Unleash the Fury
Conti’s proving grounds is the premier tire and vehicle testing facility in North America so it makes sense that it played host to an entire day of burning, err… testing tires. The entire site sits on no less than 5000 acres. That’s almost 8 square miles, neatly cordoned off by a high speed three-lane oval 8.5 miles long. It’s a staggering amount of space by any measure. That space contains no less than five dirt road courses, three gravel road courses and a jumble of mud and rock courses. They have a Traction Testing Facility featuring asphalt and concrete to evaluate skidding characteristics on different surfaces. The Wet Grip Facility has a couple lateral grip circles and the Wet Handling Course while the Vehicle Dynamics Facility incorporates a 1-mile dry handling course, a 3-mile ride evaluation oval and my personal favorite: the wet pad.
Now, this isn’t your ordinary skid pad made up of the parking lot behind your school and some cones, no sir. It is a 640,000 sq ft piece of driving heaven. Even though it appears flat, the whole pad is actually banked slightly to allow a constant, steady stream of water to flow across its surface. The water is sourced from two nearby manmade ponds and it hits the pad courtesy of a perforated pipe along the edge. Everyone was politely asked to avoid sliding over this pipe because if it was destroyed so was our day. Thankfully everyone listened.
We weren’t given free reign over the place and that’s good because, frankly, things probably would have gotten pretty messy. No, our primary purpose was to test and evaluate the latest line of tires from Continental’s eponymous brand and from the company’s General Tire brand. The folks from Continental made it clear from the start that fun and learning were always going to be part of the equation. They weren’t lying. After going over a few safety precautions we were divided into smaller groups and sent off; each group would spend time at one station and then we’d rotate to ensure everyone got a complete taste of each facility.
Our test procedure involved doing direct back-to-back comparisons of two different tire models on the same type of vehicle. This made it considerably easier to notice the differences in grip level, noise, sidewall flex and other characteristics between the two given sets.
First up: the wet pad. Here we tested the Continental ContiSportContact 3 alongside the ContiProContact on a BMW 328i. The pad was set up like an autocross course (albeit a very wet one) so we didn’t hit any tremendous speeds, but we did go fast enough to recognize the much improved wet traction of the ContiSportContact 3 over the ContiProContact. Equipped with the former I could turn the car in much later and still maintain control whereas with the latter tire I would get understeer a lot sooner if I pushed hard. Having the CSC 3 also meant I could get back on the throttle sooner since I could expect the car to stay straight coming out of the corner. The ContiSportContact 3 inspired a lot of confidence around the course.
Next stop was the Traction Facility. We experienced firsthand the difference in stopping distance between full tread and worn (3/16” tread depth) tires on a wet surface. The vehicle for this test was a Ford Escape, a typical urban SUV. Using a GPS performance meter I noted a stopping distance in excess of 240 feet with the worn tires - a scary figure when you consider how many people put off changing their tires, even when they’re passed the wear bars.
Everyone broke for lunch and then, just as luck would have it, it was our group’s turn to ride and drive the Baja Trophy Truck, equipped with General Tire’s new-for-2008 Grabber Competition tires, on a specially prepped course. Believe it or not, the ride was surprisingly smooth; we all managed to keep our lunches as we flew through the air over and over. Grabber Competition tires are creating a stir in off-road racing circles, having garnered three podiums already in their debut year.
We went on to the Wet Handling Course where we tested General’s slightly more streetable light truck tire: the Grabber UHP. As expected, the UHP responded favorably in the wet thanks to its V-shaped tread pattern, which helps with water evacuation.
The testing culminated with a visit to the Dry Handling Road Course where a pair of 328i’s and a pair of Mustang GTs awaited us. They had survived the entire day up `till that point so it was incumbent upon us to not destroy them. The Bimmers were shod with the same rubber as the ones at the Wet Pad, namely the Continental ContiSportContact 3 and the ContiProContact. The Stangs were rolling on General Tire’s Exclaim UHP and Altimax HP. It was naturally a lot easier to push the tires to their limit on the faster dry course. Here again, owing to its stiffer sidewall and stickier summer compound, the ContiSportContact 3 was the best performing tire. The Exclaim UHP handled admirably in both wet and dry and is more tuner friendly due to its wider range of rim diameters: from 16 all the way to 24 inches. The Altimax HP is a slightly harder compound and judging by the howls clearly prefers highways over race tracks. It’s got its own trump card, though, in the form of Continental’s novel Monitor Technology. A Visual Alignment Indicator, also available on the Altimax RT, shows premature wear caused by improper wheel alignment by employing specially designed sipes on the tire’s edges. A Replacement Tire Monitor, unique to the Altimax HP, has the phrase “Replacement Tire Monitor” embedded in the tread’s center rib. The phrase changes to “Replace Tire” when the tire’s down to the wear bars. Pretty cool.
Continental ended our day at the Uvalde Proving Grounds back on the Wet Pad but we weren’t testing this time; we were competing. Two laps in a 328i on ContiSportContact 3s. Two drivers to a car. Each driver was to do one lap, with a change of drivers in between. The clock didn’t stop `till the end of the second lap. I and my co-driver got away with 2nd place despite a somewhat clumsy driver change.
The representatives at Uvalde and from CTNA’s headquarters in Charlotte, NC provided a great atmosphere in which to have fun, learn something and, best of all, obviously, lay down some rubber. Who wouldn’t dream about doing that?