires stick better to the slick tracks, the tires started to shed rubber that bonded with the rigid hard surfaces and would create a band of sticky rubber in the groove that everyone was running.   Soon the groove was “rubbered up” and became the only fast way around and the race became one lane of follow the leader with no bite off that rubber strip.   No matter how fast you were, you were stuck in line and could not pass.  Now tires were really wearing, overheating, smoking, blistering and blowing.  This condition will totally use up all four tires in one race.

 The reality is that no short track racer has the time or personnel to really keep up with the open tire rule situation.   If they are deeply connected to a tire manufacturer, it will be with only one manufacturer.    It’s great to have a tire deal and contract if that is the tire that’s winning, but every manufacturer wants to win because then they will sell tires.  That leads to a tire war and a tire war just adds to the chaos.

 The fact is that racing is trial and error and tires are part of the setup puzzle.   No one knows how all the variables will stack up during a race and the decisions are an educated guess at best.  The uncertainty often leads to just using what you have or what worked before and not taking a chance on something else that "might" be better.   After the race, the pits will talk about the brand that won and heads will be scratched.

 Tires are the most expensive part of a night of racing and are critical to the car being in a position at the end for the best payback.  If costs are less important to a team, the tire options become broader.   Teams with smaller budgets have to make more cost/reward choices.

 The Spec Tire -

  When tire rules are put into place, they typically provide a medium compound and a harder one for extreme conditions.  For a sprint team, knowing that there is only one tire to use, allows them buy tires ahead and mount the new tires at their shop.   The tire rule contracts usually set a season price that is typically lower than the regular price.   With a fixed choice of tires, teams know what to expect from the tire and can focus on other parts of the setup.   If a track owner and manufacturer work to keep costs down for their racers, the spec tire they choose will usually be of a compound that will last more than one race and can be good for qualifying heats and more than one feature.   With no compound choices, stagger choices are easier and the fewer tires on the trailer are all useable. 

 Stability saves money.   A tire rule helps teams reduce their tire costs in many ways.  It reduces the tire inventory a team needs, helps prevent rubber down tracks, unhooks the cars enough to put the driver back in the picture, take some strain off the power train, and levels the playing field for low budget teams.  It’s sold to the racer at a lower cost.  It is more efficient for the manufacturer to build and for the dealer to inventory.  It is financially better for all involved.

 Tires are one of the biggest operating costs for a team and stability and simplicity are the most important part of keeping racing costs down.   No matter what tire brand, structure and compounds are chosen in a spec tire deal, there are always some racers that aren’t satisfied with the choice.   The only consolation is that everybody is on the same tire.   It may not be the best or fastest tire, but most times it’s meant to be that way, to unhook the cars a little, to work on a wide range of track conditions, to not wear excessively, to prevent rubber down, and to have a reasonable price.

 An open rule tire war seldom reduces prices.   It is about increasing performance and if it costs more to gain that edge, the racer will pay for it or run in the back  With an open tire rule, the manufacturer can take advantage of their winning position and raise the price on the winning tire just because of the demand.

 On the other hand, a spec tire war is typically a bidding war where the tire manufacturers will try to offer more bang for the buck.  Lower prices, and other benefits will be used to secure an exclusive market for the product.   The spec tire war is seldom about performance but with everyone on the same tire, performance is not the issue.   On the down side, it is possible that the tire manufacturer and or promoter can take advantage of the spec tire rule by choosing a tire that is used up each night, forcing racers to buy more new tires than if they had a compound that would work for several races.

 Racing is expensive and full of compromises.   Sometimes it’s best to factor out some expensive variables to control costs and keep the competition close making racing more about driving.  

As much griping as there has been about Spec Tire Rules or Track Tires, the fact is that these rules have a lot of advantages for all involved. 
In the big picture it helps
both the racer and the sport survive.


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