AKRON, Ohio and INDIANAPOLIS -- If you want to know how a major Nascar race is won, think about the fact that when Ryan Newman won last month's Brickyard 400, his sub-three-second margin of victory was chalked up to having replaced just two tires on his last pit stop rather than all four.
Considering that a pit crew like the one that supports Newman can change all four tires in about 14 seconds (see video below), it's easy to see how choosing to skip replacing two may have saved him enough time to end up ahead of race favorite Jimmie Johnson as the checkered flag waved at the famed Indianapolis Motorspeedway.
Though Newman's crew couldn't know the exact condition of his tires before he pulled into pit row during the race -- one of Nascar's biggest -- they definitely knew how his driving that day was affecting his tires. And as a result, they could feel confident that he was ready to drive the remainder of the race on two new, and two partly worn, tires.
How? If there's one thing that's studied with deep scientific focus during a Nascar race -- and both before and after as well -- it's the tires. Manufactured exclusively for Nascar by Goodyear in Akron, the tires are tracked from the moment they're built until a race is finished, and often after as well.
As part of Road Trip 2013, I visited both Goodyear's manufacturing facility in Akron and the Indianapolis Motorspeedway for the Brickyard 400 in order to see the full lifecycle of these super high-performance tires -- as well as other ways Nascar uses technology. And while the tires Goodyear makes for Nascar differ in small ways based on the race and the track they're destined for, and though I didn't get to see the tires in action that I saw being made, I did get a very good sense for what they are put through during their short lives.
4,500 tires a race
Nascar has many strict rules governing its races, most of which are geared toward ensuring safety and a level playing field. Among them is that teams can only use a maximum of 11 sets of tires during a race weekend that includes a qualifying run and the main event. Some teams, especially those with strained financial resources, will get by on less than the maximum.
Other rules mandate that the tires are monitored from the moment they're made. To do that, Goodyear employees embed RFID chips in each tire, allowing the manufacturer and Nascar to keep track of them at every step of the way.
It's vital to Nascar that it knows how the tires fare, because most teams run them to their maximum -- between 70 and 80 miles, or about how long a tank of gas lasts during a race -- and knowing how they're used provides valuable information about the race tracks, and about how drivers are performing during a race.
Indeed, Nascar teams don't buy the tires. Rather, they're leased from Goodyear, and after a race, all the tires are intended to return to the manufacturer, where some are studied but most are recycled. The company said it has a zero waste to landfill policy in its racing tire manufacturing process.
This year, Nascar rolled out an all-new car design, the so-called Gen-6. And while that change forced teams to learn about driving the new vehicles, it's also forcing Goodyear to study how the new cars, as well as several newly resurfaced tracks, are impacting the tires. Learning that, however, is a slow process that could take the whole year.
Over the course of the year, Goodyear will produce around 100,000 tires for Nascar's 94 races, which are held on 28 totally different tracks around the country. And for Goodyear, getting the best possible data on each race, and each track is instrumental in making sure the tires it produces for those events and venues are the best they can be.
Sorting the tires
After production in Akron, Goodyear ships all the racing tires to a facility in Charlotte, N.C., where they are sorted and then sent off to the various racetracks.
Once there, Goodyear's crew members have the responsibility for mounting and balancing the tires on each team's wheels. That's so that during a pit stop, the teams have a fully-assembled tire and wheel mount ready to go. And thanks to the RFID chips, the tires are scanned as they come off Goodyear's trucks and as they're distributed to the teams so that everyone knows where they are.
When the tires are put on a car, their surfaces are smooth and unblemished. When they come off, they're rough, scratched, and definitely worn out. But spend any time in a pit during a race like the Brickyard 400 and you'll see crew members meticulously measuring the war on these tires, looking for any clue about the track conditions, the way the car is handling, or how the driver is performing that day.
In a sense, said Bob Altvater, the manager of race tire development and quality for Goodyear, all of this allows for coming up with a "fingerprint" of a track. Knowing as much as possible allows the teams -- and later, Goodyear, to better understand how to drive faster, and safer, at each of the venues.
All of this, of course, is about winning. And in a sport where the difference between winning and coming in second can often be measured in hundredths of seconds, knowing as much as possible about race performance, and how to use a valuable tool like a tire, is essential for all involved.
Want proof? The day before the Brickyard 400, race favorite Jimmie Johnson set an all-time track record, scorching through his qualifying run at 187.438 miles an hour, and seemingly grabbing the pole position for the main event. But when Newman's time came, the Indiana native stole the pole by setting another new track record with a qualifying speed of 187.531 miles an hour, just 0.093 mile an hour faster. There were surely many reasons for that victory. But understanding his tires was certainly one of them.