In the late 1980s, NASCAR’s twofold quest for speed and success took a sharp turn as tire supplier Goodyear introduced the radial tire to the sanctioning body’s premier series.
Bias-ply tires had been the standard for stock car competition from the very beginning. But radial tire technology had vastly improved, and major open-wheel series had already made the swap to radials. Off the track, radials had also begun replacing bias-ply as the tires of choice for passenger vehicles.
But the bias-ply tires still used in NASCAR provided teams with another tool in the toolbox, a way to “tune” the car’s setup through the use of air pressures and tire stagger (the variation in the circumference of the car’s tires), something radial tire technology couldn’t duplicate at the time.
Goodyear officials were working toward implementing radials in NASCAR when the company got an unexpected push from Hoosier Tire Company in 1988.
The competition between the two was fierce, and not without consequences. “Softer” tires produced by both brands generated higher speeds, but durability faltered. The “fall-off” in the product led to numerous tire failures and hard crashes.
The following year, Goodyear officials rolled out radial race tires in an effort to provide both speed and durability. It was an ongoing project — problems before the season-opening Daytona 500 forced the company to withdraw its product for that event.
It wasn’t until the spring race of 1989 at North Wilkesboro that Goodyear debuted the radial tire that officials felt was far more durable and could provide the necessary consistency and speed.
“We were going to step through it,” said Greg Stucker, head of race tire sales for Goodyear. “We were going to introduce them at the short tracks and then slowly step into the other race tracks.”
Rusty Wallace, driving for team owner Raymond Beadle, won the pole after the Blue Max team made the switch to Hoosiers.
“We knew the Hoosiers were quick,” Stucker said. “We also knew that the radials were extremely good over the long run. We went the first 100-some odd laps under green, which you don’t do at North Wilkesboro very often. And Rusty got lapped, I think, about Lap 70.”
Dale Earnhardt won the race, thanks in part to the Richard Childress team’s use of the Goodyear radials.
“I still have that car,” Childress said. “That’s one of my favorite cars I have on display because I didn’t re-do the body on it. I made the rest of them look real nice, but that car is still beat up; it has the Dale Earnhardt look still left on it. All the fenders beat in, the sides, and a set of the very first radial tires.
“That’s why we kept that one. It was the first win anybody had on radial tires. And everybody said ‘That’s going to be the end of Dale Earnhardt; he won’t be able to run on them radial tires.’ Well, we went out there and won the first race on them.”
The tire war eventually ended – Hoosier pulled out of the sport in mid-1989, returned for the ’94 season with its own radial tire, but departed at year’s end due to a lack of sales.
“It couldn’t have worked out better for us to demonstrate how strong and how consistent the radial was,” Stucker said. “The race really played into our hands pretty well. I think it was a good demonstration to everybody that this was a good package.
“You know they say you have good days and bad days in racing? That was definitely one of the best days I’ve had at the race track. It was a good one.”