How to PROPERLY select and size TIRES for PERFORMANCE

STEP 2:  SIZE THE TIRE

When sizing a tire, there are a few important things to know:

1.  TIRE WIDTHS ARE USELESS. 

I’m referring to the first number in the tire size code such as the “275” in a 275/35-18 tire. This may sound crazy because other than the diameter of the wheel, this is usually the most important aspect of the tire for many people. But hear me out: Have you ever tried a different brand of tire just to realize it does not fit the same as the ones you took off, or not even fit under your fenders at all?  The reason for this is the tolerances tire manufactures have to follow when making a given tire size is substantial.  Brand X’s 275 can be as wide as Brand Y’s 305!  To make matters worse, there is no industry standard to establish how to measure tire tread widths.

Tire Sizing MPSS
Above are the “Specs” sheet for the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tire from TireRack.com.  Here we see the 255/35-19 Michelin Pilot Super Sport above is produced in two different widths (one bespoke version for BMW), while the 275/35-18 is offered in three different widths (one bespoke for BMW) and the 315/35-20 is offered in two different bespoke Ferrari-specific widths. I added the ideal wheel width range on the far right for each tire’s specific tread width (highlighted in yellow). The red arrow indicates the widest version of each tire size.

Often tire manufacturers will have multiple offerings or bespoke versions of the same size tire (as written on the sidewall). Due to the wide variance in tire construction, an auto manufacturer can specify not only the tread compound, design, and many aspects of the composition of the tire, but the width as well for the specific needs of a certain car. This further illustrates how the written number isn’t all that usefull.

Most people are too focused on the number on their sidewall rather than the true width of the tire, or what will give them the best performance.  I get it. Size matters for bragging rights just like the numbering on the side of a muscle car designating the car’s cubic displacement, or the chrome emblems on the side of a “hooptie” designating their wheel diameter.  But this article is about optimizing performance; not a “whose is bigger” bragging rights.  Instead we need to focus on the tire’s TREAD WIDTH.

2.  TREAD WIDTH   (THIS IS WHAT MATTERS):

TireRack.com has come to the rescue by establishing a common measurement method to address this issue!!!  They literally measure every make, model and size of tire with the same test procedure using a 20” long tool with a 30-degree bend in it to measure the tread width of the tire to take account various tire shapes and radiuses.  This number, measured in inches, is what I view as the true width of the tread, not what is written on the side wall, since Tire Rack uses the same measurement procedures for all of the different brand tires they sell.

3.  SECTION WIDTH:

Is the measurement of the tire’s width from the inner sidewall to outer sidewall with the tire mounted on its industry assigned rim width at proper inflation pressures. While this is typically more consistent and representative of the nominal width, it is not as important to me and is usually a bit wider than the tread width. A good rule of thumb to follow is that: for every 0.5” change in rim width, the tire’s section width will change by 0.2”.

4.  MEASURING RIM WIDTH:

Is the industry standard rim width for which the tire must be mounted to meet its dimensional targets.  AKA: the tire’s “Design rim width”. Without optimizing a tire’s performance, using this recommendation for rim width will be a quick and easy way to select your tire.

Properly Sized
Here is a 285/35-20 Michelin Pilot Super Sport which has a 10.1″ tread width (also available in a 10.5″ tread width) mounted on a 20×10.5 wheel. This is a perfect tire-to-wheel sizing with a mild stretch, preloading the side wall just enough to improve steering response and performance.

*Billy’s rule of thumb:

“For ideal handling: when sizing a tire for a given wheel, I usually target a tire’s TREAD width to be as wide as the WHEEL width, or 0.5” narrower than the wheel width.”

From my personal experience working on and driving countless track days, time attacks, street cars and race cars, this typically optimizes the tire’s carcass for response and outright grip.  It also gives the sidewall a very slight ‘stretch’ or preload, which will improve the tire’s response and break-away characteristics.  OEM’s have to size tires to meet a ton of different targets like curb to wheel damage protection, cost, snow chain clearance (almost all cars have to take this into consideration) all which affects the decision on the size of the tire and is usually a compromise at the expense of peak performance.

Stretched tire
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and i’m not a huge fan of the ‘hella-flush’ trend; but this 225/40-14 Toyo T1R has a tread width more than 3 inches narrower than this 14×11 wheel. Not only is the tire at risk of coming off the bead when cornering, the ride quality and overall grip is negatively affected from this extreme stretch and would benefit from a much wider tire.

If a tire is too narrow for a given wheel width, the sidewall becomes overly preloaded and the carcass can distort to have uneven pressure across the surface of the tire.  The preloaded sidewall also has greatly reduced flex and compliance, which would improve initial response, but it would ride poorly, be less forgiving over bumps, and the break-away characteristics would likely not be as predictable.

bulging tire
This 275/40-17 BFGoodrich g-Force KDW has a 10.8″ tread width and is mounted on this relatively narrow 17×9 factory Firebird wheel.  With a tread width nearly 2 inches wider then the rim width; this combination likely has a very vague and sloppy steering feel even if it increases peak grip over a properly sized 8.5″ wide tire (245/40-17).  A better option would be to source a 17×11 wheel for this tire.

On the other hand, if a tire is too wide for a given wheel width, the sidewall ‘bulges”.  This usually results in sloppy handling characteristics, vague steering feel, excessive tread squirm, and the carcass of the tire can also distort and have uneven pressure across the surface of the tire.

19 comments

    1. Amazing article. Changes my whole perception of what i am looking for. 2017 mustang gt. Drop 1 inch, tiger grip wider. Staggered or not too. Like 275 on all 4 and do I look for height and 45s height compared to 50s height for stance

  1. Nice, but what’s the optimal weight to mm for tire width? I want a good compromise for street/weekend warrior use and looks on my 09 daily driven Scion tC. Don’t wanna take too much of a hit to mpg, but I want more room to soak up hard cornering and, as I said a more aggressive look.

    Stock sizes are 215/45r17 and 225/40r18. I know a 235 will fit, and I’ve seen a couple of 245 and 255 fitments online, but it’s mostly 245 or below. Currently running BFG sport comp 2 a/s tires and like them. Live in Florida and was recommended those for my application. The car is FWD with a manual and 160hp, I intend to run a square setup.

  2. Thanks for pointing out that choosing the right tires will be able to dictate the success of the race and also keep you safe from accidents. I will share this information with a friend of mine since he will be joining races once he gets his car customized. It has really been his goal to do so after being obsessed with a series of movies that focuses on this.

  3. This is probably the best ‘layman’ article on tires I’ve read! Here’s why I’m here. 2018 Mustang GT, stock except exhaust, air box and multiple tunes including E85. Daily driver with track weekends. Stock rims are 18 x 7.5 rolling on Pirelli P Zero Nero P235/50ZR18. I want more grip in the rear. Don’t care to change wheel diameter bc Ford Engineers are smarter than I. Contemplating going to 10″ in rear with MT ET Street SS 285/40R18. Not married to them and am open to any suggestions you may offer. I’m interested in grip and of course a better ET.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, it’s great to hear that feedback (which was the goal). To be honest, I’m not the best source for tire sizing when it comes to drag tires since I do not have firsthand experience testing how wheel widths affect longitudinal grip and launches of drag-specific tires.

    2. What did you end up doing? Mine is a 2017 and trying get a better stance look with a drop 1 inch with a little wider tire,but my big concern is 40 45 or 50 height tires

  4. Thanks for listing all the details which are of importance for proper tyre selection.
    t
    Yet, I did miss the part explaining the influence of “aspect-ratio”.
    I actually trashed a set of all-weather tyres and damaged my rim, due to driving a bit to fast on a very poor rural road. Consequently, I searched for information regarding rally tyres on the web. Interestingly, the majority of rally tires of Michelin have aspect ratios of 60-65. Yet, these tyres have very stiff side-walls. What is your opinion regarding the influence of aspect ratio?

    In addition, you mentioned that you consider load-index not to be be very useful. Yet, does load index influence the strength and stiffness of the side walls? Consequently, the higher the aspect ratio, the more important load index, especially using poor roads? Appreciate your view/

  5. Mr. Johnson, your article is the most clearly explained writing I’ve found on the matter. Still it is not very clear for me what would happen to my 2019 Toyota Camry, with original 17″ x7.5 original wheels if I change original tire size of 215/55/17 to 235/55/17. My intention is to gain half an inch in underbody clearance, and of course any gain in performance would be wellcome. I appreciate any light you can give me on this matter.

    1. Going from a 215/55 to a 235/55 would give you a tiny bit of ground clearance but would also change the circumference of the tyre, which may throw off your odometer and other systems. I suspect it’s not a good idea, if you want more ground clearance the proper way to do it is to install adjustable coil-over suspension.

    2. The wider tire will lose steering response and feel more vague and ‘mushy’ as the sidewall deflects more before loading up. Peak grip will likely increase. I’m not sure you’ll gain 0.5″ in ride height from making that switch. Check out a tire size calculator to be sure.

  6. Than you for writing this article! It is very informative! What I did miss was information on what would be a balanced mm/Lb for track use. You present a table with multiple vehicles, but do not comment on whether you find those values too high or too low, with the exception of the Elise, that isn’t even on the table. What would be a good range for mm/Lb?

    1. It depends on the tire. Whatever it takes to keep a tire in its ideal operating temperature window is what should be targeted.

  7. First of all, excellent article, i appreciate the time and effort placed into explaining all the nuances of selecting a damn tire. Ive already screen shotted some portions for my digital “Car” notes.

    I just have one critique from a data driven, engineering minded geek.

    In the TTSA chart, TTSA seems to be calculated only using half of the tires….1xFront+ 1xRear… thats not total…I realize that may not be your chart, but when i come across calculations like these that aren’t completely logical, it makes me ask…why? In the end, i know it will just change those numbers by a factor by 2, but to me it makes more sense to use the TTSA that uses all four tires. Of course, if there is an industry standard that uses 1xFront and 1x Rear, then so be it; i am ignorant to it (alibi: i am new to this game)

    Once again, thanks for making your experience available for the entire world to learn.

    Cheers!

    1. Haha, thanks. As far as TTSA goes, feel free to multiply all the numbers by 2. For comparisons sake, only looking at half the tires does not affect the results.

  8. That was very helpful, thanks. On my Lotus Elise S1 (1800lbs), I’ve always found that I could not get heat into my tires (205F/245R). For many years I was following the ‘wider is better’ gang. But this year I’ve decided to try a smaller size (195 & 225). I’ll be saving weight and hopefully heat them faster too! Over the time I’ve also came up with the thinking of choosing a tire first then get the wheels. Thanks for the great article !

    1. Glad to hear it. The #1 thing is the compound of the tire and keeping it in it’s operating temperature range.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*