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The Biggest Battle in NASCAR Wasn’t Between Drivers

“We knew we were in fat city with the Goodyear radials because the further I drove on them, the better I liked them,” said Dale Earnhardt, after winning the 1989 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Why was this a turning point in NASCAR history?

The biggest battle in NASCAR wasn’t behind the wheel in 1989 – it was the wheel. Long before Goodyear was known as the “official tire of NASCAR,” teams found their own tires to bring to the track each weekend. Goodyear had weathered challenges from the likes of Firestone and McCreary Tire Co. in the 1970s and 80s, but none was greater than that of Hoosier Tire Co. In late 1987, the little-known tire company announced it would enter the NASCAR ranks for the 1988 season. The Indiana-based company quickly showed up ready to play when Neil Bonnett claimed victory with the new tire at Richmond International Raceway, breaking Goodyear’s 526-race win streak. Goodyear publicly acknowledged they had been caught napping, and quickly went back to the drawing board to design a stronger tire.

“You could choose (which tire), but we didn’t. Loyalty with Richard (Childress, owner) was key. There were a lot of races that year where we, Bud Moore and several other teams wouldn’t switch,” recalled Will Lind, former No. 3 crew member and tire changer.

After suffering through issues earlier in the 1989 season at Daytona, Goodyear announced it was bringing back its redesigned radial tire to North Wilkesboro.

“Everybody was scared of radial tires,” said Danny Lawrence, former engine mechanic. “The world was coming to an end because it was going to be radial tires. How’s that going to work?”

Tire management was key in those days.

“There was two places you went, Rockingham (Speedway) and North Wilkesboro where the pace slowed down really bad because the tracks were so wore out.” Lind said. “We’d probably do 10 or 12 stops in a 400-lap race on a half-mile track.” Lawrence added, “the real smooth drivers always prevailed because you had to save your stuff throughout the race. At first Dale couldn’t do that, but he figured it out real quick. That’s what was really cool about him, he adapted and didn’t take long to learn how to do it.”

Former RCR championship crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine had mastered the tire balance week in and week out. “For me, it was another nail in the coffin on how things are changing. The management of the tires and the cross ply was unfathomably difficult to keep consistent throughout the race weekend, from one weekend to the next. We were using 12 to 15 sets of tires sometimes on the longer races, and every single one of the tires was different with a lot of stagger choices to deal with.”

Earnhardt mastered a run on biased tires. He would charge hard for 10 or so laps, then back down to cool off to charge hard once again, according to Lawrence.

Shelmerdine talked about the bias tires they were so good on. “It was hugely complicated and we had kind of a pretty good system for managing that. It was all in my head. Will helped me a lot with it, but it was one of the things that gave us an edge on the others being able to figure it out how to use it.”

“With the radial tires, once you burnt them up, you couldn’t get them back,” Lawrence said.

“Everybody thought this would be one of the things that’ll keep Dale from winning. When you’re winning every weekend, a lot like now there were a lot of guys praying and hoping this is what would keep him from winning.”

“Radial tires just absolutely threw all that out the window. It was another dumbing down thing for the whole sport, it doesn’t matter what you do. You have the same stuff as the dumb guys,” Shelmerdine said.

Knowing the new Goodyear tire was on show at North Wilkesboro, the duo went out and not only won, but dominated the 400-lap race. The battle with Rusty Wallace and Earnhardt was fierce.

“There was a lot of banging in that race. They (NASCAR) warned us because of Dale and Rusty banging each other down the frontstretch of that race,” Lawrence said. Earnhardt took the lead and never looked back. He lapped Wallace before the first caution on lap 117. The Intimidator took the lead in the driver championship point standings by three points over Geoff Bodine.091114-the-biggest-battle-in-nascar-wasnt-on-track_article-5

A short time later, Hoosier announced it planned to step away from Sprint Cup Series racing with an open letter:

“Plans are being enacted for the immediate withdrawal of Hoosier Racing Tire Corp. from NASCAR Winston Cup competition.

“In these days of a global economy filled with giant corporations, it is difficult for the small guy to be recognized. Racing is about setting goals and achieving them. It is about individuals uniting in small teams to measure their personal worth and to measure themselves against the best.

“We at Hoosier Racing Tire Corp. are such a team. Even though we are considered the world’s smallest tire manufacturer we compete with the world’s largest to demonstrate that the small guy can also be a winner.

”We’ve won some battles and lost some, but it was never a war. Just good competition. Years ago we established a goal of excellence, to manufacture the very best racing tires we possibly could with our available resources. The pursuit of this goal has brought us many victories, including the World 600 at Charlotte, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona and the 1989 Daytona 500.

“A tremendous amount of growth has followed and because we are a small company with limited resources we must measure each expense and activity to maintain a growing future.

“Some individuals will look back at our involvement and exploit the negative. We hope the wise individual will view our involvement as a small team of people in pursuit of excellence; not perfect, just trying to be as good as we can possibly be.

“We would like to thank NASCAR and all of the race teams for the opportunity to compete in this series and wish them continued success.”

Lawrence and Lind have two different views on the 1989 victory at North Wilkesboro. “Winning the first race on radials that was pretty cool, the Goodyear people actually loved it,” Lawrence said.

As for Lind, he said “Was it a special race to go win because it was the first race on radials? Hell, to us it was just another race to go and win. Coincidentally, it was the first one on radials.”

The Chevrolet Lumina sits untouched from that day in the RCR Museum. This also marked the final race for the Monte Carlo Coup body style.