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Fast Track to Profits DOT Racing Tires

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DOT racing tires, also known as R-compound tires, are hot on the track and off. They boast decent margins, and they practically sell themselves: Customers are educated, experienced and already know what they want.

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But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to be in the DOT race tire business. More than with any other tire product, you need to do your homework first.

Most tire companies say the DOT racing tire business is picking up, though, so now might be a good time to look into offering these tires. “The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is the major user of DOT radials,” says Doug Reed, motorsports manager at Hankook Tire America Corp.

“But participation in SCCA has traditionally lagged a year or two behind the economy, so I think it will go back up again by next year,” Reed said.

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Earl Knoper, senior vice president of marketing at Toyo Tire USA Corp., sees steady growth in the market, especially in spec racing because it tends to be cheaper for participants than other types of racing. “American racing is expanding every year,” he says. “There are more than 60,000 SCCA members, and about 40,000 of them race. NASA (National Auto Sport Association) has about 10,000 members, and all of them race.”

In addition, Art Michalik, Yokohama Tire Corp.’s director of marketing communications, sees an increase in the popularity of marquee and club racing – as in the Porsche Club of America and the BMW Club, for example.

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An Enthusiast Base
Oscar Pereda, technical marketing manager at Michelin North America’s BFGoodrich group, attributes some of the market’s resurgence to baby boomers buying the muscle cars of their dreams and taking them on the road. “That’s given a huge boost to drag racing. Then there’s the sport compact market, the 18- to 24-year-old age group that also buys these tires.”

“The average customer is on a budget, wants to have fun, wants the tires to last a decent time and be fast,” Knoper says. “Those in the SCCA national runoffs are willing to spend five to 10 times as much as the average racer.” He also adds that “these customers tend to have more disposable income. They are professionals moving away from spectator sports and towards participant sports.”

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“Overall, it’s a limited, not giant, but steadily growing market,” says Richard Smallwood, vice president of sales, marketing and logistics for Falken Tire Corp. “Typically, with everyday tires, the dealer educates the customer and makes a recommendation. But with a DOT racing tire, 90% of the time, a dealer doesn’t make a recommendation,” he says. “The customers know exactly what they want.”

Most importantly, these buyers are “influencers.” Though there is money to be made in the product itself, the real money comes from referrals. “These are the go-to people in the community,” Pereda says. They are seen as local experts on tires and performance, so they may influence other buying decisions.

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These customers also offer plenty of opportunities for a dealer to profit beyond just tire sales, Pereda says. They may also be interested in wheels, suspension and brake upgrades, modifications and accessories.

Plus, buyers of DOT racing tires tend to own several vehicles – a competition car, street car and a tow vehicle, for example. “More than half of them have three or four cars,” says Michalik. That means additional sales and service opportunities for tire dealers.

“Make sure you have a knowledgeable staff, familiar with different types of racing,” says Smallwood. “Get involved by attending SCCA and NASA events.”

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“You don’t necessarily need a service truck,” adds Michalik. “Go out there with an air tank, torque wrench, floor jack and some expertise and product brochures.”

Obviously, though, dealers who bring a truck to races to install the tires right at the track will have a leg up on other dealers, says Knoper.

Cautions to Customers
Though you may know that soft, race-built tires wear more quickly than regular performance tires, chances are good your customers don’t. Be sure to tell them not to expect long life from a semi-slick tire with little tread depth. If you don’t warn them, you could be setting yourself up for headaches later.

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“These tires are designed to work at high temperatures, so their low temperature performance falls off fast,” says Michalik. “Dealers should tell customers not to use these below certain temperatures or store them in cold conditions.”

It could be downright unsafe to treat these tires like typical street tires. Some of these tires have been shaved to just a shadow of a tread, making them unsafe for everyday street driving, especially in wet weather. This is a “sticky” subject, though, because DOT race tires are technically street legal. Even experts disagree.

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More and more, these tires are pushing the envelope. “Just because a tire passed the DOT temperature, wear and traction tests does not mean it’s a street tire,” says Reed. “Some of them have UTQG ratings of 40 to 60. They are short-wear, slick tires. None of us want to see these tires used on the street. It’s not what they were designed for. It’s a dealer’s responsibility to tell them that these tires are, in fact, race tires and essentially have no warranties.”

Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales and marketing at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., agrees. “When a tire is DOT approved, it means it can be used on the street, but we do not suggest it,” he says. “They don’t have the aquaplaning resistance and treadwear that you would want on a standard street tire.

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“The whole idea of DOT racing tires was to control costs; customers bought them instead of spending extra to get pure race tires,” says Stucker. “But we’ve gotten away from this original intent. Now, customers want the stickiest tire they can get, yet they still want half a season out of their tires.”

But Michalik disagrees and says that Yokohama’s tires are molded at tread depths sufficient for street use, even though some come pretty close to being race slicks. And Pereda says that BFGoodrich tires are “perfectly fine to go on the street. These are street tires,” he says. “The only difference is that they are used in competition.”

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Cautions to Dealers
Nevertheless, dealers still need to consider the pros and cons of the DOT racing tire market. One drawback, says Reed, is the complexity of managing inventory. “These are specialized products with specialized customers,” he says. “It’s a volatile product and marketplace. When a new car comes out, a dealer’s entire inventory can be rendered obsolete.”

Dealers also need to have the right mounting equipment to service these tires, which are fitted to larger, lightweight wheels, according to Stucker.

Another point of disagreement: Knoper feels dealers need tire shaving equipment or should at least partner with a local business that does shaving.

But Stucker says that, with pure slicks becoming more popular, buying that equipment is becoming unnecessary. “There are still applications for shaving,” says Stucker. “But it’s probably more economical to have it done when needed.”

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Overall, Stucker feels that the market is fairly large but also complicated. “A dealer has to understand the customer and application to get the right tire,” he says, “and that can be tremendously challenging.”

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What’s Your Specialty?
DOT racing tires are used for numerous applications – drag and street racing, autocross, amateur and semi-professional racing, and, more recently, drifting.

The basic difference between racing tires and regular tires, according to Earl Knoper, senior vice president of marketing at Toyo Tire USA Corp., is the tread compound. “They are much softer than street tires,” he says. “The UTQG rating can be as low as 40 and as high as 100. In street tires, the UTQG rating is typically 400 to 500.” A DOT racing tire also has a stiffer sidewall to provide better control, he says. It is this combination of soft tread compound and stiff sidewall that allows these tires to go fast.

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Autocross applications typically require a softer compound, says Doug Reed, motorsports manager at Hankook Tire America Inc., since they need to heat up quickly. “Autocross also has a tendency to use more tire than road racing,” he says, “due to low speeds and sudden left and right turns. So, the driver wants as much tire on the ground as possible at all times.”

In road racing, a driver needs to decide whether he wants a softer compound for a wider contact patch and better cornering or maximum straight-line speed that a harder compound would offer.

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“For drag racers, we had to design a tire that takes tremendous initial shock at launch,” says Oscar Pereda, technical marketing manager at BFGoodrich Tires. As a result, BFGoodrich designed the g-Force T/A drag radial, specifically for drag racing. “Its sidewalls are designed to absorb shock for consistent launches,” he says, “and the tread needs to heats up quickly, within seconds, to make the launch as progressive and manageable as possible.”

“In drag racing, it’s all about acceleration and going in a straight line consistently,” says Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales and marketing at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. “In showroom stock racing, you have to have good acceleration but also cornering and braking.”

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And Yokohama offers its A048R tire in two compounds – hard and soft – for different environmental conditions. “The idea is to suit the application and track conditions,” says Michalik, director of marketing communications at Yokohama Tire Corp. “A more abrasive track generates more heat, and greater vehicle weight needs a harder compound and a wider temperature range.”

Heat Cycling
Any DOT race tire is extremely sensitive to the first heat cycle of its use. The first heat cycle can determine performance and wear characteristics. The compounds in a new race tire are “green” and its chemical make up is not fully stabilized.

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During the first heat cycle, the tread compound stretches as it heats. The heat can also cause changes at the molecular level. During a heat cycle, bonds are broken and reformed that help to make the tread compound more stable.

The benefit of this process is a tread compound that lasts longer and provides better traction. However, if the first cycle is not performed correctly, the tread may develop irregular compounding, leading to poor wear and inconsistent traction.

Some racers try to heat cycle their own tires, with mixed results. This involves bringing the tires up to race temperatures and then “resting” them for 24 to 48 hours while off the vehicle. This process can be inconsistent as the tires may not heat evenly on the four corners of the car. Also, temperatures across the tread face are not always uniform due to camber and scrub. Plus, if this is the owner’s only set of tires, it is inconvenient to mount and dismount the tires before using them to race.

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Some DOT race tire suppliers offer heat cycling services, and use machines that heat the tire by applying a load (no artificial heat). These systems generate uniform temperature build up throughout the tread, a condition not achievable on the track. Because there is no cornering involved, there is lateral scrubbing and virtually no loss of tread during the heat cycling.

The cost for this service ranges between $10 to $20 per tire.

Tire Shaving
As a contact patch experiences loads the tread blocks deflect and change shape. This is called “squirm” in racing circles. Squirm produces heat that can build up in the tire and tread blocks. This heat can cause a tire to wear at an accelerated rate. Squirm also reduces dry traction.

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To reduce squirm and increase life of a tire, most manufacturers of DOT competition radial tires recommend shaving. Tire shaving is an effective means of permitting more of a tire’s performance capability to be realized early in its life. Also, shaving removes tread rubber and reduces tire’s weight by several pounds.

With DOT competition tires, wear is a different when compared to a street tire. Wear on competition tires has less to do with the tread depth, but the changing chemical compounds in the tire.

For competition radial tires, its life is measured in the number of heat cycles and the severity of heat in the cycle, not tread depth. This means that a tire can only endure so many cycles before the compound has changed chemically thereby lowering the dry traction properties. Most racers call an old tire "hard", referring to its lack of traction when compared to a "soft" new tire.

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Most DOT-legal Competition tires begin with about 6/32" of molded tread depth. While some tires do not require shaving for dry autocross use, all of them will benefit from shaving to about 4/32" tread depths for driver’s schools, track days and competitive track use in dry conditions.

The equipment to shave tires can be expensive. Most competition tire suppliers can perform this service for $15-25 per tire depending on the type of shave.

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