Goodyear needs to get the message whether the phone rings or not
Sunday's race at Kansas was the complete opposite of what we saw last weekend in Dover. Instead of a steady stream of long green flag runs, we saw a rain of caution flags following repeated spins on the track. The net result, however, was the same; a race difficult for both fans and competitors alike. This time, series tire maker Goodyear should shoulder much of the blame for what took place. Its much vaulted dual zone tires were an abject failure at a track whose repaved surface shouldn't have been much of a challenge. NASCAR and its tire maker need to take a long hard look at what happened Sunday so that come 2014 it never happens again.
Since a mid-90's challenge from Hoosier Tire, Goodyear has reigned supreme in the world of NASCAR. Thanks to an exclusive contract with the series, the tire maker is the sole provider for NASCAR teams. There are numerous advantages to having a sole supplier- chief among them the knowledge that the only way tires determine the outcome is based on how many of them a team takes. There's also the fact that competition between tire makers on the track tends to place speed first and reliability second.
But Goodyear also has had its issues over the past decade. The most notable of those came at the 2008 Brickyard 400, where the combination of an abrasive surface and a soft tire resulted in a fiasco that essentially killed that event for NASCAR. Tires failed after a handful of laps resulting in numerous cautions and wrecked race cars. The longest green flag run of the event was 13 laps. Fans and teams alike buried the tire manufacturer and NASCAR laid down the law with Goodyear both publicly and privately. If they were to err, NASCAR decreed, they should err on the side of durability.
"Highlights" of the 2008 Brickyard 400
The message came through loud and clear. Since that debacle, Goodyear has developed ever harder tire compounds for race weekends at Indy and elsewhere. In terms of durability, it's mission accomplished for the tire maker. The tire failures we've seen since that time tend to fall into one of three categories; a tire damaged by debris on the track, a tire melted at the rim due to excessive brake heat, or a tire pushed beyond the laws of physics thanks to excessive camber. None of those problems ultimately lie at the foot of Goodyear and that's exactly what the company sought out to do.
The problem is that hard tires do not make for great racing. A hard tire doesn't provide the same grip for a driver on the track. It also lasts longer (which is the point, of course), but in doing so virtually eliminates the advantage that teams used to receive from changing tires. With the aerodynamic advantage teams receive by running up front, there's simply no reason to take four tires on a regular basis. The two tire stop- or no stop at all- is the only sane move to make, as evidenced by Kevin Harvick's win on Sunday.
There's a very simple reason why all of this should matter to fans. Drivers crave grip. Teams spend tens of millions of dollars every year searching for ways to increase the amount of grip their cars have. When a car has the right level of grip, it's responsive to what the driver wants. It enables the driver to put the car in tight spots knowing that they won't end up in the wall from taking a chance. That confidence is worth additional horsepower all on its own. Think Kurt Busch on a restart flying around the outside of the pack, or Tom Cruise's Cole Trickle going on the outside at Darlington. Confidence makes those kinds of moves possible and no driver is confident without a firm grip on the track.
The new dual zone tire was supposed to solve for these kinds of problems. The inner core of the tire would have a hard rubber compound, able to stand up to the heat and stress rubber faces when exposed to the extreme heat of braking. The outer portion of the tire could come from a softer rubber that would provide cars with the kind of grip drivers need. The idea has been in use in Goodyear's passenger car tires for years and transitioning to the track shouldn't have proven much of an issue- this isn't a new technology after all.
Instead, the tire has been far less than advertised. They had an inconclusive result at Atlanta, where the tires held up to the punishment but did virtually nothing to increase the level of grip or on-track passing. Goodyear hailed the middling results as a success but surely they knew that they had to do better the next time out. Kansas was to be their second outing, a chance to show what the new technology could do on a recently paved track.
No one associated with either Goodyear or NASCAR will be hailing these results. Both practice and pre-race interviews gave a hint of what was to come, with Kyle Busch's spectacular practice crash being among the most obvious. In that sense, the tires lived up to the hype; the cars didn't even make it through a single corner before the first spin came with Danica Patrick's day ending on lap 1. Busch kept up his stellar weekend by spinning twice before his third trip sideways ended his day.
Most of the fallout seems to be landing on the track for repaving the surface. Yet repaving is a necessary evil and a cost of doing business- particularly in areas where harsh winters cause seams and cracks that make a track impossible to drive. Remember the 2010 Daytona 500, delayed by potholes from a worn out surface? Imagine that repeated on a weekly basis if tracks tried to hold on to their older pavement. It's simply not an option. No track wants to spend the millions required to repave so when the gravel trucks roll up it's only because it has to be done.
Given the need to repave at times, it's NASCAR's job- and Goodyear's job- to adapt to the surface provided. The challenge is greater than its ever been thanks to the redesigned Gen 5 and 6 cars. Their center of gravity is higher and results in a very different stress points on a tire. The lateral loads are different and making a tire strong enough to stand up to those loads is surely a taxing endeavor. Combine that with Goodyear's mission to avoid failures like the one at Indy and its easy to understand why they come to the track with an impossibly hard tire.
Hopefully, Kansas leads to a sea change in the same way that Indy did. It should no longer be acceptable to NASCAR or to Goodyear to have a tire so hard that it turns auto racing into ice skating at 200 miles per hour. No, the tires didn't fail and that's an important trait in a racing tire. But it still is a racing tire, after all. Drivers need to be able to race on the tires provided instead of playing follow the leader. At the end of the day, Goodyear needs to get that message whether the phone rings or not.