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Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer
Second Place

A failing grade

Goodyear faces criticism for its tires after a tough ride in the Atlanta race

DARLINGTON, S.C. –The timing, though coincidental, couldn’t have been better.
Less than 24 hours after a race in which virtually every driver complained about Goodyear’s tire selection, the company’s engineers had three of them on hand to help determine the tire best suited for a freshly repaved Darlington Raceway and its May 10 event.
     A couple of other Cup drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and former teammate Martin Truex Jr., toured the track in an SUV to check out the repaving job first hand.
     Sunday, after finishing second, Tony Stewart opined that “Goodyear can’t build a tire that’s worth a crap.”
     All three men – four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, and two-time Darlington victor Greg Biffle – agreed on this: Stewart, while accurate in his statements that Goodyear made a bad call with the hard tire it brought to Atlanta, was a bit over the top in the way he ravaged the tire maker.
     Shrugged Biffle, “That’s just Tony being Tony.”
     Drivers were physically and mentally exhausted after Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, worn out by wrestling ill-handling cars that skittered through the turns as if on ice. They also complained bitterly about being unable to race side by side for fear of crashing.
     The tires Goodyear brought to an Atlanta test last fall offered too much grip and too short a life span. To ensure that the tires wouldn’t come apart –a problem that produced numerous crashes this time last year on a newly repaved Las Vegas track –Goodyear returned to Atlanta with 3,200 tires that were a drastic move in the opposite direction.
     The tires –the D-4152 on the left side, the D-4154 for the right – wouldn’t blow without being badly abused, but the tradeoff was decreased grip, Biffle said.
     “We just felt like the car wasn’t dug into the track enough for the race car drivers to turn the wheel and get in the throttle,” Biffle said. “We weren’t happy with the way it got ahold of the track. I’m sure (Goodyear is) going to go back and look at a way to soften that tire up. Now they know there wasn’t enough wear.”
     Goodyear’s been supplying tires for NASCAR races for most of the sanctioning body’s 50-year history. Firestone was an early competitor before abandoning racing for nearly 20 years, and Hoosier provided NASCAR competition to Goodyear in 1988 and early ’89 before exiting. Goodyear, which makes its racing tires at its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, has been NASCAR’s exclusive supplier since 1997 and will remain so through 2012.
     After Sunday’s driver tirades, Goodyear on Monday promised another test at Atlanta prior to the Oct. 26 return to the 1.54-mile track. “If the drivers are not happy,” the company said in a statement distributed to reporters at Darlington, “then Goodyear’s not happy.”
     A big part of the problem at Atlanta, Gordon said, was that Goodyear simply didn’t have enough information to make the right call. Every decision made after a tire test is a guessing game, he added.
     “Doing tire tests, you don’t always learn everything you need to. We have three cars here; we need 10. We really all 43 to properly get the best information we can,” he said.
     “It’s a tough situation. You take a heavy stock car, put it on a high-banked, mile-and-a-half or 2-mile oval –a 3,400-pound car – and it’s the toughest racecar in the world to build tires for. I think Goodyear does an excellent job at providing us the best tires that they can.”
Racers don’t make it any easier on the tire maker, Biffle said, because of their very nature to live on the razor’s edge.
     Goodyear and NASCAR have a minimum air pressure for all four tires when the car goes through pre-race inspection, and Goodyear posts the minimum recommended pressures for race conditions. Racers will push the tolerances as far as they can, and when they cross the line, a rash of problems is likely to occur.
The end result, Biffle said, is that Goodyear “goes back and builds something structure-wise that we can’t damage anymore so we don’t make them look bad. Then we go and cuss them out because they’ve got a tire so hard we can’t race anymore. 
“There’s a middle ground there we all have to find.”
     Before NASCAR and Goodyear instituted the minimum pressures, teams could be as bold as they wanted with chassis set-ups. “And if you blew a tire,” Newman said, “it was your own stupid fault.”
But he added that it’s a driver’s job to drive a car to its limits. If he isn’t pushing the car and all its assorted parts to the max, you can bet someone else is.
     “This whole tire thing,” he added, “is a little blown out of proportion.”