Every professional motorcycle racer has a small obsession largely unknown to street and track riders, and even to ardent racing fans. That obsession is tires.
For the casual rider, getting a set of good quality tires and checking them before you ride is just part of routine motorcycle maintenance. For safety reasons, you replace them when there’s not much tread left. Some folks even wait until the metal cords show, they get a flat spot, or are just plain old.
Don’t be that person. You don’t have to obsess like a pro, but maybe understanding just how much thought and effort a pro racer puts into tires will convince you that they are one of the most important and overlooked elements of your bike.
I didn’t start out paying much attention to tires at all, but as I progressed in my career and rode bigger and more powerful bikes, I found myself learning more and more about these seemingly simple circles of black rubber.
Tire knowledge is essential for tire strategy. Picking the wrong tire can cost you the race, as happened to me at MotoAmerica at Laguna Seca in 2015. It had been raining off and on prior to the race, and I chose to go with a full rain tire because there was still standing water on the track.
A rain tire has a tread that funnels water away from the tire surface so a contact patch remains and you don’t hydroplane. It’s perfect for wet conditions, but the problem is, once the track dries these rain tires get heated up too much, and they essentially fall apart, making for a disastrous race.
Even though the weather at Laguna was clearing, I thought it might keep raining intermittently. Many of the other riders saw it differently and chose an intermediate tire. I was quick in the beginning when the track was still very wet, but faded when the track started drying and everyone else had more grip than I did.
You have to be smart about tires to make the right choices on race day, and also to be a smart tire buyer, because tires are a major expense for racers.
In any given race weekend, you’ll go through somewhere between 14 and 16 tires–a new set per practice session, one front and two rears for each qualifying session, and one new set for each race. At about $350/set, you’re looking at a hefty bill of over $2400 each race weekend, or $24,000 over the course of the 10-race MotoAmerica season.
That doesn’t even include the tires you go through on testing or practice days, or the cost of keeping stock on hand, because you always need options to choose from.
The obsession begins
That’s a far cry from when I was a kid coming up through the ranks. My dad and I didn’t really know what we were doing back then. Riding small bikes at 40 or 50 mph, tires didn’t matter so much. I would just ride and ride until my dad changed my tires. We bought whatever tires were the cheapest, or from the vendor who gave us the most help. The tires didn’t wear out that quickly, and we only replaced them a few times a year.
That all changed when I was 14, and I got onto the Kawasaki ZX-6. This was a very powerful machine that would spit you off really quickly if you didn’t have everything just right. At the top of the list of everything was tires, so I began to learn all I could.
Over the next couple of years, through practice and experimentation, I learned so much about the differences in brands, compounds, and pressures. This really prepared me for when I moved up to the professional ranks in 2010.
The quest is to find the tire that has the best grip, over the longest period of time. Grip is a function of contact patch, and contact patch is a function of tire compound and tire pressure, combined with track condition and your riding style. To get the best grip for the longest time, you have to choose the right tire to begin with, and then manage it properly for peak performance.
Learning my tires
I learned how different rubber compounds (hard, medium and soft) would make tires behave in various temperature and track conditions. The colder the track surface, the harder the tire should be, and vice versa.
If you run a soft tire in cold conditions, for example, it will “cold tear.” When you stand the bike up a bit from full lean angle and get on the gas hard, the tire tries to grip but instead starts to shred around the perimeter about an inch or two away from the edge of the tire. This leads to a decrease in grip quickly, and when you’re taking corners at over 100 mph, the tire can be completely done in a handful of laps.
When you use a harder tire in warmer temperature, you won’t have as much grip as you would with a softer tire, and you’ll have to live with the motorcycle sliding around a lot.
As I began to experiment, I found that Pirelli tires had a “squishy” feel and TONS of grip, but couldn’t last more than one short distance race before the grip started dropping off. This was back in 2009, when they were built with a softer carcass, and a harder outer tread. The soft carcass allowed for a greater contact patch, but the harder tread would get torn up quickly, especially in hotter conditions, and grip levels would decrease noticeably. They were incredible for short amateur races, but riders at the professional level struggled with them.
I eventually settled on Dunlops, because they were an all around great tire, not quite as grippy as fresh Pirellis, but would last longer before the grip started tapering off.
Tire decisions don’t end with tire selection. Tire pressure is a key factor in performance, and something you have to tweak constantly. When you’re racing at nearly 200 mph, one or two PSI (pounds per square inch) can make an incredible difference between a tire that’s performing well, or one that is sliding or chattering.
The lower the pressure, the softer your tire is on the track, and the more grip you’ll get. But, there’s a limit to how low you can go. When you load the tire under braking or acceleration, the tire contact patch becomes bigger. At lower pressures, it grows even more. A bigger contact patch equals more grip, but there’s only so far you can go with that until you run into other problems, such as chatter.
What is chatter? Imagine holding a mini jackhammer while riding. Certainly not the most settling feeling! To fix this problem, you add a couple PSI until it goes away. But you have to be careful –if you go too far the opposite happens: The harder tire will have smaller contact patch and you will lose grip and slide. Racers probably adjust their tire pressure half a dozen times on race day, sometimes by as little as half a PSI,
Keeping it warm
Tire temperature is also key to the performance and life of the tire, and racers obsess over getting and keeping our tires warm.
We always do warm up laps to bring the tires to temperature. That’s pretty basic, but what many people may not know is the lengths we go to maintain tire temperature before the race using tire warmers.
These are essential if you’re riding on the track. Not only can they get your tires up to temperature so you can leave pit lane completely ready to go, but they also increase tire life. When your tire’s temperature fluctuates, it not only changes the performance, it substantially decreases its life. So, once those babies are warm, we go to great lengths to keep them warm.
If at any point I have to wait on pre-grid to go out on track for more than a minute or two, I freak out a little inside. I know that not only are my tires losing heat, but their grip life is fading away. It’s not such a big deal when the tire is brand new, but once it’s done some laps, you must keep it as hot as possible to keep its life going. During a race that’s been red flagged, tire temperature can become a factor in the race. This is why you see team members rushing to get the tire warmers back on the bike and going during the delay.
For my street riders, I want to give you something to leave with. You don’t need to obsess about tires like at the pro level, but you still need to think about the same two things: Grip, and tire life.
Depending on your speed, the contact patch is, at most, the size of a silver dollar. Think about it for a second. In the middle of a corner, that contact patch is the only thing on your motorcycle keeping you from crashing. If your tire is worn out, or has been sitting around for a while, or has the wrong pressure or low levels of tread left, it’s not going to have optimal grip, thus raising your risk substantially.
Don’t be that rider laying on the side of the road in the gravel with cords showing. Check your tires every time you ride, and replace them often. It’s the cheapest insurance money can buy!