The Ongoing Evolution of Drag Racing Tires

By Tommy Lee Byrd   –   Photography by the Author

Although drag racing is simple in nature, there are many factors that go into a successful pass down the dragstrip. Horsepower, traction, and aerodynamics are the three key elements in straight-line racing, and all three of those factors have evolved immensely since drag racing started gaining notoriety in the ’50s. In this article, we’re focusing on the development of drag racing tires and how a few companies helped inspire those changes and improve traction for all types of vehicles.

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002 Early racing tires often started life as regular passenger car tires
Early racing tires often started life as regular passenger car tires. Retreading companies would add a new tread to the existing carcass and add ribs to connect the narrow carcass to the wider tread. These ribs are now what we refer to as a “piecrust” shoulder.

Read More: Notes for Shock Setting in Drag Racing Application

Early drag racers drew inspiration from land speed racers, who already had a couple decades of trial and error under their belt. Whether on dry lake beds or sand, these racers fought for traction, but they had a long enough runway to power through the tire spin and ultimately reach the car’s top speed after a few miles of intense acceleration. With drag racing, a distance of 1,320 feet was made industry standard by the end of the ’50s. The quarter-mile distance put an emphasis on traction, as the winner of a side-by-side drag race was often determined by who could launch the car quicker.

003 M&H Racemaster manufactured the world’s first purpose built drag racing tire
M&H Racemaster manufactured the world’s first purpose-built drag racing tire. This is a well-preserved example of an original M&H slick, which is sized at 7.60-15.

As horsepower escalated and drag racers took serious measures to increase acceleration, they took a page out of the circle track racer’s book with recapped tires. Circle track racers would have local tire shops apply new tread to their tires using different tread sizes and rubber compounds. Recapped tires with smooth tread became the standard rear tire for many dragsters and competition roadsters of the mid ’50s.

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004 The mid ’60s saw a huge shift in drag racing tires as Goodyear and M&H softened the sidewalls creating the “wrinkle” effect
The mid-’60s saw a huge shift in drag racing tires, as Goodyear and M&H softened the sidewalls, creating the “wrinkle” effect. This increased traction significantly, compared to the old stiff sidewall tires.

In 1957, M&H Tire Company, a father-and-son business from Massachusetts, changed the drag racing world with the first purpose-built drag racing slick. Built as a brand-new tire with soft rubber tread, the M&H Racemaster Dragster slick was an instant success. Even with the newfound traction, dragsters of the era would still smoke the rear tires for the first half of the track, but the heat buildup gave the slicks more bite down track and significantly increased speed. Many tire companies jumped on the bandwagon, including Bruce, Casler, Hurst, Inglewood, Moxley, and many more. Although many companies were still recapping tires for drag racing use, M&H proved to be the industry leader with innovative compounds and a growing list of sizes to fit dragsters and stock-bodied cars.

005 NHRA Super Stock drag racing was hot in the ’60s so M&H built specific tires to meet the necessary requirements
NHRA Super Stock drag racing was hot in the ’60s, so M&H built specific tires to meet the necessary requirements. NHRA mandated a 7-inch maximum tread width and at least two grooves of tread, and M&H rolled out the Super Stock product line to fit 14- and 15-inch wheels.

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During the early ’60s, dragsters were still the king of the dragstrip, but Super Stock got the attention of the Big Three auto manufacturers. Factory-produced drag cars became a hot topic, thanks to special engines and lightweight body panels, but another big revolution was coming in the form of purpose-built Super Stock tires. At the time, NHRA Super Stock required a 7-inch maximum tread width and at least two grooves of tread on the tire, so M&H built a new soft rubber tire with the least amount of tread that would pass NHRA tech.

006 In the professional ranks the rear tires grew incrementally
In the professional ranks, the rear tires grew incrementally. A 10-inch tread gave way to 11 inches, then 12 inches, and so on. Here we see a vintage Goodyear Dragway Special, sized at 34.5×17.0-16 on a Top Fuel dragster from the ’70s.

During the ’60s, much larger tire companies came onto the scene. Firestone tried its hand with a very short run of Dragster slicks and Super Stock slicks. Then, Goodyear entered the market in 1964 and took the drag racing world by storm with the Blue Streak product line. This tire not only had excellent traction but it also had a very soft sidewall, which would become known as the wrinkle wall because of the wrinkling action when the cars left the line. The added flex of the sidewall allowed the tire to bite, especially when run at low pressure. Slicks often use 10 psi or less, depending on the weight of the car and suspension setup.

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007 Track prep truly changed the drag racing world
Track prep truly changed the drag racing world. This photo offers a nice visual of the glue, but it typically does not pull up from the racing surface in ideal situations. Track operators prep the track based on the type of car in competition.

Around this time is also when burnouts became common practice. A crew member would apply rosin to the track surface and the car would burn through the dust to create a little extra grip. Racers sometimes did multiple burnouts or dry hops to ensure sufficient traction, which played into the showmanship during the match racing days. As tire technology evolved, the rosin was no longer necessary, and track crews began spraying water in the burnout box to make it easier to get the tires spinning. Dry hops continued to be popular well into the ’80s and ’90s.

008 Another innovation from M&H was the treaded drag tire
Another innovation from M&H was the treaded drag tire, a concept that debuted in the early ’70s. Many others followed suit with DOT-approved sticky tires, which were great for street racing back in the day.

Read More: Suspension Upgrades for Them Ol’ Tri-Fives

During the early ’70s, Firestone came back into the drag racing world with the famous Drag 500 tire, which was a popular choice on early Pro Stock cars, and later a favorite for Super Stock cars. Firestone’s compounds were excellent for full-bodied door cars, while M&H and Goodyear continued to battle for supremacy amongst the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks. Tires and wheels continued to grow throughout the ’70s, with widths exceeding 16 inches and diameters coming in around 34 inches. For door slammers with a narrowed rearend, the most common was the 14.0/32.0-15 slick, a size that is still popular to this day.

009 The DOT approved drag tire led to the development of the drag radial
The DOT-approved drag tire led to the development of the drag radial. BFGoodrich was the first to offer a sticky radial, but Mickey Thompson perfected it with its line of race-ready radials.

Compounds continued to evolve as horsepower increased year by year, but something big happened in the ’80s and ’90s that changed how drag racers viewed traction. Track prep became much more elaborate, even at small tracks, and this sticky surface added to the capability of drag racing tires. You may hear track prep materials referred to as VHT or Track Bite, but whatever name you have for it this glue is responsible for taking drag racing to the next level.

010 The basic idea is to build a lightweight tire but sizes have changed through the years
Front tires have changed as well. The basic idea is to build a lightweight tire, but sizes have changed through the years. These days, it’s common to have a 17-inch front runner instead of 15s and tall sidewalls.

The next challenge came when outlaw street cars came onto the scene in the ’90s. Some classes allowed for any size tire, while others limited the tire size to 10.5 inches wide and some required street tires. Mickey Thompson claims the Sportsman Pro was the first DOT-approved race tire in 1991, but other tire companies had already dabbled in treaded drag racing tires with great success. M&H marketed treaded racing tires as early as 1972, and McCreary followed suit with a great line of grippy street tires.

011 Cars like Pro Modifieds and other professional classes still use giant bias ply slicks
Cars like Pro Modifieds and other professional classes still use giant bias-ply slicks. They offer the most traction and work well with the car’s weight and horsepower levels.

Read More: Uncovering the Mysteries of Single- and Double-Adjustable Shocks and Why You Need Them

In 1995, BFGoodrich introduced its Comp T/A tire, a revolutionary radial tire with a soft compound. The tire was designed for use in NMCA Stock ET Challenge racing but would be a favorite for street cars everywhere. This tire led to further drag radial development, and Mickey Thompson has dominated the drag radial market for the past 20 years with the ET Street Radial and later the ET Street Radial Pro. Drag radials are much more efficient and stable, allowing the use of higher pressures (15-18 psi typically), but they are finicky if your horsepower application and suspension setup isn’t dialed in.

012 Any high horsepower car using a big tire like these Pro Mods must hit the tire hard with a lot of wheel speed for optimal performance
Any high-horsepower car using a big tire, like these Pro Mods, must hit the tire hard with a lot of wheel speed for optimal performance, rather than dead hooking. In other words, the tire is actually slipping on the surface ever so slightly.

In 2024, the drag racing world is in another state of flux, as drag radials continue to dominate on prepped surfaces, while the no-prep world is using old-school tactics in the ultimate battle for traction. Because of the lack of glue on the racing surface, racers get creative with weight transfer, just like they did in the ’60s, before tire technology caught up to the horsepower levels. Hoosier D06 and C07 slicks are a favorite among No Prep racers, but other tires are going after some of the No Prep market share, like the Phoenix PH18S and Mickey Thompson’s new “Low Traction” product line.

013 A drag radial’s stiffer carcass is designed to dead hook off the line
A drag radial’s stiffer carcass is designed to dead hook off the line. The margin for error is very thin with a drag radial, but they are notably quicker and faster due to lower rolling resistance.

In the world of professional drag racing, most Pro classes use Goodyear tires, while Pro Modified cars lean toward the Hoosier. Outlaw street cars still rely on Mickey Thompson drag radials, and you’ll see a smattering of brands in the bracket racing ranks. M&H Racemaster, the originator of purpose-built drag racing tires is still cranking out tires for a huge range of applications. Although all drag racing brands have evolved, the roots are still there and the innovation continues to progress. Whether you’re wanting your daily driver to hook up on a test and tune night or you’re trying to apply 2,000 hp on a sketchy surface, the evolution of drag racing tires plays a big part in how you get from point A to point B in the quickest way possible.

014 Another difference in modern drag tire tactics comes with no prep racing where high horsepower cars run on bare asphalt or concrete
Another difference in modern drag tire tactics comes with no prep racing, where high-horsepower cars run on bare asphalt or concrete. This is a throwback to the early days of drag racing when tire spin was common. Whoever can recover the quickest typically wins the race.
015 Companies like Coker Tire produce vintage tire designs such as this Firestone Dragster cheater slick
You can go back in time with tire technology. Companies like Coker Tire produce vintage tire designs, such as this Firestone Dragster cheater slick. The piecrust shoulder provides a cool vintage look for gassers and nostalgia drag cars.

Sources:

Coker Tire
(800) 537-4032
cokertire.com

Mickey Thompson
(330) 928-9092
mickeythompsontires.com

Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of The Ongoing Evolution of Drag Racing Tires.acp march 2024

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