It appears the magic has gone out of the left-rear tire of this machine piloted by Todd Co
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."
Series veteran Shane Clanton (Locust Grove, Georgia) likes the World of Outlaws open tire
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."
Defending World of Outlaws champion Steve Francis (Ashland, Kentucky) hooked up with Dale
"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.
While crew members mount a new right-rear tire on their team's machine during the Lucas Oi
"Hoosier has come out with some new stuff this year," says Darrell Lanigan, a leading contender for the World of Outlaws (WoO) Dirt Late Model championship midway through the season. "They've really picked up their program. I think these are the best tires Hoosier has had in a long time."
While Lanigan sees evidence of Hoosier's R&D efforts in a number of areas, particularly in the tire casing, he singled out the front specimens for special merit. "They have a little stiffer sidewall and seem to steer better," the Kentucky-based driver says. "When you go into the corner, you can use the front tires more."
At the beginning of 2008, Steve Francis, the defending WoO series champion, rocked the DLM world by announcing plans to drive for Dale Beitler of West Friendsville, Maryland. It was an unusual move for Francis, who had for many years achieved significant success by operating from his own shop in Ashland, Kentucky.
It was perhaps more surprising when it was revealed that the Beitler package included a contract to run American Racer rubber, since Francis was known as a longtime Hoosier customer. Since then, national standouts Chub Frank and Jeremy Miller have joined Francis in the American Racer camp for the 2008 season.
Cutting grooves into or "siping" tires is a skill honed over many years and in multiple si
"There will be places where our tires have an advantage and places where we're at a disadvantage," says Francis. "Overall, I think the competition between manufacturers will be a good thing. When only one tire manufacturer is involved or one compound [allowed], we don't have as many choices and the cost is more or less locked in."
During the past couple of seasons, Shane Clanton, whose team prepares his WoO equipment in Locust Grove, Georgia, near Atlanta, has won races running both American Racer and Hoosier tires. "Advancements in tire technology have really grown over the last three years," he says.
"A year or so ago, American Racer really came on strong, so a lot of guys switched over, including me," Clanton says. "That made Hoosier get to work. Now Hoosiers are better at more tracks, so that's what we're running."
Sometimes, rules take precedence over sheer performance as an influence on which tires a racer chooses. Nowhere are the opposing ends of the tire rule spectrum more clearly visible than in the two most prestigious national touring series, the World of Outlaws and Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Championships. The essential difference between the respective series boils down to "run what ya brung" (WoO, with one exception, has an open tire rule) vs. "designated drivers only" (Lucas Oil specifies a limited number of makes and compounds).
Lucas Oil regular Dan Schleiper (center, with red leggings) leads a team of racers on a fa
"The tire rule is in place so that everyone can race on the same tires," says AJ Bingham, technical director of the Lucas Oil series. "The regular big names who race with us week in and week out-Bart Hartman, Earl Pearson, Dan Schleiper-some of them might be able to afford to bring a lot of tires. But we don't want to force the 20 or 30 local and regional guys who make up the rest of the field to show up with 100 different tires in the hauler."
On the other hand, according to WoO series Director of Competition Tim Christman, "We went with an open tire rule because wherever we go around the country the local racer gets to compete using the tires he's used to running. It also lets the traveling guys use whatever tire ends up best suited to handle the local conditions. The idea is to give everyone an opportunity to race."
When the WoO stages a race in conjunction with United Midwestern Promoters (UMP), the open tire rule is stored away, replaced by UMP's Hoosier-only regulations.
"It would be difficult to run anything but Hoosiers around here," says Brian Shirley, a Midwestern veteran who finished Second behind Dennis Erb, Jr. in this year's UMP Summer Nationals Championship. "Having said that, we've been beaten by American Racer tires, mostly at sandy southern tracks, and I think they've made Hoosier pick up their program."
And so it goes...
Power and control are paramount in Dirt Late Model racing, as demonstrated here by Tim Doh
In recent years, Goodyear has steered its late-model program toward regional series, tracks, and racers, augmented by limited but notable ventures into the national spotlight. Goodyear is the exclusive supplier to the FASTRAK Dirt Late Model championship, which is based on cars powered by 602ci and 604ci crate engines from General Motors. In 2007, the series' Grand National Champion, 20-year-old William Thomas of Phenix City, Alabama, earned his crown by running the entire season on 16 sets of Goodyear racing tires.
"Strange as it might sound, our goal in short-track racing, both dirt and pavement, isn't to sell as many tires as possible," Junod says. "We strive to produce a product that is as economical as possible because if you don't have car counts, you aren't going to be racing for long."
Not that Goodyear racing management has lost sight of the fundamental objective of the game. "We've been at this a long time," Junod understates, given the fact that his employer has been around since 1898. "We have a chemical division and an R&D division and they both work very hard to produce formulations that are exclusive to racing tire development."
More than 30 years ago, another racing absolute was neatly encapsulated by the late engineer and champion driver Mark Donohue in the title of his book, "The Unfair Advantage." Some racers have chosen to interpolate the author's quest for the elusive unfair advantage by modifying their tires using extraordinary means. Usually, this activity is called cheating.
Not all tire soaking procedures are disallowed in Dirt Late Model racing. Photo by Mike Ru
The use of tire softeners in Dirt Late Model racing is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1950s, drag racers were pioneers in experimenting with the application of liquid agents to racing and street tires (not to mention inside engines). Some of the agents, such as diesel fuel, kerosene, even syrup used for making Coca-Cola, were relatively benign in terms of their effect on humans. Other chemicals, strange and exotic (and, in many cases, lethally toxic), such as benzene, toluene, and creosote, impart precisely the opposite effect.
When anecdotal accounts of improvements resulting from these experiments began filtering out from the drag racing community, racers in other categories quickly followed the trail by setting up their own backyard labs. Some of the R&D was and remains legit. As recently as 1996, Circle Track published an article reporting minor but measurable gains in both asphalt and dirt track settings after testing a commercially available "tire strengthener."
Today, small numbers of speed zealots are concocting basement cocktail brews, as well as using off-the-shelf products, and applying them to tires. They sometimes follow bizarre, nearly comical, rituals stretched over days or weeks, carrying out marathon quasi-scientific experiments in pursuit of longer-lasting, track-adhering nirvana.
Tire prep is usually the loneliest, dirtiest job in Dirt Late Model racing. Here, a crewma
Not surprisingly, sanctioning organizations and tire manufacturers are among the majority in the racing community who consider themselves not just non-believers, but avid opponents of tire mods in any form or fashion beyond grooving or "siping" tread design. "Anytime a foreign substance is introduced into the tire, it will alter the chemistry," says Hoosier's Rush. "From a safety or performance standpoint, any tire treatment degrades the product and we sternly warn against the use of these treatments."
American Racer's Mateer makes the case even more bluntly: "I cannot stress heavily enough that people using tire softeners are simply playing Russian Roulette." Mateer is referring to the potential for catastrophic tire failure, but he just as accurately could have been warning of the health consequences of prolonged exposure to tire softening agents. Hang around the scary stuff long enough and you're likely to begin feeling dizzy or nauseous, possibly accompanied by loss of hearing and color vision. Spend some more time in the garage lab and the ante rises to anemia, leukemia, kidney failure, cancer, and death.
For years, track and series officials have been testing tires for evidence of magic potions with a durometer, a device which incorporates a spring-loaded probe that applies a load to the tire surface to determine its "hardness." In addition, a durometer can provide a quick and accurate, yet indirect, measurement of other properties, such as tensile modulus, resilience, plasticity, compression resistance and elasticity.
With evidence that tire treatments of the chemical kind, which can prove challenging to a durometer, are on the upswing in DLM racing, competitors can expect to encounter with greater frequency tech inspectors wielding some type of vapor detector, otherwise called a "sniffer."
Old school Dirt Late Model tires from American Racer put to interesting use. Courtesy of A
"We have been researching the technology since February and ultimately we're going to build our tire rule around it," says Bingham of the Lucas Oil Series. "In the beginning of the season, we were all a little nave about what was going on. As soon as we came home from Speedweeks, though, we started doing our homework."
Bingham declines to identify the manufacturer of the sniffer that he and other Lucas Oil officials will be using "in the near future," except to say that "it's one of the most commonly used devices," similar to the type used in the World Karting Association. Until recently, due to lax rules and enforcement, WKA and other go-kart series were rife with legal and illegal tire tampering.
Technically, a sniffer measures hydrocarbons given off by tire solvents. When placed on the tire tread, the device detects the presence of hydrocarbons in PPM (parts per million). As for its effectiveness, Bingham reported, "We've tried everything that has been brought to us that we were told is undetectable-and we can detect it."
A Goodyear technician works a tire on a Dirt Late Model tire press. Courtesy of Goodyear
These days, you have to appreciate old school, straight-shooter types like Clint Smith of Senoia, Georgia, who says, "I can honestly say I have never softened a tire in my or my daughter's life. But I've always tried to run with an open tire series." Of course, there are people who claim they can soften any tire and gain an advantage. "Maybe they can," Smith says. "But it can also hurt you, so you better be careful."
Known as one of Dirt Late Model racing's shrewdest, smoothest operators, during the last three decades Smith has won hundreds of feature events across the country, along with championship titles in the Southern All Stars and Hav-A-Tampa series (the latter a precursor to the WoO series).
For readers curious about the dark and mystical side of tire management, Smith is a wizard of the dirty rubber art. But, as in the case of his fellow magicians and the vendors behind the curtain who supply the special tools of the trade, you might find yourself baffled by what you learn, at least during the initiation phase prior to joining the secret guild.
For example, when Smith is asked to describe an '08 race in which the tire combination chosen for the feature event made the difference between disaster and triumph, he responds by saying:
Hoosier made a brief but memorable venture into big-time NASCAR stock car racing in the mi
"The race we ran at Williston [a WoO event at Williston Basin Speedway in North Dakota], I knew we couldn't win without doing something big-time different. A lot of teams went 40 or 55 with a 1,350 left-rear, but I went way harder: A 2,500 right-rear with a 2,400 left-rear, which is a 28/46 combination, a big southern thing I run a lot. When it's good, you're good. But when it's bad, you're really bad. I gambled that the track was going to stay good and rubbered. Started 11th and dropped to about 14th on the start, just getting goin'. We never had a caution and ran the race in 13 minutes. I was fighting for second with Josh Richards and had a faster car by half a second, but I just couldn't pass him. We ran third and the car was really good."
Got that, class? If not, here is the shortened version a la Smith: "I don't claim to be a tire guru, but we usually end up on the right stuff."
Just ask any Dirt Late Model racer and he will tell you: There's magic and power in the rings.
Doug DeLoach is a freelance journalist from Atlanta, who has been covering motorsports for three decades in print media and on the radio. His articles have appeared in numerous national and regional publications. His motorsports interests range from Formula 1, NASCAR, and NHRA drag racing to sporty-type cars, Dirt Late Models, LSR machines, MotoGP, and AMA flattrack motorcycles (desert island race: Harley XR750s on The Springfield Mile). When not chasin' racin' he sells software and is a regular contributor to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He lives in a charming old intown Atlanta neighborhood called Kirkwood with Ellen and their two canine kids, Opal and Lego, "LC" (Lego's Cat), and a pampered ochre-colored 1972 Chevy K5 Blazer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.