NASCAR: What is a Tire Dragon, and why are they using it at Texas?

Image courtesy of Texas Motor Speedway (via YouTube)
Image courtesy of Texas Motor Speedway (via YouTube) /

It doesn’t breathe fire or have wings, but the Tire Dragon is a real thing that some NASCAR tracks use. We tell you why.

If you’ve watched NASCAR for even a few weeks, you’ve no doubt heard about rubber being laid down on a track or washed off of it when it rains. Put simply, the tires on race cars shed some of their rubber with each lap run, pressed into the asphalt or concrete by the weight and heat of the vehicles. When there aren’t enough laps run to have any rubber built up, that’s when tracks call in the Tire Dragon.

Yep, that’s a real thing. The Tire Dragon, which got its name at Kentucky Speedway, is a sled pulled by a tractor with four rows of tires on it. As the tractor goes around a track, the tires on the Tire Dragon rotate in the opposite direction (to avoid flat-spotting, as explained here) and lay down rubber.

Why would tracks want to do this? Quite simply, brand new or repaved racing surfaces don’t have much grip until there are races run there, because smooth asphalt has a lot less traction than a surface that’s been raced on for some time. What this means is that after a repave, racing has a tendency to become a single-groove affair as the lead cars lay down rubber, everyone follows them, and there’s a bit of a vicious circle as that is the only lane where there’s any grip until there’s some wear in the surface over time.

To combat this trend, tracks use vehicles like the Tire Dragon to selectively apply more rubber and try to make it possible for cars to run in more grooves. It’s an alternative to using a traction compound like VHT or TrackBite, which is the solution preferred by some facilities.

For this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, you’ll probably hear about the Tire Dragon and a similar but larger contraption called the Tire Monster. Both pieces of equipment are said to have been used in the run-up to this particular NASCAR visit.

That’s because Texas Motor Speedway was repaved following the 2016 NASCAR season, and so far has only had two race weekends since then (plus an IndyCar race). In racing terms, that’s barely any time to get multiple grooves the natural way, so the Tire Dragon is an attempt to accelerate the process.

Will it work? That remains to be seen, but it’s clear that both tracks and drivers feel it can’t hurt, so expect to hear much more about it this weekend and beyond.