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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

"Tiregate" Debate Fueled Heated Controversy

A battle of two the sport’s best teams turned into brouhaha over alleged tire soaking in the NASCAR garage.

One of the most contentious NASCAR competitor debates in years broke out between representatives of two top teams following the 1998 Farm Aid on CMT 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway (now New Hampshire Motor Speedway), where Mark Martin (Class of 2017) led 193 of 300 laps but finished second to Jeff Gordon (Class of 2019).

After running mid-pack early on in the race, Gordon took just two tires while Martin and the other top contenders all took four during a late-race caution. With two new tires vs. four fresh Goodyears for the other competitors, 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.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway became the focal point for a huge NASCAR controversy. Photo courtesy of David Taylor/Allsport

Incensed at being beaten by the two-tire pit stop, Martin’s team owner, Jack Roush (Class of 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.

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Tire Softener. Undetectable.

— Anonymous

When applied to the outside of tires, the liquid agent softens the tire surface, which in the short-term increases traction and speed, 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 team 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.’”

Jeff Gordon won a modern-era record-tying 13 races in 1998, but his success did not sit well with some rivals. Photo courtesy of David Taylor/Allsport

“Somebody will come out with a new product, and it’s usually just snake oil,” said Robert Yates (Class of 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.

Jack Roush was deeply frustrated after Jeff Gordon won a race that Roush’s driver, Mark Martin, had dominated. Photo courtesy of David Taylor/Allsport

“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?”

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Jack needs to watch the tape and pay attention.

— Ray Evernham

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 RFK 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.

After a thorough investigation by NASCAR Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Ray Evernham were exonerated of any wrongdoing with regards to tires. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

“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.

Between them, future Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon (No. 24) and Mark Martin (No. 6) combined to win 20 of 34 points races during the 1998 NASCAR Cup Series season. Photo courtesy of Craig Jones/Allsport

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.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.

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