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Summary
  • Slicks are pure racing tires that have zero grooves and little or no tire tread.
  • Drag radials are a type of shallow-groove radial tires designed for drag racing.
  • The advantages of drag radials include higher durability, better stability at high speeds, and legal use on roads.
  • Slicks are better during launch, faster at high speeds, and have superior traction on racetrack road surfaces.

Drag racing requires specialized tires that can handle the intense demands of lightning-fast acceleration on the flat surface of drag strips. Most dragsters use either drag radial tires or drag racing slicks. Each type has merits and demerits that lead to vigorous debates between drag racing aficionados on which tire is better.

But how do these drag racing tires handle off the drag strip? What about the legality and safety of driving a dragster with drag radials or drag racing slicks on ordinary roads?

What Are Slicks?

Drag racing slicks are the earliest specialized wheels for drag racing. Their smooth tread has no grooves to ensure that the maximum surface area touches the road surface.

As they spin against the ground, slicks unwrap their outermost layers. The unwrapping process raises the gear ratio, which assists your vehicle in reaching higher speeds.

Modern slick tires feature sidewalls that deform in response to torque. The sidewalls make the launch softer, which helps protect your vehicle’s transmission and rear end from damage during launch.

close up shot of a race car's slick tire
Drag racing slicks have a smooth tread and no grooves to ensure that the maximum surface area touches the road surface.

What Are Drag Radials?

Drag radials are radial tires designed for the specific requirements of drag racing. Their wheels have spokes radiating from the center.

Compared to standard radial tires, drag radials have shallow tread depths that increase traction on the road surface of a drag strip. Their material is softer and wears down quickly, which is beneficial for drag racing, but not so good for ordinary driving.

Most drag radials comply with Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations on tires, making them street-legal. However, they have inferior performance to standard radials when it comes to driving on ordinary roads. Generally, only use drag radials at the racetrack and when it’s dry outside.

Drag Radials vs. Slicks

So, what’s better? Drag radials or drag racing slicks? It depends on the specific performance you desire. Drag radials perform better in some areas, while slicks are superior in other ways. They might also have roughly equal capabilities.

Here are some of the factors to consider when comparing the pros and cons of drag radials vs. slicks:

Durability

Drag radials are the tougher, longer-lasting option. They can go for many runs on the drag strip before they finally wear out, and you need to install new tires.

In comparison, drag racing slicks generally require replacement after several runs because their walls thin out faster, which increases the risk of a tire blowout. Furthermore, their softer material is more vulnerable to punctures.

Unfortunately, neither type meets the demands of everyday driving on ordinary roads. Drag radials and slicks wear out faster than standard tires. Still, you can at least drive your drag radial-equipped dragster on the road in a pinch.

General Performance

On the drag strip, drag radials and slicks perform roughly the same at lower speeds. However, drag racing slicks can take better advantage of higher horsepower and torque levels.

The slick’s sidewalls twist in response to torque applied by the transmission. Their deliberate deformation lets power flow through the tire more smoothly, leading to faster acceleration.

Thanks to their sidewalls, slicks can give you the edge you need during launch. They also keep the powertrain from hitting the ground, which reduces the risk of damaging expensive and vulnerable parts.

Traction

When it comes to getting the best grip on the surface of the drag strip, slicks are the way to go. Their tread patterns drop grooves to ensure the largest possible surface area stays in contact with the road surface. The greater the tire surface area that touches the road, the better the tire’s grip.

However, the smoothness of slicks becomes a liability on wet road surfaces, such as when it rains or snow. Grooves direct water from under the tires, preventing hydroplaning that can reduce tire traction. If the grooves are too shallow or nonexistent, water can accumulate under the tires long enough to cause slippage.

Drag radials have better traction on wet roads, but remember that their grooves are comparatively shallow. They can’t channel the same amount of water as ordinary tires, much less rain tires.

Stability at High Speeds

Drag radial tires give your dragster the feeling of stability. While they don’t spin as fast as slicks at higher speeds, they respond better to your inputs on the steering wheel. In effect, drag radial tires trade straight-line speed for superior handling.

General Usability

If you’re new to drag racing, you usually want something that eases the learning curve. And even if you’re an old hand at driving, you probably want to make your life easier. Whatever your experience, you’ll want drag radials for how easy they are to use, especially when compared to slicks.

Drag radials are usually street-legal, so you can drive your dragster to the race track and back. While they aren’t daily driver tires, they’re more flexible. In comparison, slicks aren’t road-legal, so either you have to replace the tires with ordinary ones for the trip to the race track or use another car to tow your dragster.

Once you get to the drag strip, you can drive your car to the starting line immediately if you have drag radials. There’s no need to warm drag radial tires before use. Meanwhile, slicks require an extensive process to raise their temperature without damaging their material before they can work safely and effectively.

Road-Legal Status

DOT regulations require tires to have a minimum amount of tread pattern and depth for safe driving in most road conditions.

Most drag radials can be legally used on roads. Their tread patterns cover more than enough of their surface, and their grooves are deep enough to handle minor wet conditions.

Slicks are usually not road-legal. There are some slick tires that have just enough tread pattern to pass the grade. However, they generally perform worse than ordinary tires and drag radials outside of the drag strip.

If you’re unsure about the road legality of your car’s tires, check their specifications and compare them to federal and state requirements.

In the end, the question of drag radials vs. slicks boils down to what you want out of your car. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of each option before making a decision.

About The Author
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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