Does NASCAR Have a Tire Problem That Needs to Be Solved?

Bob MargolisContributor IIMarch 27, 2014

Mar 23, 2014; Fontana, CA, USA; A blown out tire rest in the pit during the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR fans are still talking about tires.

And they’re using social media to express their anger and frustration with the role Goodyear’s tires played in the outcome of last weekend’s Auto Club 400.

Jeff Gordon fans are upset because they feel their man got robbed of a sure win when the caution flag was displayed with less than a handful of laps left in the race. The reason? Clint Bowyer had become the latest driver to suffer a tire failure that resulted in a spin in Turn 4. 

Even Gordon had to come onto pit road during that final caution after he suspected that he might have a tire failure in the making, wiping out any chance he may have had to take the checkers first.

“I hate that the caution came out. I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for.  We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off.”  

While the racing that afternoon was some of the best Cup racing on the two-mile track in quite some time, the rash of tire failures suddenly became the top story.

Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards all fell victim to a failed tire at one point during the race. Unfortunately, Goodyear heard its name being repeated during the television broadcast one time too many times.

It’s not supposed to be that way.

Still, all week long, fans have been expressing outrage at Goodyear for having a tire they believed altered the outcome of the race.

After the race, there was a lot of finger pointing going on. Did Goodyear bring the wrong tire? Was the aging track surface at Auto Club Speedway (ACS), which hasn’t been paved since the track opened in 1997, too abrasive, bumpy and worn out?

And there were also the long tar strips between lanes that caused the car to be unsettled as it ran over them at 200 mph. A lack of grip forced crew chiefs to run aggressive mechanical setups on their race cars, setups that included excessive angles of camber and lower than recommended air pressures, all in an attempt to create a cushion of comfort for their driver as he dive-bombed his ultra slick and super fast Gen 6 car into Turns 1 and 3.


A Non-Issue

For some teams, the tire issue was a non-issue. Race winner Kyle Busch and his crew chief Dave Rogers wondered what all the talk about tires was for.

“I never felt anything wrong with ours,” said Busch in a post-race interview in Victory Lane. “I know Dave [Rogers, crew chief] said that something was wrong with our left rear at one time, but I never felt anything and it made it the run we needed it to be while a couple other guys had problems.”

Lucky them.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t as lucky. He had issues early in the race, but blamed it on a bumpy track. “Huge” bumps, he called them. He even suggested that track owner International Speedway Corporation (ISC) pave the back straightaway.

“To be honest with you, the back straightaway is very rough and I think the tire can’t handle the load that it goes through on that back straightaway,” said Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race television interview. “It’s just tearing the tire up where the sidewall and tread are put together. They’re incredible huge, huge bumps. They don’t need to pave the race track. Just pave the back straightaway. (It’s) not very cheap, but I’ll bet you won’t have any tire problems anymore.”

The design of the new Gen 6 car produces between 500 to 600 pounds of added downforce, designed to keep the car glued to the surface as it speeds down the track. On the back straight at ACS, as Junior described it, this added downforce contributed to the physical damage on his Chevrolet SS. The rocker panels (strips of metal that run on the bottom of the sides of the race car) were bent from hitting the bumps.

He pointed out the damage to a television interviewer after the race.

“I mean look at that rocker panel on that race car right there (as he points to the panel). That panel is tore up and folded up and it’s literally pushed up three inches,” said Earnhardt Jr. “That’s from traveling and hitting the ground through those bumps. Hell, it’s like an off-road track back there and it shouldn’t be like that. It doesn’t have to be that way, even if it ain’t the problem.”

Definitely not a tire problem. More like a track problem here.

Las Vegas winner Brad Keselowski placed the blame on teams using less than minimum air pressures. He also warned of impending issues at other tracks across the schedule.

“This tire didn’t have any margin,” Keselowski said following the race. “We have probably a half a dozen tires (races) remaining that have no margin and I would expect similar issues through the season. (There’s) no margin from last year and we have increased the demand (on the tire) significantly. If you are going to fix it you either have to change the margin on the tire or put the cars back to their configuration last year where they were less harsh on the tires.” 


Inside a Box

NASCAR’s rules package puts the new Gen 6 car into a very tight technical and mechanical box.

Teams are pushing at every corner in an effort to gain an advantage. One area where engineers have devoted many hours of research is in the suspension setup. This includes the tires. Crew chiefs use Goodyear’s tires as an integral part of a detailed suspension setup.

They do this because the tires are better than ever, the suspension parts are lighter and more exact through the use of exotic metals and the suspension geometry itself is designed by engineers who could easily be working at NASA—except racing pays a whole lot better.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton:

“I would think that if you're in this garage area you're paid to be aggressive and you'd want to take everything to the limit.  We know that winning is going to trump everything this year, and I think guys are more aggressive.

Martinsville usually doesn't have tire problems. However, three years ago (2011), Goodyear’s short track tire had issues. It failed its first test of the season at Bristol, which was only two weeks before Martinsville, when tires became worn and essentially useless after only 25 laps.

Since then, Goodyear has changed and improved the tire it brings to short tracks. Still, the new car calls for an aggressive setup, even at Martinsville, where the slower speeds (under 100 mph average) means aerodynamics play little to no role in a car’s setup. It’s all about finding as much mechanical grip as possible. Lowered air pressures and extreme camber settings, designed with making the car turn left, making it easier to go fast on an oval.  

We live in a world where people want to place blame for things that aren’t right. Sometimes it's a matter of opinion whether they are or not. 

Most of the time, Goodyear’s engineers get it right. Last weekend, Goodyear was an easy target. 

Sometimes you get the perfect mix of an old track surface, trick suspension setups and high downforce. The result is what fans witnessed last Sunday.

*All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.