Racers don't often agree with each other or perceive their world from the same point-of-view, but if you gather together a dozen of them from any category-stock cars, road racing, dragsters, motorcycles, go-karts, lawnmowers-and ask them to name the single piece of equipment that can quickly and dramatically change their on-track performance, for better or worse, without adding nitro or nitrous to the mix, you will get one answer: tires.

The role played by tires in Dirt Late Model (DLM) racing is arguably more subtle, complex, and critical than in other forms of motorsports. It's not so much that tires are any more fundamental to the basic pursuit of speed; rather, it's the sheer quantity and variety of choices presented from a 25-lap Saturday night feature to a $100,000-to-win annual event, which tends to transform practical science and common race craft into something approaching alchemy and art (including artful dodging) when and where the rubber meets the dirt.

"There is one absolute in racing," says Scott Bloomquist, winner of the 2008 The Dream at Eldora Speedway, his fifth such title. Bloomquist has long been considered one of the preeminent setup gurus in the DLM universe. "No amount of racecar preparation in the shop or at the track will overcome the wrong tire selection or tire preparation."

In response, the Big Three manufacturers most heavily invested in the sport-Hoosier, American Racer and Goodyear-have kept their respective operations running wide open to keep pace with their customers' accelerating demands. They employ teams of scientists and engineers, modern day Merlins who work around the clock, conjuring up new formulas and better techniques for adding power to the magic in the black rubber rings.

Hoosier Racing Tires are produced at facilities located in Plymouth, Indiana, a short distance from corporate headquarters in Lakeville. Founded by Bob Newton in the late '50s, Hoosier made its biggest splash in motorsports in the mid-'90s with a brief but memorable leap into NASCAR's then-Winston Cup Championship ring with Goodyear's Eagle brand in the opposing corner. As a result, the purple-hued Hoosier logo now represents worldwide a reputation for success in both asphalt and dirt competition.

"Just as the two surfaces are unique, so are the challenges of designing a tire," says Shanon Rush, who oversees Hoosier's extensive short-track racing program. "In general, since dirt tracks do not provide as much grip or generate as much heat as a paved surface, we are much more aggressive with dirt compounds than asphalt ones."

Being aggressive means constantly monitoring and tweaking things during the design and manufacturing process. "Overall, the biggest advancement has come in analyzing tires," Rush says. "With the development of new testing machines, we are able to better understand how and why a tire works."

"Machine capabilities have decreased the labor needed to make a tire, but the tire is fundamentally the same," comments Dave Mateer, general manager of American Racer Tires, a division of Indiana, Pennsylvania-based Specialty Tires of America, Inc. (formerly McCreary Tire & Rubber). "The real changes come in the rubber compounding. Generally speaking, dirt compounds are both softer and more durable today than ever before."

"The devil is in the compounding," echoes Scott Junod, market-ing director of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's short-track racing program. "There are certain things you can do to the tire during the construction process, but..." Junod abruptly stops midsentence. This is a peculiar habit one repeatedly observes whenever a tire rep seems poised to divulge exactly (or even vaguely) what makes one ring of vulcanized rubber better than another.

No magician wants to give away the secrets to his tricks.

No question, though, about there being demonstrable differences between tire brands in DLM racing, at least in the minds of the racers interviewed for this article. It should be noted, however, that the racers proved nearly as reluctant as the reps when it came to describing in detail what the tires are actually doing on the track or speculating why they might be doing it.