“Tiregate” Scandal Rocked NASCAR in ‘98
by Tom Jensen August 24, 2020
This week in NASCAR History: A battle of the sport’s best turned into brouhaha over alleged tire soaking.
August 30, 1998
One of the most contentious NASCAR competitor debates in years broke out between future Hall of Famers following the 1998 Farm Aid on CMT 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway (now New Hampshire Motor Speedway), where Mark Martin (2017) led 193 of 300 laps but wound up finishing second to Jeff Gordon (2019).
After running mid-pack early in the race, Gordon took just two tires while Martin and the other top contenders all took four during a late caution. With just two new tires, Gordon was able to outrun the field to lead the final 67 laps and win for the sixth time in eight races, while Martin finished second for the fifth time during that period. The victory paid a cool $205,400 for Gordon and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 team.
Incensed at being beaten by the two-tire pit stop, Martin’s team owner, Hall of Famer Jack Roush (2019) went to NASCAR, saying he had received an anonymous package earlier that week, which contained both a can and a bottle filled with liquids, along with a letter. Both containers were marked, “Tire Softener. Undetectable.” The person who sent the package claimed Roush’s competitors were using the tire softener to gain an unfair advantage, a process called soaking the tires. But the sender did not identify which team or teams were supposedly using it.
When applied to the outside of tires, the liquid agent softens the tire surface, which in the short term increases traction, but also makes the tires wear out faster. Tire softeners were legal in some local racing series, but not in NASCAR.
Nevertheless, rumors abounded about magic tire soaking solutions that could make a car a winner, though NASCAR racers viewed such claims with suspicion.
“There’s guys out there, they’re like drug dealers,” said owner/driver Ricky Rudd. “They’re like, ‘Here, I got this for you, I got that for you. I know you guys are having trouble qualifying. Put this on your tires. Soak your tires, I guarantee you’ll win a pole.’”
“Somebody will come out with a new product and it’s usually just snake oil,” said Hall of Famer Robert Yates (2018). “And these salesman [always claimed to have] just come from the shop that just won the last race. They are so full of bulls—t.”
After the New Hampshire race, Roush went to NASCAR with his suspicions and the sanctioning body responded by seizing tires from both Gordon’s car and Martin’s to send to a laboratory for testing. Roush and Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham (2018) ended up in a heated shouting match in the garage, with Evernham yelling, “It’s the air, Jack!” referring to the air in the tires.
In the next few weeks, Roush and Evernham argued in the press, with Roush claiming the tire softener was undetectable and Evernham vigorously denying any wrongdoing. Neither man pulled any punches.
“I would like to think the No. 24 (Gordon’s car) is not soaking their tires, but there is something really incredible going on with regard to how they’re able to do these miraculous late-race recoveries,” said Roush. “ … I am frustrated with being defeated as many times as we have been and it does hurt me a lot.”
“Jack needs to watch the tape and pay attention,” said Evernham. “It disgusts me that a grown man who is supposed to be intelligent isn’t paying attention. I think it’s a statement about how big his ego is. If somebody said the only reason you can beat them is to cheat, what would you think?”
The Tiregate saga drew national attention, in large part because it centered around two of NASCAR’s elite teams, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing (now Roush Fenway Racing). With all the attention, NASCAR took the situation very seriously.
Prior to the next race, the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson, the top competition official in the sport, said the seized tires from both teams came back clean in the first round of tests and were being sent to another lab for even more sophisticated testing.
“What we’re doing now is going as far as a DNA-type test on the tires,” said Nelson. “We are reverse-engineering the tires in a laboratory. We’re taking the tires right back to the rubber tree to see what is in these tires and in what amounts.”
At Darlington, NASCAR changed the procedure for handing out tires, opting not to give them to the teams until right before the race. It made no difference in the results, as Gordon won his record fourth straight Southern 500, while Martin lost an engine and finished 40th.
One week later at Richmond International Raceway, at a joint NASCAR-Goodyear press conference, it was announced that after multiple rigorous laboratory tests, all the tires came up clean and legal. “Tiregate” officially ended, although the hard feelings doubtless lingered long afterwards.
Meanwhile, Gordon went on to win his third NASCAR premier series championship in four years and tie Richard Petty’s Modern Era record of 13 victories in a season. Martin had a great year, too, with seven victories and 22 top-five finishes, but in the end, he finished second in points to Gordon.
The rest of the week in NASCAR history:
August 24, 1991
With a pass of Sterling Marlin on Lap 394, Hall of Famer Alan Kulwicki (2019) took his first lead in the Bud 500 NASCAR premier series race at Bristol International Speedway (now Bristol Motor Speedway). Kulwicki, driving his own AK Racing Ford Thunderbird, held that lead over the final 137 laps to score his third race victory. The $61,400 prize money was the biggest payday of Kulwicki’s career up to that point.
August 25, 2001
In the Sharpie 500, the annual summer night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) passed fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019) on Lap 432 to take a lead he would never relinquish. Driving a Pontiac owned by Joe Gibbs (2020), Stewart earned $189,415 for himself and the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, were Rusty Wallace (2013) and Dale Jarrett (2014).
August 26, 1972
The top four finishers in the Nashville 420 were all Hall of Famers, with winner Bobby Allison (2011) leading 283 of 420 laps at the 0.596-mile Nashville Speedway track to earn $6,925. Second-place finisher Richard Petty (2010) was the only driver besides Allison to finish on the lead lap, as third-place Darrell Waltrip (2012) was 16 laps behind and fourth-place Benny Parsons (2017) was 20 laps in arrears. Just 11 of 28 cars finished the race.
August 27, 1961
Driving a 1960 Pontiac owned by Rex Lovette and sponsored by Holly Farms, Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010) demolished the field on the 0.250-mile South Boston Speedway in Southern Virginia. Johnson made the only pass of the race on Lap 33 and led the final 168 circuits to win the 200-lap event and the $800 first-place money. It was Johnson’s sixth of seven victories on the season.
August 28, 1985
In 1985, Rome, New York, native and Hall of Famer Richie Evans (2012) won 12 of the 28 races he entered in the NASCAR Winston Modified Tour (now Whelen Modified Tour). Among the races Evans won was a 200-lapper on the 0.250-mile Riverhead (New York) Raceway, where he started ninth but rallied to best the 25-car field. Evans won his record ninth championship that year, but unfortunately it was posthumous, as he perished in a late-season crash at Martinsville Speedway.
August 29, 1921
Born on this date in Danville, Virginia, Hall of Famer Wendell Scott (2015) was the first Black driver to win a NASCAR premier series race, taking the victory at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 1, 1963. A former taxi driver, Scott served as a mechanic in World War II before returning home to race and occasionally run moonshine. Scott’s ample mechanical skills served him well, as he frequently made due with used cars and parts. For his career, Scott posted 20 top fives and 147 top 10s, finishing in the top 10 in points for four straight years.