There are three things you don’t mess with in NASCAR: engines, fuel and tires.
Tuesday, NASCAR handed down a P5 penalty – the penultimate penalty on the books – to Ryan Newman’s 31 team. Crew Chief Luke Lambert was suspended six races, fined $125,000, and Newman and his owner Richard Childress were each docked 75 points. The tire specialist and team engineer were suspended for six races as well. RCR is appealing the penalty, but I wager they’ve got an uphill battle.
NASCAR’s made its stand loud and clear in the last few weeks. Tire bleeding will not be allowed. If you persist in trying, they’ll come down hard on you.
Why Would You Bleed Tires?
The hotter the gas inside a tire gets, the higher the tire pressure gets (says the ideal gas law).
The tire volume changes a little with temperature and pressure, but it’s not a huge change. If you were doing actual calculations to use in a race, you wouldn’t ignore it. For us, it’ll be good enough to approximate that the volume remains constant. The equation tells us then that the ratio of pressure to temperature has to stay the same. If the temperature goes up, the pressure goes up, and vice-versa.
The video below (from the National Science Foundation) details how and why the tire pressure increases. Steve Letarte is a nice person and a very clear explainer of things. I look forward to seeing how he does when NBC takes over broadcasting NASCAR later this year.
The main problem with changing tire pressures is that grip depends on tire pressure – a lot. If the tire pressure is too low, you lose energy to rolling resistance. If the tire pressure is too high, the sides of the tread pull away from the track, giving you a smaller contact patch and less grip.
Tire builds can be significant. At some tracks, you might see a 35 psi change in tire pressure. A large build means teams have to start a run with very low tire pressure – 8-10 psi at some tracks. If you look at a car at Martinsville waiting to go out on track, it’ll appear as thought it has flat tires.
Bleeding tires prevents the tire build (increase in pressure) from getting too large by releasing some of the pressure once the tire pressure reaches some value.
Wait… Like a Pop-Off Valve?
This is the same principle teams use in the radiator systems. Put water into a closed metal tube and heat it. We call that “a bomb”. As the liquid gets warm, it turns into gas, the gas pressure increases and eventually the gas inside pushes so hard it breaks the radiator or the tubing in the cooling system.
So we use a little valve called a pop-off valve on the radiator. When you see steam pouring out from near the bottom of the windshield, it means the pop-off valve has popped. The video below explains the pop-off valve in the cooling system.
That’s a great idea, right? They ought to make something like that for tires, so that the tires can’t get overinflated.
They do. It’s called a tire bleed valve. Shown at left, you install it in the valve stem of the tire. Most are adjustable between some range of pressures.
An o-ring sits atop a spring. When the pressure is low enough (left), the spring is relaxed. The o-ring forms a seal on the valve seat,which holds in the air.
When the pressure inside the tire increases past a pre-set value, the spring compresses and unseats the o-ring. Notice how by where it says “no seal” the o-ring doesn’t touch the sides of the valve anymore . This gives air a path to escape. As soon as enough air has escaped so that the pressure returns to the maximum value, the spring relaxes and the valve closes. There’s less air in the tire, which allows the pressure to remain lower.
Seems Like the Perfect Solution. So…?
So bleed valves (or tire pressure relief valves) aren’t legal in NASCAR. However much nitrogen you put into the tire is how much you have and the driver is supposed to deal with the changes in the tire pressure. The harder you drive the tire, the hotter it gets, so having a way to relieve pressure gives the driver the option of pushing the car harder than a driver who is limited by the building tire pressure.
The scuttlebutt around the garage is that the tires on the 31 had small holes poked in the sidewalls. Rubber is stretchy enough that you can get a tiny, tiny puncture and it won’t open up a gaping hole that lets all the air out of your tire. The rubber on the sidewall is thinner than the rubber on the tread, so a pin prick or something similar would do the job.
The disadvantage of this method is that it’s totally random. With a bleeder valve, you can set it to go off at 35 psi and you know it won’t let any air out until 35 psi. With something like poking tiny holes in the tire, you have to guess at the number and placement of holes so that you don’t let out too much or too little. There’s also a safety issue, in that your well-intentioned “tiny” hole might actually do more damage than you intended – or noticed until the right front below out going 180 mph into a turn.
Plus, one of the fundamental tenets of NASCAR is that you do not mess with the tires. It’s bad from a sportsmanship angle and from a safety angle.
How would you tell? The easiest way to find out if there are tiny holes in the tire is to over pressure the tire (maybe fill it up to 50 psi) and toss it in a bathtub or a swimming pool. If there are holes, you’ll see air bubbles coming out from the holes. (We actually used to use this technique to find big leaks in our vacuum chambers.) If you can’t submerge the tire, you can overpressure the tire and then squirt a little soapy water on the suspicious areas. You’ll see bubbles (from the soap) appearing near the holes.
If you want to be really pedantic about it, you can look at the material under a microscope once you’ve narrowed down where you suspect the holes might be located.
Can You Really Be Sure Someone Cheated?
There are a lot of things that could put a hole in a tire. But not the same size/shape hole multiple times in multiple tires. NASCAR is pretty cautious about not nailing people without solid evidence. I will be majorly surprised if RCR wins their appeal. That’s not to say upholding the penalty means there was a plan by the team to cheat the tires that way. It could have been one person thinking they were helping and the folks who got fined knew nothing about it. Science says nothing about intention or motive.