[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Grassroots Motorsports, back when Bob Woodman Tires was still in business.]
Although the term “street tire” is stretched quite thin when it comes to the current crop of R-compound DOT track and autocross tires, there’s still a big difference between those nearly bald gumballs and true racing slicks.
Tip 1: Harness Heat
Both DOT tires and slicks need a certain amount of tire temperature to work properly. However, slicks are much less forgiving of too little or too much heat. Each manufacturer has a desired operating range for particular tire compounds.
DOT tires tend to be a little more forgiving when cold—especially in autocross compounds, which are designed to work at near-ambient levels of heat. Slicks, on the other hand, don’t work well at all until they reach their minimum operating temp.
Both slicks and DOT tires suffer a lack of grip when overheated, but slicks can also suffer structural damage when they get too hot. This overheating can dramatically shorten the life of the tire or even lead to premature failure.
Tip 2: Apply Pressure
Proper tire pressures are always critical, but just as with tire temps, slicks are much less forgiving of improper pressures than DOT tires. (You may be seeing a theme here.)
This difference is due partially to how racing slicks are constructed, but also to the fact that a slick-shod car typically sports very high spring and damper rates, making for a very stiff chassis. Tire sidewall deflection then becomes a measurable factor in the total spring rate, making pressure that much more important.
Woodman also cautions that he often sees tire pressures that are too low. As with too much heat, this can lead to disaster. Better to start high and work your way down than the other way around.
Tip 3: Monitor Tire Temperatures
Most of what you learned about tire tuning applies to slicks: You’ll still be looking for even tire temps across the tread face when tuning the suspension.
One caveat, though: Some radial-construction slicks produce their best grip when displaying a little more heat on the inside edges. High temps in the center of the tread usually mean tire pressures are too high, while higher temps on one edge or the other are usually the function of wheel camber. This logic applies to both DOT tires and slicks, by the way.
Tip 4: Expect More Grip—to a Point
Slicks can be less forgiving on track, too, but not in the ways you might think. Slicks generally have a very high contact patch-to-weight ratio, so lateral grip will certainly be greatly improved.
Because you’re operating at higher cornering levels, however, breakaway can seem that much more abrupt. However, most good modern slicks are rather predictable when kept within their ideal operating temperatures.
Braking performance can actually be the biggest difference between DOT tires and slicks. Despite their additional grip, slicks usually have a much lower weight than similarly sized DOT tires, giving them less rotational inertia and making brake lockup less predictable. Non-ABS cars will have a tendency to flat-spot slicks, especially with an inexperienced driver just making the transition from DOT tires.
Tip 5: Track Tire Wear
Just like DOT tires, tire wear removes rubber from the tread surface of slicks. As a result, the tread gets thinner with use.
Most slicks have molded-in dimples that make tire wear measurable, however. This feature is extremely valuable for monitoring their health.
Like uneven tire temps, uneven wear across the tread face can indicate the need for chassis adjustments. Wear rate can also give you an indication of overall tire health. For example, our light Formula 500 will probably never wear a set of tires down to the cord before they get heat-cycled to the point where they’re no longer effective.
Wear rates should be consistent throughout the competitive life of the tire. If you notice a tire not wearing as much over a given amount of track time, that means it’s getting harder and therefore less sticky.
Tip 6: Beef Up the Chassis
If all you do is slap on some slicks, you’re not getting nearly the full benefit. Thanks to their highly grippy nature, slicks like a solid, predictable platform. Also, because of that same grip, you’ll be putting loads into your chassis that it never experienced on DOT tires. So chassis preparation becomes highly important, since you want to eliminate as many variables as possible.
In a production-based car, this usually means bushings are your weak link—and they’ll probably cause the most frustration when you’re making the swap. The grip from slicks can deflect OEM bushings far past the point where they can maintain stable alignment. In fact, slicks can push OEM bushings far enough that they risk failure or structural breakdown. A switch to slicks should also mean a switch away from rubber bushings as much as your rules package permits.
Since slicks allow for such high grip levels and quick reaction times, chances are you’ll need to retune the chassis to take full advantage of all this new tire capability. Luckily, the same techniques you used to tune your chassis on DOT tires—measuring tire temps, recording segment times and using data acquisition—transfer over nicely to slicks.
Just understand the importance of a solid platform and develop from there to find the right setup. It may be as simple as changing springs and shock settings, or it may take a lot of tuning. Long story short: This should not be a mid-season change. Make the jump to slicks when you can devote time to proper testing.
Tip 7: Properly Store Your Slicks
Don’t ruin those fancy slicks between races. Improper storage is one of the most significant limiting factors in their shelf life.
Two of the biggest killers of rubber are UV light and ozone. Of course, you can’t do much about these factors at an outdoor event, but away from the track it’s a different story. Slicks should be stored at moderate temperatures and away from UV light and ozone.
Place slicks in thick, black, plastic garbage bags to reduce UV exposure, and keep them away from ozone-generating devices like arc welders and heavy-duty electric motors. Never allow slicks to freeze—if they do, you should probably retire them.