Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: The Radical Radial Ends the Costly Tire Competition

By May of 1988, the Tire Wars between Hoosier and Goodyear had reached the point where drivers became very concerned with their safety.

The tire manufacturers continued to experiment with compounds to find the perfect balance between durability and speed.

In doing so they developed compounds that very often were much softer than usual. This increased speed but left durability somewhat in doubt.

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As was well known, softer tires are faster, but they have their limits – as was decidedly proven in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Terry Labonte won NASCAR’s All-Star race – the Winston – on Goodyears. But the event was littered with tire failures.

Goodyear could enjoy the victory but it discovered something ominous. Its softer compound tire was prone to air leaks, which contributed to its failures.

Hoosier, normally at the point when it came to a soft tire, raced with a more durable compound.

The persistent air leaks led Goodyear to withdraw from the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of NASCAR’s most prestigious races. With no competition, Hoosier won with Darrell Waltrip aboard a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

But not without a high price.

Once again, the race was plagued by tire failures. But this time, where most of them in The Winston resulted in smoke and crunched metal, these were far more serious.

Drivers Rick Wilson, Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant went to the hospital with slight injuries after crashing due to tire failure.

In a multi-car wreck caused by another tire failure, Buddy Baker suffered a blood clot on his brain. He wasn’t aware of the injury until three months afterward – and it ultimately ended his career.

There was an immediate reaction from the competitors. Many of them had complained about the Tire Wars almost from the start of the season.

Now they complained louder, and in greater numbers, about their own safety.

“I’m not surprised,” said Junior Johnson. “I knew this would happen. The tire companies seem to be in this for themselves.”

“My brother Bill [Elliott] injured his shoulder after a tire blew at Atlanta [Motor Speedway],” said engine builder Ernie Elliott. “That is bad enough but this season we’ve lost $200,000 in crashed race cars.

“I wish NASCAR would solve this.”

“It’s like adding another dangerous element to racing which is dangerous enough as it is,” said Bonnett.

“If someone told me two months ago that this would happen, I would have never believed it,” said Alan Kulwicki.

The media, a cynical bunch, had been critical of the tire competition almost from the start of the season. They realized the extra expense for teams as well as the potential danger.

And they didn’t welcome any extra work.

“Now we gotta report so-and-so was racing on either Hoosiers or Goodyears,” said one noted reporter at the time. “I ain’t sure fans even give a damn.”

Oh, but they did. And after Charlotte, many of them made the same complaint. To wit, they did not think driving fast for 20 laps until a tire blew was what racing was supposed to be.

NASCAR could not simply step in and tell one tire company it had to go. That might put it afoul of anti-trust laws.

So the Tire Wars continued – often with some bizarre results.

Goodyear was banned from Pocono Raceway during the summer because it failed a NASCAR Hoop Test, which determined the width of a fully inflated tire.

Goodyear claimed foul after its fully inflated tire measured 60 inches whereas it was raced at 45 inches.

Hoosier was forced to withdraw at Watkins Glen International after its tire failed the same test.

Everything reached an epidemic at Richmond Raceway in the fall. After qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series race, most cars were shod with Hoosiers.

But in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series [now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series] race a day later, the cars were predominantly on Hoosiers and experienced one tire failure after another. The event resembled a demolition derby.

Cup teams raced to the Goodyear compound to purchase tires. It was almost funny to see crewmen bump into each other in the scramble.

Davey Allison, driving for Robert Yates, won the race on Goodyears. He had qualified on Hoosiers.

By now, everyone – competitors, fans and media – was fed up. The “Tire Wars” had to end.

Hoosier won eight of the first 16 races of the season but only one of the final 13.

But it hoped to do better in 1989.

It wouldn’t have the chance. Goodyear had secretly been developing what it thought would end the war quickly.

The radial racing tire.

Radials were the staple on passenger cars but had never been a factor in racing.

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Goodyear wanted to debut the radial in the Daytona 500 but two failures during practice – experienced by Dale Earnhardt and Elliott – forced the company to withdraw. Again, Hoosier won a major event.

Goodyear went back to work and announced the radial tire would make its debut at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

This promised to be a momentous, yet potentially dangerous, occurrence. No one knew what results the radial would bring.

Some media members predicted the worst. “Body parts will be flying over the walls!” wrote one.

Hoosiers were the fastest tires in qualifying for the April 16 First Union 400 at the half-mile North Wilkesboro track. However, only Rusty Wallace, who won the pole, chose to start the race on them.

He was one lap down after the race’s first 10 circuits were complete. In a panic, he scrambled to change tires and managed to finish ninth, two laps in arrears. Earnhardt won the race.

Goodyear, whose personnel and officials exuberantly celebrated after the race, knew the Tire Wars were over. Hoosier did not have the resources to match their achievement – which had been to create a tire that maintained its speed lap after lap and not fall off as did a bias-ply.

Just over a month later, after Hoosier gave its all for the World 600 only to see Goodyear sweep the top three positions, the company’s founder, Bob Newton, called it quits.

In a letter, he said, among other things: “We never thought this was a war. It was competition … we thank NASCAR and the teams for allowing us to compete.”

The Tire Wars created problems for NASCAR and its competitors. But in the end, they led to technical improvements that made tires more durable and safer.

They are a part of NASCAR lore.

But don’t ever expect to see the likes of them again.

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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