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Staying On The Straight And Narrow

Speed is nothing if the car can’t stay on the road.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015 - 06:00
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“Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?” We’ve all heard that old saying, and in motorsports of every genre the ability to go fast often is considered the primary element in getting to the winner’s podium. But even in the high horsepower world of drag racing, where the race is over mere seconds after it began, horsepower means very little if the car can’t get it to the ground and keep it there. Add in the need to shift direction shared by most other styles of racing, and you soon can appreciate just how serious a role the suspension and steering systems play in the final outcome.

And while your customer may not be rounding the corners at Pocono or blazing down the quarter mile at the Gator Nationals with the family minivan, the role the suspension and steering systems play is no less important.  

Starting at the Beginning
“Where the rubber meets the road” might be another antiquated adage, but there is a lot of truth in those simple words. The ability of the driver to maintain control of the car is tied to keeping the tire in contact with the pavement. Consider the weight of a modern automobile or light truck and then imagine for a moment the area of a tire’s “contact patch,” or that part of the tire that is in physical connection with the road surface. That contact patch is roughly the size of an average man’s hand and, times four, is all that stands between control and loss of control.

Tire pressure is a critical part of maintaining that contact patch. Too little or too much air in the tires will alter the amount of contact and impact the stability of the vehicle. And while slicks might be great for traction on a race car, tires with tread worn below minimums are unable to channel water away from the contact patch and could lead to loss of control. These two conditions alone make routine tire inspections on every car he services mandatory for a technician that considers himself a professional.

Of course, there are other factors that you should inspect for on every tire that comes into your shop. Signs of physical damage, overall age and condition, and abnormal wear are just a few to consider. The latter, abnormal wear, is a great indicator of other problems in the steering and suspension systems; problems that, left unattended, increase the likelihood of an accident or loss of control. After all, the reason the tire is abnormally worn is due to the fact that it’s contact patch hasn’t been what it’s supposed to be!

Stick to It
The tire can grip the road only while it is in contact with the road. Think a moment about what happens when the tire encounters an obstacle in its path, say, a pothole. The tire rolls forward to the lip of the hole before the surface falls out from underneath the contact patch. Now all the weight of the vehicle being applied to that wheel drives the tire downward into the hole until it reaches bottom. The impact of that force is felt by the tire and with no other way to dissipate, is returned up the chassis connections to the vehicle and ultimately, the occupants. That is, unless we have some way to control that energy.

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