The basics for buying Track Day Tires: 4 Simple things you need to know.
Tires may be the single most expensive consumable with track days and especially with racing. As the only part of your car that is gripping the pavement (Hopefully), tires are a wildly important part of going fast… and usually the quickest and least expensive way to shave seconds off your lap times. With some planning and minor hacks; having fun, learning, and even staying competitive aren’t out of the reach of someone on a budget.
My first ever blog post mentions that we are in a “golden era of motorsports”. Much of that is because of the current availability of reasonable priced, grippy, reliable tires.
This post is a quick overview of 4 basic things you need to know when shopping for track day tires.
Part 1) What category of tires are the best to run for Track Days?
Part 2) What are heat cycles?
Part 3) What are date codes and where do you find them?
Part 4) Winter Storage of Racing Tires.
Part 1) Tire Categories: What type of tires are the best to run for Track Days?
Tires are split into a comically large number of general categories. Tire Rack sells 30 categories of tires. Yes, 30. A search for my Miata’s 205/50/15 tire size yields 4 subcategories under “Performance’ and 3 subcategories under “Track and competition” with 26(!) different tires. Where should you look?
First: If you are someone just beginning track days and your current tires are in good shape, I strongly recommend you just use whatever tires that are currently on your car. Contrary to some forum exaggerations, you will not shred your daily driver tires in one track day. (Unless you are really overdriving the hell out of a heavy, powerful car)
If you are in the Trackday Tire market: Completely disregard any tire that is categorized under “touring”, “max performance” or “All Season” even if it is “High Performance All Season” category (Also known as the No-Season tire). The “Ultra High Performance Summer” tires are great for daily driven performance tires and can get you started on track, but they may leave you wanting more even before your first season is up.
If you are serious about track days, you may consider dipping into the “Extreme Performance Summer” category. These are often referred to as the 200tw (treadwear) tires. These tires are not full racing slicks, but they are not a whole long way off. This category is exploding in both selection and quality, partially because of the popularity of autocross. Just a few of the popular tires are Dunlop Direzza Star Spec, BFG Rival, Bridgestone RE-71, Hankook RS-3, and Maxxis VR-1. This category also has newcomers like the Federal 595 and Nankang NS-2R. Even though these all fall under the 180-200tw category, there are pretty big differences in cost, how they feel, and how long they last. Do some research on the current crop’s features and pick one that best matches your goals. I was always a fan of Dunlop Star Specs and Maxxis VR-1’s as they both seemed to give decent feel and lasted longer than some other tires, even if they weren’t the outright fastest.
If you are considering a R-Compound tire like a Hoosier A or R7, Toyo RR, BFG R1 just know that R-Compound tires are not a budget friendly option. These tires wear extremely fast and “compound out” after just a few heat cycles (Some may get up to 20 heat cycles before they’re shot, others are fast for around 10). Even if you can get a set cheap, since their life is so limited you’ll be swapping them on and off your wheels often ($$ and/or time). R-Comps provide face distortingly high levels of grip, but are not a wise choice for a new driver to begin with as they can mask bad driving habits and are known for having a very abrupt drop-off that moment you do run out of grip.
R-Compound tires also have an interesting way of creating/exposing other issues you didn’t have earlier. They tend to wear out bearings, bushings, and other suspension components faster, as the tires are gripping more and putting more stress on the suspension. Some cars may start seeing oiling issues because the engine oil sloshes too much in the pan. So much for your budget…
The good news is the current crop of Extreme Performance Summer, 200tw tires get you near R-compound levels of grip with an otherwise much more forgiving tire (on the budget, and your driving). Also, a treaded 200tw tire means you won’t need to worry about buying and bringing a separate rain tire set.
Part 2) What are Heat Cycles?
Put simply, heat cycles are the amount of times a racing tire has gone from ambient temperature to operating temperature. Each session you take a set of tires on track you are adding a heat cycle to them. Imagine you bought Hoosier A7’s for track day tires: If you have a HPDE day and get 5 sessions per day, by the end of the weekend that tire has 10 heat cycles.
Once you pass a certain number of heat cycles, the grip ability of tires begins to fall off, some quite significantly. The grippier tires like Hoosier R7’s have been known to quickly drop off around 10. Toyo RR’s start dropping off around 10 as well but are known to be decent for upwards of 15 cycles. While overall laptimes may not be especially important if you are not competing… as R-Comps become less grippy they become more challenging to drive. Even if a tire looks like it has plenty of meat left on it, it may be useless.
If you have a Street Tire like a 200tw you will get significantly more heat cycles out of them before they “compound out” and become useless, at which point the tires are usually cording anyway.
If you are doing track days, or even competing and you don’t NEED r-comps, do yourself a favor and avoid them.
Part 3) What about date codes?
Date codes are those little 4 digit numbers stamped into the sidewall of a tire. The first two digits are the week of tire manufacture (hint: there’s 52 weeks in a year), and the second two digits are the year of manufacturer.
Any way you are buying a tire (new or used), make sure they are still reasonably new. Any tire begins losing grip as soon as it rolls off the production line, but are typically just fine for a two or three years. Some certainly hold up better over time, My Toyo RA-1 rain tires are 8 years old and still do okay. However, It’s not unheard of for retailers to try and push tires that are 3, 4, or 5 years old on unsuspecting buyers. If you are buying used tires, you need to be even more vigilant.
Part 4) But what if I drive my car in the winter? Will these work if I am careful?
Simple answer, no. High performance summer tires require some amount of heat to work. On a nice warm day they are either already at their operating temperature or will get there quickly. On a cold winter day, they will not reach their temperature and will be like riding on hard plastic. On snow, ice, or slush they will be useless.
Your best course of action will be to get a separate set of wheels with snow tires. Not only are snow tires often quite affordable, you will now be spreading your tire wear between two sets of tires so both sets should last much longer. Back when my Miata was doing double duty as a daily driver I found a $40 set of factory wheels, hit them with rattlecan paintjob, and put the cheapest snow tires I could find. The result: For less than $300 my rear wheel drive miata was not only a blast in the winter, it was unstoppable, (Well, it stopped fine too… But it didn’t get stuck) and my track wheels stayed safe and warm all winter.
Where should I store my race tires over the winter? Can i just leave them in my garage or shed?
One more issue with high performance tires is that they are sensitive to cold. Most manufacturers don’t explicitly advise against storing race tires in the cold, but all say to avoid handling, mounting, moving, and driving on them. I like to play it safe and keep my tires in my warm basement, but if all you have access to is a shed or garage… it shouldn’t be the end of the world. I have an ancient set of OEM wheels for winter storage, they cost me $40 and do the job just fine.
It’s no joke how quickly the costs for this hobby add up. If you drive a small, light car like a Miata your tiny tires will be cheap and should last you quite a while. If you have a 450 horsepower mustang, not only will your massive tires cost more than double, you’ll run through them in less than half the time as a Miata. I am a huge fan of modern muscle cars but they just don’t make sense to track unless you have an unlimited budget. With a bit of strategy on your initial car choice and tire choice, even a tight budget can survive keeping up with trackday tires.
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