What Type of Track Day Tires Should I Buy?

by Andy Lee / / June 28, 2021

If you ever want to start an endless debate at your next track day event, just ask a couple of drivers what type of tires you should buy.  Then buckle in for an exchange of opinions that will rival the last presidential election.

Because you will likely leave those conversations with more confusion than solutions, I thought it would be helpful to share a few tips I’ve learned over the years - not only about what HPDE track day tires to buy, but how to inspect and take care of them.  

Pre-Tire Purchase Considerations:

Driver Experience Level

When I learned how to drive on track I spent most of my time on good old street tires and there are many advantages to going this route.  1 - they last a little longer than some DOTs or Slicks.  2 - oftentimes, they are cheaper and easier to find.  3 - they make you a more disciplined driver by severely punishing your lap time when you make mistakes.  4 - they give the driver advanced warning when they're at the limit of grip (i.e. squeals and howls that echo through your car's cabin.  

Of course, as you become more experienced, you’ll notice the street tires leave a lot to be desired.  Once you have a season or two of track days under your belt, you might consider stepping up to a DOT tire or a semi-slick.  This is a good middle ground if you're still driving your track day car to the track and back home again at the end of the day.  These tires were designed for track use so you can get away with running lower pressures without risking safety.  However, depending on the brand you buy, you may not notice a huge difference in performance.  On multiple occasions I’ve run faster times on super sticky street tires over DOTs.  It's important to do your research on rubber compounds.  The harder the compound, the more it will perform like an all-season street tire.  Softer compounds will make you feel like Lewis Hamilton but they wear out twice as fast!

Track Day Tire Transport

If you’ve been at this game for a long time, it's likely that you made the switch to full-slicks and once you’ve taken that leap- driving on anything less becomes a disappointment.  Unfortunately, this is where your track day budget gets blown to smithereens.  Now you need to bring an extra set of wheels to the track or buy a trailer to transport your car.  Of course, this now means you need a truck or a small trailer to haul your wheels.  I’ve also seen a few people who simply remove the passenger seat in order to fit their slick-mounted wheels in the car.  You’re also gonna need to bring tools and a jack now.  Is all this effort worth it?  Maybe; that's up to you to decide.  If you're only going to the track every once in a while, my personal preference would be a sticky set of street tires or a DOT tire so I can spend more time on track vs. spending time in the paddock, changing wheels and/or loading and unloading my car off a trailer.

Tire Age: Buyer Beware

Be cautious of a good deal on tires.  Tire shops will occasionally offer a smoking price on a set of tires because they have been sitting on a shelf for five years and the rubber is close to being past its expiration date - translation: they’ll wear out faster than a #2 pencil eraser and grip will be sub-standard.  Old tires - even if they’ve never been installed on a vehicle - are more prone to failures, such as tread separation.  Every street legal tire has a DOT number stamped into the sidewall.  Typically, the last four digits of this code are the date of manufacture.  For example, if the last four digits are “5018”, that would mean the tire was made on the 50th week of 2018.  The newer or fresher the tire is, the better it will perform and the safer it's going to be.  I would never consider using a set of tires that are older than five years!  Simply put - why risk yourself or your car over a few hundred dollars in savings.

Tire Size

The outer diameter of the OEM tire is an important part of the algorithm for the ABS and traction control systems in our cars.  Another mistake many drivers make is finding a good deal on tires that fit their rims but they don’t pay any attention to the difference in O.D. size.  I’ve experienced cases where the O.D. size was just different enough that the ABS and traction systems simply deactivated because the wheel speed readings are so out of whack.  Not the situation you want to be in when you’re at the end of a long straight expecting ABS support and end up getting massive wheel lock-up instead!  Again, a little research can save you heartache in the long run.  Stick as close to the original O.D. size as you can.

Driving Region

Consider the region you drive most.  Investing in slicks may be a waste of time if you live in Seattle.  If you're looking at a 50/50 shot of rain every time you're headed to the track, then a sticky set of treaded street or DOT tires would be a better option.  Also, if you plan on driving in the rain, you’ll want the softest rubber compound you can find.  Harder compound, all-season tires will cut through puddles in a straight line but will not be able to generate any lateral stability.

Track Day Tire Inspection & Maintenance

Tire Pressure

The largest budget line item for any track day enthusiast is tires.  Getting the most out of each set is important.  If you want to put yourself in a state of utter confusion, just ask any driver in the paddock what track day tire pressures they recommend.  Every car and tire combo is going to have different needs.  Finding the correct pressure is dependent on things like vehicle weight, type of tire, ambient temp, and whether or not you are filling the tires with air or nitrogen.  Another factor that’s important is how aggressive of a driver you are.  More aggressive drivers will need to start at a lower cold pressure because they’ll generate more heat in the tires than someone who just started.  If it's your first track day event, you’ll want to set your cold pressures higher because new drivers typically struggle just to get the tires warm enough to start sticking.  I highly suggest using the tire manufacturer’s recommendation for pressures, then adjust a psi or two to fit your liking.

INSPECT, INSPECT, INSPECT

If you haven't already watched the video included with this article, take the time to do so before continuing with this next section.  

The scary thing about the tire on the Viper in the video is that the owner almost went out on track just moments before I noticed the exposed cords through the vent in the fender.  I just happened to be walking by and stopped him.  Even scarier is that this is not a rare occurrence.  On multiple occasions, I’ve stopped someone from going out on track with a tire that is mere moments away from failing!!! 

CHECK YOUR TIRES BEFORE EVERY SESSION!  

Just because they looked good in the morning, don’t assume they’ll be fine after lunch.  Tires are the only thing keeping you glued to the pavement and when they fail, there may not be much you can do.  I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but as you're getting ready for your session - get down on your hands and knees and look ACROSS THE ENTIRE TREAD SURFACE!  I see rushed drivers who don’t look at all or quickly run around their car, just checking the outer edges before heading out on track.

TRACK DAY TIRES - In Summary

TIRE PURCHASE TIPS & MAINTENANCE RECOMMENDATIONS RECAP

Before purchasing tires, consider: 
            • Your experience level
            • How you plan to transport your car to the track
            • Type of weather you might encounter
            • Remember: The softer the rubber compound, the better the grip is going to be but super sticky, soft tires will wear out very quickly.
            • DOT tires are not always better than street tires.  It just comes down to rubber compounds most of the time.
            • Stay as close to the OEM tire (outer diameter) as possible so that ABS and traction systems will continue to operate properly
            • INSPECT YOUR TIRES BEFORE EVERY SESSION  
                      • Check the entire tread section, outside edge to inside edge

I have a feeling this post will generate more questions so please leave a comment and we’ll dig deeper into this topic in the future, but hopefully this gives you some food for thought when making your next tire purchase or inspecting your current set for the next event. If you do have any questions, please leave them in the comments below!

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