The Thermal Club |
Nitto Tire Brings Mustang Mania to the Thermal Club
By Bradley Iger
Original Article: Hot Rod
For most folks, pairing up the name Nitto with muscle cars naturally conjures mental images of the drag strip. The tire company has built a reputation for delivering serious straight-line grip in recent years, a notion that was further bolstered by Dodge’s collaboration with Nitto to create a custom version of their NT05R drag radial for the Challenger SRT Demon.
But as models like the Camaro ZL1 1LE and Mustang Shelby GT350R have proven, muscle cars are no longer one trick ponies, and it has prompted enthusiasts across the country to head out to their local road courses and autocross events in increasing numbers. That trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by Nitto, and they’ve sought to support this sea change in the market by honing their high performance tire designs and expanding their range of available sizes.
To showcase this they invited us to The Thermal Club, a private racetrack facility located in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, to put their latest high performance tires to the test on a range of both late-model and vintage Mustangs and experience first-hand how these machines can dance when outfitted with the right rubber.
The Nitto High-Performance Tire Hierarchy
Nitto brought a trio of high performance tires for our day at the track, each of which fills a specific niche in the market, based on enthusiasts’ needs and experience levels.
“With the recent increases in factory horsepower, our development team wanted to increase the capability of our tires in turn,” explained Nitto’s Howard Sohn while discussing the company’s latest entry in the UHP tire segment, the NT555 G2. “It’s an updated version of the NT555, which is a summer tire that the Mustang audience just fell in love with.”
While the NT555 G2 is a purpose-built performance tire, it’s intended primarily for street use, so Nitto’s design offers some consideration for the varying conditions drivers might encounter on the road. “We of course increased the tire’s dry grip, but we also found ways to enhance its wet traction handling properties as well,” Sohn added. “Although it’s a summer tire, it’s really a two-season product, and that makes it more user-friendly for street use.” Sohn also explained that with the NT555 G2 being geared toward the muscle car segment, offering OEM-spec fitments for late-model Challengers, Camaros, and Mustangs was also a priority.
For those looking to move a step beyond a summer tire, Nitto’s NT05 offers a more track-focused design. “This is our 200 treadwear product, and it’s the one we use in our drifting program,” Sohn said. “This is a great track day tire – it provides the kind of consistent performance that instills confidence in track day enthusiasts so they can improve their skill levels on track.”
At the top of Nitto’s totem pole of street-legal performance tires sits the NT01. “This is our DOT-approved R compound tire,” Sohn noted. “It’s a tire I’ve personally fallen in love with – with its high-grip compound and stiff sidewall construction, it’s a very track-friendly design. And like the NT05, we’ve designed the NT01 to provide consistent performance that makes the tire predictable on-track, unlike some competitors’ tires, where traction will suddenly fall off. It’s designed to grow with enthusiasts as the skill level goes up.”
Ponies Hit The Track
Along with a fleet of late-model Mustang GTs outfitted in the aforementioned high-performance tire offerings, Nitto also brought along some of Classic Recreations’ resto-modded machines and a collection of enthusiast builds to join in on the fun, the latter representing each different generation of Ford’s pony car.
The sessions began with some warm-up laps to allow newcomers to acclimate to the track and learn the racing line. Once everyone was up to speed we were unleashed to explore the limits of NT555 G2, NT05, and NT01 on Thermal’s South Palm course, a 10-turn, 1.8 mile circuit that combines long sweepers, tight hairpins, and Thermal’s lengthiest straight.
South Palm’s healthy mix of hard braking zones, fast corners, and tight technical sections provides a real workout for any performance car, and the 2018 Mustang GT we piloted was no exception to the rule. Outfitted with the NT05, the tires quickly came up to temperature and provided plenty of stick for cornering, braking, and containing the five-liter’s deep well of torque. Lead footed drivers like your author could still get the back end to step out on command with an over-zealous application of throttle on corner exit, but as Sohn mentioned, the tires provide plenty of warning as you approach the limit and give way progressively. While the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tire that’s outfitted to the latest Mustang GTs with the factory Performance Package provides solid grip out of the box, those looking for a tire with a more track-focused design would be wise to put the NT05 on their short list.
We next hopped behind the wheel of Classic Recreations’ GT350CR. Although the advancements made in the past five decades in ergonomics and driver accommodation were made immediately obvious by your author’s 6’3” frame and the need to work the left leg around the side of the steering wheel each time the clutch was released, out on the track, the GT350CR proved it was more than just a pretty face.
While the NT555 G2 might be Nitto’s most street-focused UHP offering, it’s still light years ahead of any performance tire that was available on Shelby Mustangs back in the day, and it gave us the confidence to push the GT350CR a bit harder with each successive lap, braking later, carrying more speed through the corners, and dipping deeper into the throttle when the road straightened out.
The added capability does come with a potential caveat for vintage muscle car owners though, who will need to have wheels that are at least 17 inches in diameter in order to outfit their cars with these tires. The NT05 and NT01 both have some limited availability in smaller sizes, but it’s worth noting that the sidewall of these low-profile tires is notably shorter than your typical 15-inch muscle car radial.
Though the NT555 G2 and NT05 are highly capable tires in a road course setting, it’s the NT01 that was made for guys like Joe Ayad. Joe competes in Optima’s Search for the Ultimate Street Car series with his 1987 Fox-body, and with his Mustang’s wide stance, aero kit, roll cage, and array of hardcore performance hardware from stem to stern, this pony is really more race car than street machine.
While the NT01 requires the most compromise in terms of treadwear, road noise, ride quality, and wet weather handling of the three Nittos, its DOT compliance provides folks like Ayad the convenience of being able to drive to track events, compete, and head back home without needing to swap out wheels and tires.
Designed with experienced track rats in mind, while the NT01 delivers the most street-legal grip in Nitto’s product roster, these tires provide a bit less warning than the others when they’re ready to give way, and they’re also at their best in a narrower window of tire temperatures.
If you’re hunting for a specific lap time or in a competitive driving event, the NT01 is the clear choice among the three tires Nitto brought to the event. However, if you’re out there to just mix it up and have a good time in your street car, the NT05 or NT555 G2 might be better options.
That last point was driven home by Formula Drift champion Vaughn Gittin Jr at Thermal Club’s skid pad.
Drifting The Mustang RTR Spec 2
“These are the NT555 G2s,” Vaughn explained as we strapped into the track-tuned RTR Spec 2. “They aren’t the stickiest tire that Nitto makes, but to me, they’re the most fun.”
His definition of fun clearly involves giving tires a short, brutal life. After applying a dose of throttle followed by a pull of the RTR’s handbrake, we spent the majority of the following three minutes proceeding sideways around a figure 8 course.
Though the tires screamed the song of their people as they went up in smoke, it was clear they were behaving in a manner that was predictable for Vaughn, who would give the RTR a stab of throttle or lock the rear wheels up with the handbrake as needed to create a series of heroic, seamlessly-controlled bouts with opposite lock.
Holding a drifting exhibition at an event centered around showcasing the road course capability of a tire might seem a bit counter-intuitive – after all, the whole point of drifting is to push a tire beyond its limit and keep it there – but it also illustrates Nitto’s understanding of the enthusiasts who’re going to be bolting up high performance rubber to their rides.
Performance means different things to different people, but fun is pretty much universal. We didn’t see a single long face after folks hopped out of the RTR following a ride-along with Vaughn.