Race Weekend Central

At Martinsville, What Tire Problem?

RIDGEWAY, Va. – Arriving at Martinsville a day removed from opening practice sessions for the Truck and Cup series, it was impossible to avoid the sounds of race teams and media screaming that, for the second time in as many short-track races in 2011, a massive tire debacle was about to play out on NASCAR’s biggest stage.

But is that the case? Is Sunday (April 3) going to bring 500 laps of disaster, 500 laps of un-drivable racecars, tire failures and racing that will have fans tuning out? The answer’s nowhere near as certain as so many have made it out to be the first two days of this annual spring weekend in Martinsville.

The paperclip-shaped speedway has long been a facility that the modern NASCAR machine has struggled to function at. The media center is the very definition of tight confines, nestled mere feet away from both roaring engines in the garage area and a makeshift tent that both houses scores of Goodyear Eagles and doubles as the home of driver meetings. Parking lots are nothing more than the rolling hills natural to this part of Virginia, with the occasional private residence thrown in.

The track is considered one of, if not the single most difficult venue by NASCAR media insiders with regard to situating the vast armada of television trailers and equipment needed to make broadcasts happen. For all the upgrades over the years, Martinsville today resembles 1949 as much, if not more, than most short tracks nationwide – not just at the Cup level.

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It is thus perhaps not surprising, then that the modern field of drivers has been so nearly unanimous in decrying the tire that Goodyear brought to Martinsville this weekend. It was the same compound that was eventually replaced before the green flag flew at Bristol two weeks ago, these Eagles didn’t “rubber the track in” as most every tire in recent Cup history has done, leaving a trail of rubber in the groove and turning racing surfaces black. Rather, this tire “marbles,” kicking little balls of rubber up to the higher groove of the track while leaving the lower groove of the racing surface all but clean.

This lack of a “rubbered” in racing surface has led many to conclude that tire wear could be an issue when the Cup guys take the green Sunday… and that the racing product itself would suffer.

“Right about lap 40 or 42, my car would just basically lose about seven-tenths on that lap and you just kind of ride around from there out,” said Kasey Kahne of his experience on track with the tires. David Reutimann noted “it [the tire] will go longer than that [about 20 laps], but then the cars become pretty unstable and very difficult to hang on to.”

Perhaps most pointed in his remarks was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who called the entire situation “pretty disappointing” while noting that without rubber buildup “you couldn’t get out of the bottom groove. You had to run right next to the curb. If you got in the marbles, it would ruin you.”

Since the Cup drivers had their say and made their qualifying runs early Saturday afternoon, the Truck Series raced 250 laps on the surface using the same tires, as Johnny Sauter bumped his way past Kyle Busch with two laps to go to score the win. What those 250 laps showed was twofold; the track did not rubber in and tire failures were not epidemic. The tires wore out. They did not fail.

“As bad as they feel, there’s still rubber on the tires [after a run],” said Kyle Busch in his post-race remarks. “There’s just no grip in the tires.”

Which begs the question, is there a problem at all? Saturday’s race at Martinsville was not visibly different from any other; with tons of banged-up sheetmetal, lots of wrecks, hot tempers and a bump-and-run that decided the outcome. This race even had a “dart without feathers” in Chase Mattioli, who was involved in three unassisted spins over the course of the afternoon.

The answer is yes… there certainly is a problem. What the problem actually is isn’t so certain.

Assuming that it’s an absolute prerequisite to have a race tire that rubbers in the racing surface, yes, there is a problem. Earnhardt Jr. was blunt by stating, “I don’t know what else you can do. How else do you put a tire on the track and make sure it works?” when asked if he felt testing would be the solution to Goodyear’s ails of the past few weeks.

Goodyear again chose to tweak a tire and bring the compound untested to a racetrack. They chose not to engage in thorough tire testing even though the Car of Tomorrow evolved in the offseason, with the splitter and front end undergoing a massive revision. A new racecar design, a new compound making its debut on the track and yet no testing to accompany it.

If there is a set goal in mind… to have a grippy tire that rubbers in the groove as the race progresses, Goodyear again failed through laziness, be that a lack of financial incentive or complacency as NASCAR’s exclusive tire provider. No matter the rationale, Goodyear failed.

That is, of course, assuming that there’s something inherently wrong with tires that don’t rubber in the track. And while many drivers and the media at large appear to have drawn that conclusion, the facts don’t really bear out that there is a problem at Martinsville.

Sure, marbles and a tire that doesn’t rubber in leaves the teams with no notes to pull from, makes handling and trying to setup for variable temperature conditions that are expected to fluctuate by as much as 30 degrees over the course of the weekend extremely difficult. But is it asking too much for the best drivers in the world to adapt, to shut up and learn how to conserve tires instead of moaning that these give up too quickly?

Frankly, the larger issue coming to the surface this weekend is that the vast majority of today’s competitors seem genuinely worried over the prospect of having to tackle the unknown with their setups, to have to actually adjust their driving styles to fit their equipment instead of counting on modern technology to simply not break. Because the truth is, the on-track product at Martinsville for 250 laps on Saturday didn’t change. It was exactly what fans have come to expect… and at Martinsville that’s a very, very good thing.

What’s more, there was at least one driver in southern Virginia readily willing to sing the praises of this weekend’s tires. That was none other than Truck winner Sauter, who spent time both in victory lane and in post-race remarks singing Goodyear’s praises for bringing a tire that actually wears out, that lends the field to having comers and goers.

Good old Martinsville, taking it to the modernity of today’s NASCAR. Beating, banging, tires that wear out and the only driver in the field that seemed happy was the race winner.

Doesn’t sound like there’s any problem here at all.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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