NASCAR making progress with tires in Indy testing

10/20/2008 - NASCAR

INDIANAPOLIS -- Goodyear may have an answer for one of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's toughest challenges: softer tires.

As drivers took a break during the latest testing session Oct. 7 at the speedway, NASCAR and Goodyear officials explained they had seen dramatic improvement in tire wear, prompting optimism they could avoid a repeat of the Allstate 400 debacle in July.

"We're not all the way there, but we're pretty close to it," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. "We were in about an eight- or nine-lap window before [during testing], and that got up to 10, and now we're in the mid-20 range. So it's improved 300 percent already. We walked the track last night, and the track was taking on rubber, so that's a good sign."

Things got even better after Pemberton's midday news conference.

Speedway officials said one driver made a 33-lap run on the tires and another put in a full fuel run, generally 35 to 40 laps on Indy's 2.5-mile oval, before it started raining Tuesday afternoon.

It was the second testing session at Indy since NASCAR officials were forced in July to turn one of the series' signature races into a series of 10- to 12-lap sprints because of tire wear. NASCAR officials even apologized to fans for the fiasco.

Kyle Petty was the only driver on the track two weeks ago.

The latest testing session comes in the midst of more tire questions for Goodyear.

Sunday's race at Talladega was marred by four tire failures and a fifth occurred during practice. One of the failures sent Denny Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, hard into the wall. He was hospitalized overnight before being released Monday. Hamlin is one of 12 drivers in the Chase for the Cup.

Stu Grant, general manager of worldwide racing for Goodyear, said early assessments indicated all of the tires at Talladega were punctured, though they are still undergoing analysis, and Pemberton believes the problem had to more do with debris than tires.

"At Talladega, we went clean, then we had a few tires that lost air for a while and then we were clean again," he said. "So my guess is there may have been debris on the track and it wasn't all cleared off. But that's just speculation."

The problems at Talladega caused yet another image problem for Goodyear, the sole supplier of tires for NASCAR's three series, after the disastrous race in July when NASCAR officials continually called competition cautions.

The longest stretch of green-flag racing lasted just 13 laps, and points leader Jimmie Johnson won the race in a seven-lap sprint to the finish. It was the second-slowest race in NASCAR's 15-year history at Indy.

Drivers were disgusted with the tire problems as dust particles constantly flew around the track surface and into the stands. Some complained afterward that Goodyear needed to look seriously at improving the tires because they had been having trouble with them for several years at the speedway.

Grant seemed to acknowledge as much Tuesday when he said testing in 2005 and 2006 also showed tires were wearing out after about 10 laps.

The difference this time was that on race day, the rubber never stuck to the track as it had in the past. Some wondered whether the cars contributed to the problem since it was the first race at Indy with the Car of Tomorrow.

Grant said studies showed the cars did have heavier loads and more slippage than previous years, and Pemberton explained that finding the right combination will always be a work in progress.

Still, Goodyear thinks it has a solution.

After analyzing everything from tire compounds to the raw materials provided by suppliers, Goodyear concluded the conditions were similar to those at Dover, Del.

So Goodyear changed its tires for this season's second Dover race.

"It really made a difference," Grant said. "Dover was nowhere near as difficult as it was here."

Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne were among the dozen or so drivers at the track Monday and Tuesday and both saw a big difference in the tires they were testing.

"We just put 20 laps on these tires and that didn't happen before," said Martin, a NASCAR veteran who won the pole at Indy this year. "What we got for the controlled test tire here is faster, it's got great grip and it's lasting two or three times the distance already. So kudos to these guys for what they've learned."

Still, Goodyear isn't finished.

The company plans to hold another tire test at Indy in April, in hopes of smoothing out any additional complications, before returning for what is expected to be a more normal Allstate 400 next summer.

"In simple terms, it's a softer tire. I use the term stickier," Grant said. "I can say, at this point, we're really, really encouraged by what we've seen at this test so far."