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Racing tires - Applications for the track and the street

The world of automobile racing is one of the most demanding environments a vehicle will ever face. With every part being driven to the limit and beyond, technology has been forced to keep up with ever increasing performance demands. Tires are certainly no exception.

While different classes of racing require different specifications of tire, in general, most racing tires share several similarities. The first such similarity is a special soft rubber compound, commonly referred to as an 'R' compound. Soft rubber is better able to grip a road surface, increasing in traction as it heats up over the course of a lap. This increased traction or 'grip' does come at a price, however; R compound tires wear out very quickly, and must be replaced after a specific number of laps before the compound is completely worn away from the harder rubber base.

Another common feature of racing tires, at least, for racing that takes place on asphalt, is a lack of tread. Tread-less racing tires are typically referred to as 'slick' tires or 'slicks'. Slicks eliminate a tread pattern so as to give the R compound the largest possible contact patch with the road surface. Slick tires are only useful in dry conditions, however - on a wet course, or in the rain, the lack of tread pattern guarantees almost no traction whatsoever.

As previously mentioned, specific areas of racing pose engineering problems particular to their field. For high powered alcohol and top fuel dragsters, one of the greatest challenges is launching 8000 horsepower off the starting line without incinerating the rear tires. Dumping such a large amount of power in such a quick manner requires that a tire be able to absorb a tremendous amount of energy and then translate that energy to the ground. Drag racing slick tires have special soft sidewalls that allow the tire to flex and deform on launch, absorbing the horsepower instead of merely spinning into a mess of smoke and melted rubber. Using a high-speed video camera, it is actually possible to see the tires change shape under load, until they gradually resume their initial round form partway down the drag strip.

There have been some attempts to directly translate racing tire technology from the track to the street, in order to give owners of high performance cars a chance to use equipment similar to what they would find in a professional competition. Softer street tire compounds are available, and there are also several tire designs with minimal or no tread pattern at all. For amateur drag racers, there are street legal drag-slick style tires that can be driven both on the street, for a short time, and on the track. While these technologies can greatly improve the handling and overall street performance, it is important to remember that there are drawbacks as well, specifically in the realms of increased tire wear and poor to dangerous wet weather traction. Specialty tires of this nature are best used by amateur drivers on closed courses, not every day on city streets.