By on April 6, 2017

2016 Subaru WRX at an autocross event, Image: © 2016 Bozi Tatarevic/The Truth About Cars

Talk about being careful what you wish for. I now have about 40 questions in my inbox for “Ask Jack,” with more steadily trickling in. I’m going to answer all of them, either here or via e-mail, and in a semi-timely manner to boot. So don’t be afraid to send your questions to [email protected]. I’m ready, and waiting, to give you the kind of bad advice you can only get from somebody who’s crashed more marriages than he has crashed race cars!

Robert writes:

Hi Jack. In keeping with the mantra, “Want to be a better driver? Get a worse tire,” I do indeed want to be a better driver. Specifically, a better autocross driver. I’ve run the original equipment, 600-treadwear tires on my ’14 Honda Civic Si for my first four events. I suck, but I’m steadily improving with every event. I can get one, maybe two more events out of these tires before they’re down past the tread-wear markers. All the instructors I’ve driven with say the same thing: get Potenza RE71s because the tires I have are costing me 2 to 5 seconds. That gap would have gotten me on the podium at the last two events. But I know I’m still leaving seconds out there due to my inexperience. Should I go Potenza when I replace the tires?

This is the sort of question I love to get — thoughtful, easy to understand, and right in the proverbial wheel house. Even better, the answer to the question will be useful to many of you, even if you have no idea what an “autocross” might be.

Let’s start by looking at that phrase. Want to be a better driver? Get a worse tire. Here’s what that means. You can’t learn to control a car at the limit without actually, you know, driving up to that limit and seeing what happens. Let’s briefly compare two theoretical drivers. Driver A has an old RWD Toyota Tercel on 155-width all-season tires. Driver B is behind the wheel of a brand-new Dodge Viper ACR. Neither of them has any performance-driving experience, but are determined to learn, so we are going to take them to a racetrack and set them free to drive until they’ve learned something.

Driver A is going to reach the limits of the Tercel pretty quickly. He might spin into the gravel at 30 mph a few times. At the end of the day, he’ll be reasonably good at driving that Tercel near the limit of its tires and chassis. If we gave him a slightly better car on Day Two of the exercise, he would learn the difference in capability in — we hope — a reasonable and safe manner. And we could give him a slightly better car every day after that, until one day he was behind the wheel of a Dodge Viper ACR, driving it easily at the limit because he has advanced to that limit in small, comprehensible steps. Incidentally, this is basically the path your humble author has followed, starting with some real shitboxes and moving up to stuff like the McLaren MP4-12C-GT3 full-on Pirelli World Challenge GT car.

Driver B will spend a lot of his first day not coming anywhere close to the limits of that Viper ACR. But the first time that he exceeds the limit, he’ll be going very fast and he’s not going to have the skills to handle the situation. Chances are he is going to destroy the car and maybe even get hurt. Under no circumstances will he magically become a top-notch Viper ACR driver. This, by the way, is the path your humble author followed with motorcycles. The first streetbike I ever rode was a Kawasaki ZX-7R. I was lucky to escape that enlightening experience with my limbs intact.

In the real world, of course, very few people have the choice between a ’79 Tercel and a Viper ACR. But they do face choices like the one that Robert is currently facing. He did the right thing by starting on relatively slippery tires. He’s learned a lot about controlling his car when it is past the limits of grip, and so far he hasn’t rolled the thing or even dented a fender. Now he’d like to start contending for trophies, which means he’s thinking about serious rubber. Should he do it?

There are three potential answers to this question, and it depends on what he’s going to do with the car. As an autocrosser, Robert is unlikely to put himself in harm’s way with the “Hoosier-Stone” Potenzas. And it sounds like he’s already learned how to handle the car pretty well. So my answer to him is simple: get the good tires and start fighting for podiums.

But what if Robert wasn’t an autocrosser, but instead was a casual trackday enthusiast with four or five events under his belt? Should he go directly to the grippiest street tires available? In that case, I would say that he should not get the Bridgestones right away. Instead, he should choose a midpoint tire like the Cooper RS-G1 or Yokohama Advan Sport. Once he’s killed those with five or six more events, he can think about the Bridgestones. With trackday driving, we move the performance bar more slowly because the stakes for making a mistake are much higher. Don’t be in any hurry to get a faster car, or faster equipment for your existing car, until you know that you are really running what you have right up to the ragged edge.

The last scenario: Maybe Robert doesn’t compete at all. Maybe he just wants to enjoy the car on the street. In that case, I’m going to make precisely the opposite recommendation. Go directly to the Potenzas, but drive below the limit of the car and be careful when you are going fast. On the street, we want all the safety margin we can get, even if it is at the expense of “tossability.” When the day comes that an SUV in front of us flips over and starts tumbling across the freeway in our direction, we’ll want the absolute maximum grip possible. It might save your live.

If you spend any time at a racetrack, you’ll see that a lot of Miata racers have high-power street cars. I’ve seen everything from a Boss 302 to a Lamborghini Huracan in the Spec Miata paddock. Those drivers are learning how to control their Mazdas at the absolute limit. Then they’re giving themselves a lot more grip and capability for the street. I don’t disagree with that philosophy at all — if you can afford it, that is. The rest of us will just have to be content with putting Potenzas on our Civics and hustling for that local podium.

Good luck, Robert, and may the ‘Stone be with you!

[Image: © 2016 Bozi Tatarevic/The Truth About Cars]

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34 Comments on “Ask Jack: A Man For All-Seasons?...”


  • avatar
    brenschluss

    How do the RE11s wear on the street compared to something like, oh, I don’t know, some RT615K?

    • 0 avatar
      brenschluss

      RE71R, not RE11, duh. Whatever.

      • 0 avatar
        carlisimo

        I have RE71Rs on my Miata. They wear alright compared to older tires of the same vein (like those RT615Ks). The problems is that on certain surfaces they sound like Velcro being pulled open. They may be a step too far if you regularly carry passengers who aren’t also car nerds.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          “They may be a step too far if you regularly carry passengers who aren’t also car nerds.”
          .
          If you don’t like how I drive, STAY OFF THE SIDEWALK ! .
          .
          -Nate
          (passengers get no input unless they’re buying Pizza)

    • 0 avatar

      RT615K will wear faster and provide less performance. It’s a shit tire. The HoosierStone is descended from the lord almighty, upon which we place our trust and faith inherently every Sunday as we play Dungeons and Dragons with cars and the mystical force known as PAX.

      • 0 avatar
        brenschluss

        See the thing is, I think you’re serious.

      • 0 avatar
        duffman13

        I’d check a forum like S2ki of GRM to find out about the RE71 wear characteristics, but from everything I know about the RT-615K, they’re a crap tire now and they were a crap tire when they came out.

        Honestly, If I was going to jump into the mystery box on a tire right now, It would be the new Hankook RS-4, particularly as a track-day tire. The RS-3s gripped like crazy and handled heat and wear better than anything else in the category. The RS-4 is supposed to do everything the RS-3 did but better based on early reporting.

  • avatar
    arach

    I generally agree with Jack, but I’m going to disagree with the choice to go to the best tires.

    Its not just about losing control and being dangerous, but its also about learning to drive. Many novices are going to lose control at the 55MPH straight away that goes into a hairpin, but they are no where close to losing control on the slalom.

    I say go buy another set of cheap tires. You have FOUR to FIVE events under your belt. Thats nothing. You are still a novice.

    Its not about “losing control”, its about driving at the edge of you and your cars abilities for the entire 55 second run. (or whatever the time is for your course).

    Its about pushing yourself to learn where that “limit” is at every point in the track, in every obstacle, and every situation. On good tires, “losing control” is a 60MPH spinout. On “bad” tires, “losing control” is a cone bump in a corner at 22 MPH.

    If you get better tires you might get 2-5 seconds better, but your not going to become a better driver. Your tires are going to be “hiding” your lack of skill.

    I went out on the autocross track with an old Fiero with budget tires, and beat some guys in built miatas, and they look at me and say “huh?”. I’m sure many of us have seen those situations at the tracks. I could never beat a good driver in those scenarios, but there’s a lot of bad drivers in good cars that put up “ok” times, therefore they don’t learn to improve.

    A great driver can drive a bad car well…. But a bad driver can only drive a great car so-so… but that driver isn’t learning to become a better one.

    You sound like you are excited about this, so become the great driver. Push the limits of the crappier tires. Save the $800 more you’d spend on good tires until next year. Understand the limits of your grip on every obstacle you’ll hit. Your future self will be glad you did, and you’ll have fun doing it.

    • 0 avatar
      caelaorn

      There’s only so much you can learn with truly crappy tires in autocross other than general car control – not to mention depending on the tire, more appropriate summer tires could easily last longer in an autocross setting than their all season counterparts because you aren’t ripping entire chunks of tread off and getting them wayyyy above their operating temperature.

      The only caveat I’d add is that if you live where it rains and you’re dding on these tires there might be some options that will work better for you like the Conti Extremecontact Sport. It might last a little longer, but more importantly will be a *lot * better in any sort of standing water.

      • 0 avatar
        smallblock

        I’d look to the middle ground between 600 TW all seasons and the RE71R HoosierStones. I just started autocrossing my Focus ST last year, and while I certainly don’t feel ready to move up to “200 TW”, I’m not going to downgrade from the factory Goodyear F1 Asymmetric 2’s. I’m looking at the Michelin PSS, new PS4S, Continental ExtremeContact Sport, or maybe the Kumho Ecsta PS91 if I’m feeling cheap. Any other recommendations?

        • 0 avatar

          Those are all really good tires for people who like losing.

          Part of the fun is winning – if this guy can win (or come so close he can taste it) he’s going to keep playing the game.

          • 0 avatar
            smallblock

            I’m fine with losing for now, I’m only competing against myself. I was excited when I knocked 2 seconds off a run, and experienced guys were confused until I explained that was a good time for me, at my second event. I’m still learning how to read the cones and put together a run where I don’t make at least one mistake. I’m fairly conservative, I don’t spin or kill cones, this is the car I pick the kids up from school in. I’m not ready for a third set of wheels and tires either.
            I am surprised that the tires don’t factor into the PAX in some way.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      I agree to an extent, but I’d say move up to a good all-purpose summer like the MPSS or Bridgestone S-04. It will be a marked improvement over the all-seasons, and it will last OP around 20-25k worth of mileage and 2 years extra experience before he has to decide to make the jump to really serious tires. By that point he’ll have the skill to match as well.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Nitpick alert:
    “Driver A has an old RWD Toyota Tercel on 155-width all-season tires”

    No such thing. The Tercel was Toyota’s first FWD car, and every version was FWD. There was a part-time 4WD Tercel wagon (as seen in Breaking Bad), but it did not have a center diff.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Thank you. I don’t know why I wrote Tercel. I was thinking about the contemporaneous quad-lamp Corolla. I should know better because I actually have a year’s work of ’79 Tercel wheel time.

      • 0 avatar
        heavy handle

        My first car was an ’81 Corolla SR5 (same as the ’79 except for square headlamps).
        It was dead simple to find the limit with that car. The only thing that kept me from sliding it constantly was the fact that it was a tin can.

        The only thing between you and the road was thin sheetmetal, unless that had rusted away. You could see the road through the hole where the door speaker used to be.

        • 0 avatar
          Snavehtrebor

          Ooh yeah. I learned to drive in an ’80 Corolla 5 speed, with cheapass whitewall Kellys. Taught several classmates how to drive a stick in that thing. Fun, tossable, supremely predictable, and slow AF. You could enter a turn carrying way too much speed and it would just bog down and hunker right through. Good times.

      • 0 avatar
        Ol Shel

        Starlet was rwd, looked vaguely like a Tercel, and was sold at the same time.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I mostly agree with Jack’s thoughts .
    .
    There is another way to go though : put medium quality tires (I like Michelins) on any old car and go have fun driving it at 9/10ths all the time, you’ll have much more fun on a daily basis, learn those important life saving / collision avoiding skills and oddly enough most people will think you’re a ” REALLY fast driver ! ” even though you’ll maybe know that the actual fast guys could beat you anywhere, any time .
    .
    Old Guys driving slow cars fast, is a total blast, 24/7 no need to wait for track days .
    .
    -Nate

  • avatar
    t0ast

    I’d have to agree with Jack’s assessment, having just switched to the must-have RE71Rs after starting into the autocross last year with ZIIs on a daily driven STR MX-5. Having the extra grip available should it be needed on the street is great and even when I did manage to spin or find my way off the course at an event, it was a relatively benign experience thanks to the sport’s safety-minded format.

    I think what’s most important with a substantial performance bump like the one written about here is the mindset. As long as Robert explores his car’s new limits gradually and maintains a desire to keep learning using every available resource no matter how much his results might improve, he should be just fine. He’s already making use of instructor ride-alongs, which is great, so I’d say to keep that up when he can and consider swapping seats with them just to see exactly the car is capable of in experienced hands. Novice schools or events are also immensely helpful if one is available nearby. Anything from a locally-taught novice day to SCCA’s Starting Line is worthwhile.

    All that said though, unless Robert has another vehicle to work with or lives in a warm, low-precipitation area, a second set of wheels+tires would probably be a good idea. The RE71Rs are downright magical when it comes to performance driving, but they aren’t without some drawbacks. They don’t do so great when it comes to lifespan, standing water, or like most summer tires, temperatures below ~40F.

    • 0 avatar
      brenschluss

      I almost bought a set of RT615K+ this morning, which I hear perform very similarly to ZII*.

      Now I’m thinking I should just eat the $100, try to avoid standing water, get the RE71, and hope it lasts at least a whole season.

      • 0 avatar
        t0ast

        I’ve more or less resigned myself to the idea of having tires that will last about year after having the ZIIs (non-*) last me about 2 years with ~15k miles and 12 events. It’s not a pleasant thought, but they’ve at least been living up to the hype. In conjunction with swapping the OEM open diff for a proper LSD (which was the last box I needed to tick for STR mods), they’ve helped me start this year off in the neighborhood of top 15% overall (plus a class win) after struggling to break past top 35% last year.

      • 0 avatar
        Meat

        If an extra $100 will help you make your decision there is a rebate on the Falkens at Tirerack right now.

        I had 2 sets of the old RT-615’s on my GTI. I managed between 20-30k miles on them with about 50 autocross runs on each and a few track days. I later switched to the Z1 star specs for better performance at the cost of 15k miles of life. And then I tried R-comps…avoid that drug.

  • avatar
    AK

    Good article

    I don’t track or autocross my ST but I really like the added grip and increased limits of running summer tires even though they can be a pain in the ass living in the Midwest.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    First he must ask: Would he be having a lot more fun because he’s finishing higher? Why?

    It’s not like buying better tires is some skill that only the finest tuners know. There’s little skill to selecting the tires that the fastest drivers run.

    If he’s autocrossing for the fun of driving, there’s no need to upgrade tires. He can gauge progress by looking at his own times, and get enjoyment out of the progress he makes. It’s GREAT to have fun on your own terms, and not get swept up in the tendency to want to buy items that boost the ego.

    Now, if he maxes out on progress because of grinding understeer, a change to improve balance (that can be easily undone for street use) isn’t a bad idea.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert

      “First he must ask: Would he be having a lot more fun because he’s finishing higher? Why?”

      Because I’m competitive to a fault :-) This is my encore hobby after a 20 year stint in local motocross.

      To clarify though, having fun is my first priority, followed closely by becoming a better driver all around.

      Winning is fun.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    “First he must ask: Would he be having a lot more fun because he’s finishing higher? Why?

    It’s not like buying better tires is some skill that only the finest tuners know. There’s little skill to selecting the tires that the fastest drivers run.”

    No, but you don’t know how well you can do until you’re competing with the better drivers, and you can’t do that without having comparable tires. Otherwise you only know where you stand against the other slow guys, for whatever reason. Unlike an HPDE, Auto-X is timed competition.

    I have decent track driving skills, but I can’t do Auto-X for squat. It just looks like a random sea of freakin’ cones to me. Used to be just the same with skiing a slalom course – turn here, no clue where to go next.

  • avatar
    Robert

    Thanks Jack! ‘Stones it is.

  • avatar
    orenwolf

    Awesome advice, Jack. Thank you.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I love Continental DWS06s. I don’t do autocross, but the way my Civic attacks cloverleafs/roundabouts/diverging diamond interchanges, I’d imagine they’d do great in that context. In fact I think they were recommended to me by some auto-Xers. They are also great in the rain (just Tuesday I noticed I could take some turns at the same speed dry as in the wet) and light Southeastern dustings/winters. Decently priced too.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      I’d think you’d want a summer tire for autocross, unless somehow you’re doing it in the cold.

      But I’m very pleased with the set of DWS06s on my Lexus, which would look like a dancing bear on an autocross course. They’re really excellent in the wet, which is a big deal in a place where it’s basically drizzling 9 months of the year.

  • avatar
    orange260z

    One season, 3 or 4 friends and I shared autocrossing an old RWD Toyota Celica that we nicknamed “Slowleaka” because, you guessed it, it slowly leaked every fluid in the car. Not enough to drip on the course, but maybe a little in the paddock if we didn’t slid a mat under it.

    We had cheap-sh!t all seasons on the car, and it wasn’t terribly fast. We had a car that was a pig to drive, but we weren’t afraid to push the car to 11/10ths. We learned a huge amount about car control that season, and had a great time doing it. And best of all, the four/five of us has a great time competing against each other, given our driving skill was the only thing setting us apart.

  • avatar
    DirtRoads

    I’ve never had good tires, so I must be a great driver.

    I may have had a set of tires that weren’t badly mis-matched in 1986, mounted to my 1974 Fiat 124 Spider. But it was a hot summer and they were short-lived.

    Cheap tires are why I can do four wheel drifts in town in the old Vette.

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