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Why I Clean & Balance My Racing Wheels — Even When Remounting Older Tires

Greg Troester June 29, 2023 0 comments

At the end of a race weekend, when the car is back to the garage and the trailer put away, there is still work to do. If you don’t have “people for that”, then it’s time to wash the car, maybe vacuum out the interior, and wash all of the racing wheels.

The first one is probably done by most, few do the second, and most of us dislike doing the third to some degree.

I don’t though. I actually enjoy cleaning my car — even the wheels.

But why?

Why Cleaning Wheels Is Worthwhile

My car came with two sets of Team Dynamics wheels in matte black — not a bad choice, but not exactly a showy color. They kinda looked dirty all the time, especially after years of use and abuse prior to my ownership.

When I got the car, one of the many things I did was wash the wheels and spend a few hours (yes, hours) removing old weight tape and inspecting the wheels. I scrubbed and soaked and scraped until my fingers hurt and my back ached — but it had to be done.

By cleaning the wheels, I was able to inspect them for any cracks, major bends, scrapes, or other damage. I’ve never had a wheel fail on-track, but I’ve seen the results of others’ misadventures and have no desire to share in that experience.

I’ve had a ball joint fail once, though, and I’m told it’s pretty similar — the car just… falls straight down on the ailing equipment and things get pretty torn-up: fender, wheel, brake pads, hydraulic lines, other suspension parts… they’re all at risk.

Damage Is Inevitable, So Early Detection Is Imperative

The things I look for:

  • Cracking — around the spokes, inside and out, as well as around the stud holes
  • Major bends — typically on the inner edge of cast wheels, but multi-piece wheels can easily bend on the inside or outside
  • Scrapes and Gouges — either from contact with other cars, debris on the track, or a particularly unfortunate interaction with curbing or the edge of the track
  • Valve Stem — I use aluminum stems and they can break if they come into contact with things

If you see something: address the issue by taking it to a professional shop who deals with racing wheels (don’t head down to the local tire store). When in doubt, swap it out.

I have the luxury of being able to replace Spec Miata wheels for about $150 plus shipping and tax (one of the many reasons why I love this class). Maybe your wheels are quite a bit more expensive.

But I ask you this: if the wheel breaks, what else is going to get damaged?

Clean Wheels Balance More Easily

When you drop your wheels off at the tire shop to get new rubber mounted, you want to make the wheels clean and free of any old weights, tape, or debris.

I used to help the tire busters at the Goodyear I worked at in college and, by experience, the amount of time a shop has to spend on perfectly cleaning your wheels is… zero. The best you can hope for is a swipe with a rag that has who-knows-what cleaning agent on it so the adhesive sticks. And if old weight foam is still there… you do the best you can.

By removing all of the brake dust, tire flecks, and old weights, you make it easy for a tire tech to place the weights exactly where their machine tells them to.

They may not say “thank-you” out-loud, but I promise they appreciate it and you’ll get a better balance as a result of making their life easy.

Why Balance Wheels At All?

There is a school of thought out there that goes something like this:

Why balance tires at all? You just get pick-up on them anyways and so you’re wasting time and money. Not to mention: now your wheels are heavier!

I have a few responses:

  1. An unbalanced wheel causes inconsistent tire contact with the racing surface
  2. An unbalance wheel is harder to accelerate and decelerate
  3. If you stay on-line, you don’t get pick-up, and there are ways to scrub pick-up off while driving

Inconsistent Tire Contact With the Racing Surface

You’ve probably felt an unbalanced tire before. That gyrating feeling of vibration from a corner of the car. It might shake the wheel or your backside, but you can feel it.

Down on the track, that unbalanced load is lifting the tire off (slightly) when the heavy part of the wheel/tire goes to the top of it’s rotation, and the opposite is true when that load is at the bottom.

This means that you get less traction, then more — and maybe not enough that you think it matters… but it does. If you’re truly at the edge of traction usage, then it matters.

An Unbalanced Wheel is Harder to Accelerate and Decelerate

Any inefficiency in balance of rotating mass causes multiple problems, but what it boils down to is you get a less efficient transfer of energy from your drive train to your wheels.

That’s why the most competitive engines have precision-matched components like pistons, rods, crankshafts, flywheels, drivelines, and so-on.

If your car is “wasting” any energy in moving an unbalanced load, you’re missing some small amount of forward acceleration.

As for deceleration, it’s a similar principle to inconsistent traction: you can have odd lock-ups under braking.

If You Stay On-Line, You Can Scrub-Off Most Debris

If you stay on-line, the surface is clean (unless someone has tracked debris onto the track, of course), so that part is handled.

But, if you head off-track, off-line, or have to go through some debris, you’re going to pick up gravel and tire debris — all of that stuff is “the marbles”.

So, what to do?

If you are slow from making a mistake anyways, take a few seconds to tightly weave back-and-forth (minding traffic, of course), and then get back on-line as soon as possible.

Lateral acceleration scrubs at the tires and, if you’re quick about it, you can fling off debris before it gets a chance to become embedded.

But what about all of that junk on my tires that I see on my tires after a session?

Well, I have an answer for that, too — you pick it up as you enter the pit-in lane and drive through the hot pits and paddock.

As cars come off-track, inertia no longer holds things in-place and all sorts of junk falls out of fenders, spoilers, wheels, suspension bits, you name it. That junk falls down onto the tarmac and cars with hot, sticky tires run right over it and… you guessed it. You have pick-up again.

So What? How Important Is All This?

Aside from the safety benefits of inspecting your wheels regularly (which is easier to do when they’re clean!), I’d say that the rest is marginal. How marginal? I’m not sure.

If your steering wheel or backside aren’t actively vibrating, the impact is likely very, very small.

But then again, this is a sport of marginal gains at a certain point and… I’ll take every advantage I can get.

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