Tires may not seem like a motorcycle modification, but using the right tires can drastically change and improve the characteristics and capabilities of any bike at the track or on the street. The sport touring tires that come on the Kawasaki Ninja 650 or the Suzuki SV650 are not all that bad for the street or first time track goer, but when it comes to becoming regular track junkie or riding a bit more aggressively on the street (something I don’t recommend or support), you will reach the limits of the sport touring tires quickly, and they will leave you wanting more. Dunlop, Pirelli, Michelin, and Trojan all make a great street worthy rubbers which will work great for your first season or two of track days, and will provide more confidence and safety on the street as well. Dunlop provides the Q3, Pirelli provides the Diablo Supercorsa SP, and Michelin provides the Pilot Power 3.
At this point I will emphasize that using a DOT “race tire” on the street is not recommended. Most street riding will not get the tire up to the proper temperature to provide the amount and type of traction the tire was intended to provide, and in most cases would only perform marginally compared to a tire that was made for the street. I hope I made that clear enough.
Finding DOT rated “race tires” for super sports (600cc and liter bikes) is much easier than it is for our 650s, and the selection for the super sports is much broader. More people race these classes in the U.S. and it makes more economical sense for a company to provide tires to a class that has a higher demand and will be more profitable. There is one brand Pirelli which makes an exceptional DOT race tire for our 650s (it is the Pirelli Supercorsa SC) in the 160 17 size. I am not brand partial, but I have hit the ceiling when it comes to my Dunlop Q3s and will be making the move to Pirelli. I was quite happy with my Dunlop Q3s as novice track day goer (still novice in my mind), and learned quite a bit using them.
Switching tire brands is not as easy as it may seem. Different brands (not just size or model) require a different geometry and suspension setup. It requires a different setup not only because of the tire size, height, profile, or circumference, but also because of the amount of flex that the tire carcass provides. We will touch more on this in suspension and geometry setup in the upcoming months.
So what about slicks?
Like most race tires, contacting and buying from the local track vendor is the best bet. The vendor has to put his kids through college too. But here is a word of advice even though most venders carry a vast selection of tires. Most do not carry that vast collection to the track and they (the vendor) would fully appreciate it if you order your tires in advance before the event, so they can have your tire on hand. This not only makes it easy on the vendor, it also ensures you get the tire you want or need. I can fully support buying tires at the track. 99% of track day providers will have a tire vendor onsite to sell tires. When you buy the tires at the track, the vendor will usually provide the change and balance for free. Be courteous to this guy, chances are he can probably clean house on the track and offer some good advice.
The only thing you need to do is, remove the wheels. Some vendors might do this for you but having the knowledge and tools to take the wheels off and put them back on is a must for any motorcyclist, and the tools needed to pull the wheels off should be the second thing to go into your track day toolbox (the maintenance manual should be the first). This will not only save you labor costs but will give you the confidence when it comes time to remove the wheels, get the rubber swapped, and back out on the track without in a timely fashion without missing a beat.
Every manufacture has a different tire pressure recommendation. Your street pressures WILL NOT work on the track. Track pressures will be much lower. The tire manufactures website should have street and track tire pressures, hot or cold listed on their website. The tire vendor at the track can also give you recommendations. Using a quality tire pressure gauge is very important when checking your pressure. My experience with the Q3s that I ran, I ran them around 28 – 29 PSI cold and those pressures worked best for me. I used a lower pressure, 26 or 27 PSI cold on colder days so I could get the tire up to temperature. This lower pressure caused the tire carcass to flex more which generated more heat. The flexing of the tire loading and unloading under braking and acceleration and hard cornering is what generates the heat. DO NOT swerve back and forth during pit out, this only confuses the rider behind you (me) and accomplishes nothing (does not warm up the tires).
A simple way to dial in your tire pressure is to start at around 32 psi on warmer days, 60deg F plus or start at 29 psi 60deg or below. Go out on your first session and get warmed up, after the 3rd lap start pushing a bit harder trying to get the tires to flex and work. (remember the carcass flexing and working under load, both braking and accelerating is what warms the tire). Once the session is over, get your bike up on your rear stand, pull a glove off, and check the tire temp with the palm of your hand immediately. If they are just mildly warm, you did not get them up to temp. Holding your hand on the tire should be slightly uncomfortable. If they are not warm enough, drop a psi or two and try again. If you come in and the tires are HOT to the touch and the rubber looks like it is boiling and turning a bluish color at the edges, chances are, they are to hot and need to have a psi or two added.
Pay attention to your tire pressure throughout the day. I have seen a 4 psi rise from morning to after lunch. It is best practice to check it regularly throughout the day, after every 1 or 2 sessions. While you are checking tire pressure it is also a good idea to look at tire wear. Tire wear will give you an indication on suspension settings. Tire wear and suspension settings will be discussed in the upcoming months.
Heat Cycling, Kills Tires Dead, Like Old Age
Here is a story about a guy named Jon. Jon bought 2 brand new Dunlop Q3s for his first track day on his new to him 2006 R6 trackride. Jon was a novice and thus he didn’t need tire warmers. The last track day during the second to last session of the season Jon crashed. He wasn’t going any faster than he usually went, he didn’t try a different line, the front wheel just tucked and he slammed to the ground in a lowside and he continued to do landscaping and lawn work on the outside of turn 3 until he came to a stop from sliding on his ass, stood up, and watched everyone else to continue to have a good time. When Jon got back to the pits we wondered WTF happened. His tires had cooled, but the tires were rock hard, harder than they were brand new, almost like someone was rubbing on them.
Constantly heating and cooling a tire over and over again takes its toll on the rubber. It becomes hard, and a hard tire loses grip (obvious), even when hot. I think it was Jon’s 10th track day that year, with 8 or 9 sessions per day. The tires had been heated and cooled 80 or more times throughout the season. The tires were just about wore out and would have been changed that winter.
Even though they are not required for the Q3s and Jon was a novice, I feel that tire warmers may have reduced the number of heat cycles and saved this set of tires for a couple more laps and prevented a crash. If you plan to do track days, tire warmers are not required, nor are they needed, but if you find yourself doing 6 or more track days your first year it’s probably wise, and better to get them sooner than later and save yourself the headache of worrying about the number of heat cycling your tires have. Besides going out with warm tires after being on the warmers will give you 1 or 2 more laps riding at 80% or 85% each session.
Tires that are old will also throw you to the ground. Most manufacturers state that the life span of their tires is no more than 5 years. Even if the tire has ample tread, after 5 years the oils evaporate and dry out the rubber so they get hard, brittle and fatigued (like most everyone). It’s wise to change them when they become old and cratchety.
We have only touched on the subject of tires and there is more to learn, but this information should get you started or refresh a few things that have been forgotten.