Unforgiving Tires

Sometime during the summer, I was interviewing a racer for a magazine article I was writing, and the subject of tires came up. I’m not one of those who makes a living writing about tires, but I knew enough to know that Goodyear had been providing harder, more durable compounds this year, and it was pretty obvious that some drivers and teams had been completely buffaloed trying to figure them out.

I asked the driver, who had recently won a race or two, if he and his crew chief had really figured out the new tires, or if all they had figured out was that they had to start from scratch every week and that the old setups and notes didn’t work anymore.

He said all they’d learned was that they didn’t know anything and, by trial and error, sometimes they figured it out and sometimes they didn’t.

So I asked him why it was that so many of his colleagues were having trouble with the tires, but yet they never criticized them. Seemed like a reasonable question to me.

He rolled his eyes, looked heavenward and generally gave me the internationally accepted symbol for, “You don’t want to go there.”

I started laughing and said, “You don’t have to say a word.” His look said it all.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company have a lot in common as far as management strategy is concerned. It’s probably why their love affair has lasted so long. Both of them seem to have a rather tyrannical bent. It doesn’t seem to me that freedom of speech is either one of their favorite parts of the Constitution, but I’m a journalist so perhaps I’m a bit jaded.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Goodyear’s tires. I think the company has dutifully produced the tires that NASCAR officials requested.

But it is widely known that Goodyear takes a dim view of drivers complaining about its rubber. That’s why the smart drivers always use the term, “I believe we cut down a tire,” instead of the less politically correct, “The tire blew out.”

Tires are expensive, and Goodyear provides a lot of teams with freebies. In exchange for the freebies, it is generally expected that drivers don’t pop off to the media about tires that don’t live up to their expectations.

Whenever there is a race like the one last week in Kansas in which a lot of tires seem to “cut down” and a lot of cars go hard into walls, invariably Goodyear hustles out a news release noting the company’s evaluation of its tires. I cannot recall there ever being anything wrong with any of them, the lone exception being at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last year when Goodyear sheepishly admitted it had a shortage of tires.

Those tires, however few there were, were perfect, we were informed.

Here, by the way, is the official Kansas Speedway analysis of Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales and marketing:

“We are pleased with the overall performance we’ve seen this weekend and the fact that our Eagles played into the teams’ strategy as they opted for four, two or no tire changes during the various pit stops. The tires have a proven history from four other tracks. A few late-race accidents involved tires that were heavily damaged and, while the results are inconclusive, we suspect cuts from debris or low inflation may have impacted the tires.”

For most of the year, the drivers have toed the line. Recently, though, brash young drivers like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have spoken out about their displeasure with the tires. Others, most notably Dale Jarrett, have questioned the wisdom of bringing hard tires to a November race in Loudon, N.H., where the weather is likely to be frigid. Most of the accidents at Kansas probably occurred because recently applied tires had not had time to heat up properly. In Kansas, temperatures were in the 70s. What happens when it’s 19 degrees? Or even 50, say, at Rockingham or Atlanta later this fall?

Jerry Nadeau took a balanced approach when he was asked about the “tire controversy” earlier this week.

“Tires are tires,” said Nadeau. “This whole year, a lot of guys have been struggling. I know I have. Goodyear came out with a new tire, which is a lot harder and a lot less forgiving. When you start the race on cold tires, that’s where you see a lot of mishaps. You saw what happened to Casey Atwood on the first lap at Kansas.

"Last year, the tires were forgiving. You could drive hard. You’d wear them out and you’d have to come in and put new tires on. At Kansas, I didn’t even take tires on, and we led 15 laps. We had a great car. I had 80 laps on my car and I was able to hang with the guys with zero laps on their tires. It shows how good the tire is, but it has caused some controversy. It’s harder for the drivers when they’re racing someone else because there’s no forgiveness in the tires.”

Perfection, yes. Forgiveness, no.

The perfection of Goodyear’s engineers and producers is comforting to me, by the way, because I just had four of them put on my Dodge truck. I didn’t get mine free, though, which is probably why I can write this column.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2001

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