Radial revolution: Fond memories for Goodyear's first radial-tire win at North Wilkesboro

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — When Dale Earnhardt won at North Wilkesboro Speedway on April 16, 1989, the left side of his black No. 3 Chevrolet showed evidence of battle scars and scrapes in true “Intimidator” form. The Goodyear logos were nearly worn clean off the left-front tire’s sidewall, but the rubber his Richard Childress Racing entry sported was still far from nondescript.

Earnhardt’s victory here 34 years ago in the First Union 400 was significant as the first win for Goodyear radials. The new tire design replaced the former bias-ply construction and proved to be a pivotal point in the “tire wars” era at the end of the 1980s.

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The NASCAR Cup Series’ return to North Wilkesboro after a 27-year absence has kindled plenty of nostalgia ahead of Sunday’s All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). But it’s also stoked some fond memories for Greg Stucker, the tiremaker’s director of race tire sales.

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“Obviously, we learned a lot going into that, and things have changed dramatically since then,” says Stucker, who joined Goodyear’s team in 1979. “But it was a pretty good introduction for the radial tire package, without a doubt. So that’s why North Wilkesboro kind of has a really soft spot in our heart.”

Goodyear had competition for the 1988 and the start of the ’89 season in the form of Hoosier Tires, led by president Bob Newton. The Indiana-based company took on its neighbors from Akron, but the resulting arms race for better on-track performance often came at the cost of durability. Teams often switched alliances depending on which tire was faster, and blowouts led to crashes, which carried far more peril in those days before SAFER barriers and HANS devices.

“That’s what eventually led to us being the sole supplier in 1997,” Stucker says. “I think Bill (France) Jr. said that tire wars are not a good thing for everybody. So it was, let’s move on.”

Goodyear helped to make that transition with the development of a racing radial tire, which has a centered construction around the crown of the tire versus the angled, overlapping ply structure of the bias-ply tires. Goodyear had planned their rollout for the ’89 Daytona 500, but the durability component hadn’t been perfected; Earnhardt and Ford rival Bill Elliott were involved in a pair of crashes before “The Great American Race,” and Goodyear reworked the design.

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“We came here to test in preparation for the spring race and tested with Junior — imagine that. Terry Labonte drove for Junior Johnson because they obviously knew the track so well,” Stucker recalled of the test just a few weeks before the race. “And we came with what we thought was going to be the right setup.”

MORE: What to Watch: North Wilkesboro

The team built up to 100-lap runs, eventually trying a configuration that eliminated rear stagger, placing a harder-compound right-side tire on the left-rear. The feedback was positive, and Stucker remembers the lap times being consistent and fast.

Despite some apprehension that the radials had less adjustability, Goodyear stayed with the setup once April arrived in North Wilkesboro. There was also skepticism from the Hoosier camp, which doubted that the radial design would work on heavy stock cars, especially at larger ovals.

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That distrust was answered by Phil Holmer, Goodyear’s stock-car field manager at the time, who told the Associated Press before the North Wilkesboro race that April: “By the time the leaves turn color, we’ll be using them everywhere.”

The race was a forerunner to proving that point. Rusty Wallace won the pole position on Hoosiers, with his crew chief Barry Dodson favoring them after a North Wilkesboro win on those tires the previous fall. But many were undecided, even during the race weekend, and the 32-car field was a nearly even split — 17 starting on Goodyears and 15 on Hoosiers.

The great Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer wrote that the race’s results had potentially revolutionized the Cup Series, calling it a “radial rout.” Earnhardt led 296 laps, holding off Alan Kulwicki down the stretch. Wallace’s Hoosiers gave way, and by Lap 77, he had gone a lap down to early leader Darrell Waltrip on Goodyears. By Lap 110, all 31 cars that were still running had bolted on Goodyear rubber.

Goodyear continued to develop its radial design, phasing them in at larger tracks as the season went on. But North Wilkesboro was a turning point; Hoosier withdrew by the end of April and only made a brief return to NASCAR’s top series in 1994.

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“There was really no specific reason that we chose North Wilkesboro other than it was the right time on the calendar, the right-size tire, the right-sized race track,” Stucker said. We decided to step into the short tracks, and then it progressed from there.”

A tire technician checks out Cup Series tires for Stewart-Haas Racing on the pit road at North Wilkesboro Speedway
A tire technician checks out Cup Series tires for Stewart-Haas Racing on the pit road at North Wilkesboro Speedway

The progression of the sport has made a full-circle trip back to North Wilkesboro for this weekend’s All-Star Race. The invitational event will be held on the same racing surface that Earnhardt won on; fresh asphalt was last placed on the 0.625-mile track in 1981.

The abrasive surface and tight confines, Stucker says, are expected to provide a tire-management challenge. Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series teams tested here in March to get a feel for the considerable wear, and Goodyear officials scanned the surface to find a common connection with other established tracks — the comparison wound up being similar to Atlanta’s old pavement and current-day Darlington.

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“We landed on the Richmond and Phoenix setup. That was our control,” Stucker says, noting that Goodyear went with more durability than the Martinsville configuration. “We tried softer, harder, left sides, right sides, and that just seemed to be in the sweet spot. All three drivers felt like that was a good, reasonable setup. The soft stuff was just way too soft. The hard stuff, it was just hard to get a hold of the race track. …

“We were probably leaning that way anyway because obviously, we’re going to come here to fairly unknown race track for most of these guys, so at least we can give them a tire that they’re familiar with, that they’ve raced before. We felt like that was also a benefit.”

The last time Goodyear’s trucks were parked in the North Wilkesboro infield for a race weekend came in 1996 when the Cup Series last visited the North Carolina foothills. The return is being celebrated as a revival of stock-car racing’s roots. For Stucker and Co., it’s also a reminder of a key part of Goodyear’s racing history.

“If you look back on 1988, you know, we both crossed the line at times, right?” Stucker says. “I think we learned a lot, and we certainly figured out with a radial tire that the tire can be much more robust in a lot of ways than the bias tire was. I think we felt like that also gave us an edge.”