There have been many controversies, episodes and unforeseen events that have been part of NASCAR lore over the past 75 years, but perhaps none has delivered more of an impact than the Tire Wars of 1988.
The fight for NASCAR Cup Series supremacy between the established Goodyear and the much smaller but determined Hoosier (with occasional forays by McCreary), often led to higher costs for teams and potentially dangerous competition.
It all began at the 1988 Daytona 500. Hoosier Tire, founded by former dirt-track racer Bob Newton of Lakeville, Ind., had established itself as a top supplier of tires for short-track racing throughout the Midwest.
By 1987, Hoosier had entered the NASCAR ranks by providing tires for its Sportsman [now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series] circuit.
At the end of the year, Newton announced that it would enter the Cup Series and provide tires for superspeedway races for the first time in its existence.
No one thought the small company, dwarfed by Goodyear’s size and production numbers, would last more than a few races.
But something happened at Daytona International Speedway. Hoosier had managed to recruit 10 teams. None of them won the race but two drivers, Neil Bonnett and Buddy Baker, were in the hunt and finished fourth and ninth, respectively.
It wasn’t necessarily their finishes that sparked attention. Rather, it was Hoosier’s durability. Bonnett ran the entire 500 miles on just nine tires. And as the race progressed, they seemed to pick up more power than the Goodyears.
But what really instigated the season-long war happened a week later at Richmond Raceway.
Morgan Shepherd, a NASCAR veteran who was 46 years old but would race full time for another 11 years, had joined the virtually unknown – and decidedly low-regarded – Tom Winkle team, which had never earned even a single top-10 finish.
Remarkably, Shepherd won the pole position on Hoosiers. It broke the string of 247 consecutive poles earned by Goodyear.
It gets better.
Bonnett, driving for Butch Mock and Bob Rahilly, fell two laps down early in the 400-lap race, but he came on to win in a Pontiac armed with Hoosiers.
That ended the streak of 526 consecutive victories for Goodyear.
“We were on Hoosiers, and they were the quickest tire,” Bonnett said. “I might have overextended on them, but it worked out. So far this season, I have no complaints about the tires.”
It was like the Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter. The war was on. Upstart Hoosier awoke the sleeping giant Goodyear, which confessed it had grown lax without any competition for so many years. “We’re starting to load,” said Goodyear’s longtime PR director Bill King. “You guys will know when we come out shooting.”
The media speculated what was ahead. They were mostly correct when they said one tire brand would be superior at one track, the other tire brand would be so at another.
Teams would be switching brands from one week to the other based on anticipated performance. It wouldn’t end there – they would switch during a race when they were at an obvious disadvantage.
Many questioned why NASCAR allowed this situation to exist. If Goodyear had been the sole tire provider for so many years, why did it allow a competitive brand to enter the Cup ranks?
It had happened before. In the 1960s, Firestone – which had sharpened its competitive chops as the sole provider for IndyCars and the Indianapolis 500 – held sway in NASCAR.
But that changed after Jack Smith won a race on Goodyears in 1967. Afterward, the tire company intensified its NASCAR efforts and signed most of the Grand National [now known as the Cup Series] drivers.
Firestone’s last hurrah came when it pumped $250,000 into the point fund with $100,000 going to the champion if he raced its tires most of the time.
The champion, Richard Petty, did not.
Firestone was very hesitant to spend that type of money again, and, while it remained in NASCAR at a much lower level for a few more years, it eventually left the sport.
NASCAR said it had no choice but to allow Hoosier to compete if for no other reason than it didn’t want to incur possible charges of monopoly.
But it did have a caveat. Any manufacturer that wished to provide tires for the Cup circuit had to do so for every race on the schedule.
McCreary had been a part of NASCAR since the late 1970s, catering primarily to the low-sponsored independent teams – and only a few of those – which utilized its cheaper tire.
When NASCAR issued its edict of full-time participation, McCreary disappeared in a puff of smoke.
After the first two races of the 1988 season, it was clear the stage had been set for the battle between Goodyear and Hoosier.
For both manufacturers, the strategy seemed simple: Prepare the superior tire for each race and thereby fill its roster with as many Cup teams as possible.
But not everyone thought it was going to be that easy.
“The tire companies are going to try anything they can at each race,” said team owner Junior Johnson. Sometimes things ain’t gonna work.
“And that is how drivers will get hurt.”
To be continued next week.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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