By Aaron Waldron
Though the trend was less popular elsewhere, touring cars prepared for carpet racing in the U.S. were primarily fitted with foam tires for much of the class’s early history. American racing rules evolved to more closely align with the European racing scene over the late 2000s, with the last ROAR Carpet Nationals to draw a sizable crowd coming in 2009.
That all may change this winter. Prolevelrc owner Drew Ellis, who imports Italian brand SRC into North and South America, is leading the charge.
“I’ve always had foam on my mind,” said Ellis, who occasionally drove his cars fitted with foam tires on his facility’s carpet track, “and it’s something we used to do here on the gray carpet to get a new layout scrubbed in.” Prolevelrc has been in its current location since 2011, long enough to withstand some of the sweeping changes that have hit the carpet scene over the last few years.
“I hadn’t done it on the black carpet because I never saw a need for it, but we had driven on the same layout for multiple months, and we were having an issue with tires glazing, both rubber tires and even in 1/12-scale,” said Ellis, who described the situation upon returning home from the International Indoor Champs, “but this time I didn’t have any JACO tires I usually run, so I put some of the SRC nitro tires on my car, and after the first pack I knew we had to take a video.”
So a potentially industry-changing movement was sparked by a happy accident.
“I’d love to say it was on purpose, but it wasn’t a planned attack,” said Ellis, ”I was trying to break in my local track, with 64mm tires and 10mm ride height and a spool. It didn’t want to traction roll, I could drive it hard, I could drive it easy, I could drive it out of the line, I could drive it in the line; it was just bananas how good it felt. There was no hint of traction rolling, and my car was straight off the track from Vegas with 10mm ride height and everything.”
Ellis thinks that these different tire compounds are the key to making foam racing work again, along with strict, but easy to follow, spec rules. “These are compounds we never would’ve run back in the day,” said Ellis, “and on gray carpet these tires would be horrible - it would feel like a rubber tire used to feel without traction rolling. But I think the black carpet has changed that quite a bit. I think it’s time to start looking at something.”
Ellis pointed out that he’s not the only one who has seen an opportunity to try something new; he noted that newly-crowned 200mm nitro touring car world champion Dominic Greiner, fellow Worlds finalist Kyle Branson, and Bruno Coelho’s XRAY mechanic Francesco Martini have all tried running foam tires on their electric touring cars over the previous few weeks. “Obviously, the Europeans are going in this direction. The Italian companies can’t compete with where the rubber tires are being made now, and they’re planning to run a foam tire race in Italy,” said Ellis, who also added a separate foam category to the upcoming HUDY Indoor Championship at his track.
Some of the issues that caused foam tire racing to die off in the U.S. included the many compound choices and the tendency for racers to cut them down in diameter in order to increase handling performance, which accelerated the rapid wear of the softer foam. “We started looking at the problems from before and tried to fix them,” said Ellis, “I don’t think you could cut these new tires small enough to turn them into one-runs - the wear just isn’t there. They’re similar to what nitro cars run on a much more abrasive surface for an hour. I’ve got close to 500 laps on a set with about a millimeter of wear; so in that sense, they’re not like the old tires. I’ve tested from 60mm down to 57mm and I haven’t seen any difference in lap times, so the fall off definitely isn’t there.”
That lack of wear could make these new generation foam tires a lot easier for inexperienced racers than previous versions. “I don’t want people to feel like they have to have a tire truer,” said Ellis, who noted that he hasn’t problems with the tires coning, or wearing unevenly on different corners of the car. He added, “The most you might have to do is rotating the tires from one side to the other.”
That user-friendly consistency could help remedy some of the idiosyncrasies of using rubber tires that have arisen over the last few seasons.
“The rubber tires have changed a lot since we started running them,” said Ellis, not just noting the changes from year to year but even within a single box of handout tires. “I’m not saying they’re wrong for us,” he continued, “but sidewall gluing has added a whole other element.” Ellis was referring to the practice of adding glue to the sidewall of rubber tires to stiffen them, which drastically changes a car’s handling. “I’ve had a car with 59.5mm of glue traction roll, but at 59.8mm it pushed,” Ellis explained, “and while it started with ‘apply glue up to the letters,’ now we’re trying to figure out what glue to use, and what machine.”
Simplicity isn’t the only reason why Ellis thinks the foam tires will catch on. “The cost is another thing,” said Ellis, “It’s $30 per set for rubber tires, and our plan is a set will be $20. In theory, if you have the same number of sets as rubber, you’re saving money - and if you still want to run a whole event on one set you can do that with the foam tires.”
Controlling the number of sets allotted to each driver at big events is part of the planned rule set, which Ellis is working to put together with other well-known pro racers who are on board with the idea. “We’ll have tires next week — a true spec tire with a stripe, released under (Paul) Lemieux’s Gravity RC brand. They’ll be trued down to 60mm out of the box, and we’re working on rules.” The front tires will be 26mm wide, and the rears will be 28mm, and Ellis said he’s already had track owners contacting him for information on placing orders — including some tracks that are still predominately running foams. Ellis admitted that the concept has been tried before, but explained that it’s the different compound that could get these new foams to stick. “I think guys tried spec (foam) tires with a stripe,” Ellis said, “but they had to be trued down and if you had it your way you had to run a new set every time.”
Ellis thinks the move back to foam tires could help an indoor racing scene he thinks is already healthy continue to flourish. “I think on-road racing is healthy,” he said, ”but for club racing, it’s hit or miss. At 360v2 Raceway (in New York), they get a great touring car turnout. At my track, touring car has gone away - maybe because the traction has gone away, or because it’s more work to get your car right. We used to have a great turnout, and now it’s mostly F1 and 1/12-scale. At big races, it’s a different story. The turnouts are growing, and we’ve been seeing a lot of new people. We’re getting back to numbers we saw ten years ago. I think on-road is growing on a big scale. There’s still a lot of work to do, but there’s still hope. I think it’s on the up-swing.”
The idea was never to take the rubber tires away, it’s just supposed to be an option. I think, for a new guy coming out on the local scene only, I think it’ll be much more fun for him with traction. I don’t look at it as a bad thing, so we’ll see how it goes. The whole RC community is looking at this and wondering if it can be a good thing. And if it can be controlled, I think it’s something that could do a lot of good for big races and club racing. We need to make sure we’re trying to get people more involved in racing, no matter how we do it.”
The first time the RC racing world will get to see the new foam tires on the track will be at the upcoming U.S. Indoor Champs, which will be running a ten-driver exhibition including stars like Paul Lemieux, Keven Hebert, and Josh Cyrul — a vocal proponent of the return to foam tires. “Eric Anderson is going to run in the heat with a 17.5,” said Ellis, “just so that people can see how they work with stock motors. I don’t know if it’s the right thing for us. I know that foam TC racing is what America was known for. It’s just one of those things that I’d like to see how it goes.”
“Sad to hear rumors about an attempt to bring foam tires back to EP Touring,” Rick Hohwart posted on Facebook, adding, “My fear is the development by others to compete against this tire and how that will progress into faster tires, tires that wear out faster, need to be run smaller, require after prep, or are less expensive for the promoter.”
Hohwart did agree, though, that if done correctly it could work. “I think that if you can create a tire that lasts a long time, is good out of the box, requires no after prep (truing, glue, etc), with lap times that do not fall off, it would be great whether it is rubber or foam,” Hohwart said.
Markus Mobers said, “Well, in the end it is what you make out of it. You think rubber TC in europe is huge??? Nope. Only ETS is, that is due to a great promo and support of the race. Nationals (in Germany) are absolutely dead!”
Rick Wang said, “What normally becomes main stream depends on economics...if manufacturers, race organizers, drivers cannot benefit economically then it will just be another niche market in our sport. We should spend less time re-inventing the wheel and spend more time figuring out why we cannot get more new faces into our 'on-road' sport, especially kids!”
Whether or not the movement takes off nationwide will depend on what the racers and individual tracks decide, but Ellis is just glad to see people discussing the possibility. “I’m happy to see people are being open-minded and starting to talk,” said Ellis, “I’ve been on Facebook a long time, and I’ve posted a lot of stuff, and I’ve never seen something get so much traction.”