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Inside NASCAR: Tire busters face balancing act

May 12, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM,

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Process of bringing tires to the track involves family, physique and teamwork

There's a trick to loading a batch of 65-pound, mounted Goodyear Eagle racing tires onto a pickup truck.

First, you either pick it up outright or roll it up your leg. Then, in as quick a motion as possible, you give it an additional boost upward with your knee. The tire lands in the bed of the truck with a resounding thud, so the move worked. Piece of cake. Now ... do the same thing 31 more times.

The adrenaline's pumping, you're ready to roll. There are people watching, so you've got something to prove. The first few slicks are a little awkward to handle, but then you get the hang of it, sort of.

"I don't know of too many jobs where you could talk like we do with each other. But when one hurts, we all hurt. We're there for each other. "


Just when you think you've got the process licked, the last eight tires are to be loaded vertically in two stacks of four, to help keep everything else in place. On the opened tailgate of the pickup, the top of the stack is going to be over your head. Your first thought is something along the lines of, "You want me to do what with this tire?!? I'm supposed to put it where?"

You look over and notice the guy you're helping, and it's got to be some sort of optical illusion. He lifts his tire in one fluid motion, and at the top of its arc, nudges it to the top of the tower with his fingertips. It looks for all the world as if he is shooting a three-pointer in basketball.

This Eagle does not actually fly. The tire does not actually leave the guy's hands ... it just looks like it. You then notice that the man's arms are not guns. They're howitzers. He's not alone. Most everyone who works here in the Goodyear compound located at the back of Darlington Raceway's Sprint Cup garage has arms that make Popeye look like a wuss.

Still, the first load really isn't all that bad. But then there's a second collection of tires that needs to go to the Nationwide Series garage on the other side of the track.

And a third. You realize that this might be a little tougher assignment than you had imagined.

And then a fourth. Your arms start to feel like Jello.

And a fifth. It's almost Mother's Day, and you've never wanted your momma more.

Here's the kicker: The tires being lugged into the pickup truck were the finished product, having already gone through the processes of scanning, unloading, mounting, balancing and stacking. Throwing tires on the back of this pickup was the smallest of slices out of this massive endeavor. At 32 tires per load, that's just 160 of the 732 that eventually made their way over to the Nationwide Series garage on the backstretch during the weekend.

That's only the rubber that was bolted onto Nationwide Series cars this weekend. Consider the grand total of 2,072 tires that were prepared for the Sprint Cup side at Darlington -- teams were allotted five sets for practice and 11 for the race itself -- and the amount of work that goes into putting tires on the track is nothing short of staggering.

Huggins Tire Sales teammates go to work on tire-mounting machines at Darlington. Sprint Cup teams were allotted five sets of tires for practice and 11 sets for Saturday's Showtime Southern 500.

The show can't go on

Try running a race without an engine. Won't work, will it? Also critical is a steering wheel and a driver to turn it. Those are givens, but there's one more basic ingredient in any competition involving automobiles.


For such an important element, the process of getting tires ready for competition is one of the most overlooked in the sport. When Regan Smith pitted for the tires that he rode to Victory Lane Saturday, they had not just magically appeared on pit road. They had arrived at the track more than three days before in one of six -- yes, six -- tractor trailers loaded with Goodyear rubber.

"It's having the right people in place for the right job. They're experienced at it. Their mistake margin is almost zero. We're humans, and definitely, mistakes are made occasionally. But it's very little."


That's when the boys of Huggins Tire Sales went to work.

Huggins is one of six distributors that handle NASCAR national touring series events across the country. Based in High Point, N.C., the company handles 17 Sprint Cup, 14 Nationwide and 11 Camping World Truck races across the Southeast. Nearly fifty Huggins employees were on site at Darlington to handle the workload, which would've been a logistical nightmare without a time-tested routine already in place.

"Everything we do from the word 'go' is planned out weeks in advance, whether it be Goodyear shipping the tires to the race track, to us lining up motel rooms, to having the equipment ready, re-stocking the trucks and taking care of payroll," said Jim Weant, Huggins' general manager. "Anything that the employees would need to make that trip to the race is quite an undertaking, just from the standpoint of what you have to do before you get there.

"Then, once you get there, you set up shop, get everything ready and you do the work. Then you load it back up and you're off to the next venue. It's almost like moving in and out of a business every week."

For an operation of this magnitude, how smoothly everything seemed to flow was truly amazing. The smallest of links in the chain were well choreographed, on down to having people in place to roll tires to and from each station.

"It's having the right people in place for the right job," Weant said. "They're experienced at it. Their mistake margin is almost zero. We're humans, and definitely, mistakes are made occasionally. But it's very little. You have scanning guys and marking the tires, and guys who bring wheels into the building.

"We try to keep the same people on the equipment, whether it be the mounting machines or the balancers. Then, the people out front stack the tires neatly, with the labels out, to give a good impression of what we do. Having the same people do these jobs week in and week out cuts down on mistakes that can be made."

The nearly 3,000 tires that were readied for use in Darlington began life in a Goodyear plant in Akron, Ohio, and stuffed with a safety inner liner. From there, they were shipped to Darlington, where Huggins tire busters began their work on Wednesday, May 4.

Before a tire is ever unloaded, it is first scanned, much like at a checkout counter at your local grocery store. Leased -- not sold outright -- by Goodyear to teams at $449 a pop, the total for the weekend easily tops $1.25 million. Each tire is clearly marked with the car number and as either a left- or right-side compound. Tires going to the previous year's champion are first to be marked and mounted, and then it's done by the current point standings.

Then it's time for the fun to really begin.

Jim Zarembka checks the air pressure on a mounted tire at Darlington. Nearly 3,000 tires were readied for use at the Lady in Black and rented to teams at a cost of  $449 per tire.

Mount up

It is hard to comprehend, much less adequately describe, that cacophony of sound that is 15 tire-mounting machines being triggered at once. Each one is like the quick, sharp release of an air brake on steroids, and this room isn't able to contain the din. Most of the tire mounters are in their own little world as they listen to their iPods.

First, a bare rim goes on the machine, and then the tire/shield combination goes on top of that. After dabbing a lubricating paste onto the tire and shield beads in case they need to be better aligned, the machine seats the rubber onto the rim. The mounter airs up the tire and shield, and then checks the pressure. Once satisfied, it's on to the next one. Each mounted tire takes maybe three or four minutes to complete.

"Darlington and Rockingham were always tracks where we wound up mounting some of our largest amounts of tires, probably second only to Daytona because of the length of time we're there."


Jim Zarembka, of Glade Hill, Va., has been at this game a long time. A Huggins employee since 1984, Zarembka can well remember a time when Darlington really was almost too tough to tame. Always known for a rough racing surface, even after its repaving in 2007, teams have always gone through a lot of tires here. And when teams weren't limited to the number of sets of tires they could use on a race weekend, the mad scramble was something to behold.

"Darlington and Rockingham were always tracks where we wound up mounting some of our largest amounts of tires, probably second only to Daytona because of the length of time we're there," Zarembka said. "We use to like going to the track, but we didn't like working it because it was just non-stop.

"There were so many times we would literally be trying to throw our lunches in our heads Sunday, praying that a caution wouldn't start. They'd be lined up with their hand trucks and their tires, probably 30 deep, waiting to get in the building. It never stopped. Even as many as 10 laps to go, there might be one or two guys still wanting tires ... gotta have 'em."

No limits meant, in a lot of cases, mounting tires throughout an entire race. This year at Darlington, such work was finished Saturday before the race that night.

"If a caution started, you could see them coming off pit road, headed our way," Weant added. "They'd be lined up all the way around the building, as far as you could see. By the time we'd get 'em done, another caution would fly and they'd be right back."

Complicating matters even more, there were times when teams brought just a few rims to the track or ran through so many tires, the supply of safety liners would get low. That meant dismounting scuffed sets of tires to retrieve the shield and/or rim, which in turn started the whole process over again.

"They just didn't bring that many bare wheels," Zarembka continued. "Now, you can see all the pallets and pallets and pallets of wheels that are out there. It's incredible what we used to have to go through. Plus, everything's stuffed [by Champion] now. You don't have to dismount anything to get a shield. It's very rare that would happen."

Balancing act

Once finished at Darlington, mounters rolled their work to 18-year-old Devon Tucker, who in turn passed it along to one of eight people manning balancing machines under a tent just outside the mounting building. There, the balancing contraptions spin at 35 mph to give a weight readout on the front and back of the tire.

After completing his work, 69-year-old veteran Jerry Steppe initials a balanced tire. (Turner Sports New Media)

Depending on the results, clipped weights from a quarter of an ounce all the way up to a full ounce are hammered onto the rim. The tire is spun again, until the tire is perfectly counter-balanced. Each balancer initials the tire and marks it with his machine number, so that if there's a problem later, it can be properly traced.

Another few minutes, and the tire is ready to be stacked and then doled out to its team.

Jerry Steppe was one of the eight balancers at Darlington. Now 69 years old, he began work for Huggins in 1967. The High Point resident piloted the company's plane for years, and he "retired" in 2003 as its general manager. Zarembka estimates that Steppe, who balanced tires even as he headed up the operation, has worked on no less than 500,000 tires in his lifetime and maybe on up toward a million.

"Oh, yeah ... easy," Steppe said. When Zarembka mentions his co-worker's age, Steppe retorted in no uncertain terms, "I'm still the fastest."

Life is now a bit easier for Huggins tire mounters, who are using prototype machines that alleviate at least some of their workload. It allows them do their work faster, but that in turn makes it that much harder for balancers like Steppe, regardless of their ages, to keep up.

"Usually, we run about a two-to-one ratio of mounters to balancers," Steppe said. "A tire mounter works at his own pace. We have to work at their pace, so if you've got guys that are pumping them out as fast as they can, we've got to bust our butts to keep up. If we nail weights on both sides of the tire and it still comes up off a quarter of an ounce, we've got to fix that."

The Huggins Physique

Huggins' tire busters are every bit as much a team as any in the garage, bar none. They pick at each other, with at least one younger buck challenging an older one to a push-up contest. There was something about a filet mignon cookout that was supposed to take place leading up to the Cup race Saturday night.

The respect that Weant has for his employees, and that guys like Zarembka has for guys like Steppe in particular, is almost palpable.

"You see how the camaraderie is with those guys," Weant said. "We live together with each other more than with our families. We're close. I don't know of too many jobs where you could talk like we do with each other. But when one hurts, we all hurt. We're there for each other."

That's the kind of brotherhood that's forged by long hours doing a tough job. The weather on Wednesday and Thursday in the South Carolina Pee Dee was perfect, with temperatures in the low 70s and few if any clouds in the sunlit sky. Friday, though, it rained. Come Daytona in July, it'll be scorching hot and miserable. Come November, bone-numbing cold will take over.

Steppe looks at his younger counterparts who lift weights most every day at the gym and simply shakes his head. They need time to recover, he says. Zarembka says to look around at what has been termed "The Huggins Physique." When a prospective tire buster first starts work, he may be 6' 1" tall, weigh 180 pounds and be in fairly decent shape. Two season later, he's still 6' 1" but now weighs 220.

"Why did your eyes roll over here first?" Weant interjected, clearly enjoying giving Zarembka a hard time.

"You've got to remember, if you're sitting in a recliner, you don't have to have too much of a calorie intake," Steppe concluded. "Working over there, you'd better have it. And, of course, some of us go kind of overboard with it. If we need 1,800 calories, we're eating 2,400."

The point is well made. Work this hard, this long, in these conditions and it's hard to get up for a tofu salad. Something quick is the easier option, in order to get back to the motel, shower and go to bed. There's more work to be done tomorrow.