I promised you guys a mommyblogger — the closest I could come was an autocrosser and track rat who happens to be a mother. Sorry about that. We will keep looking. In the meantime, please give Ryan a warm welcome — jb
The 2018 Michelin Tire School. Well, at least, that’s what it said on the Michelin-Man-emblazoned itinerary in my Greenville, South Carolina, hotel room. The evening’s reception and dinner were filled with cheers of meetings and reunions, car chatter, and occasional outbursts of laughter. In attendance were recognizable faces and names from within the female automotive world. We were a hodgepodge mix of professional racers, stunt drivers, club drivers, high end auto brokers, automotive photographers, automotive media & journalists, leaders from within large car clubs, with many of the women owning businesses in one form or another. That’s about the time this event became more commonly known as Michelin’s Women in Drive.
The next morning, we were transported to Michelin’s Sales Training Center. A large yet conservative looking building set amongst a maze of similar looking structures. All with different impressive sounding acronyms like MARC, US1, and PRIME. The entranceway into the training facility was a mini-Michelin museum. There’s a life size Bibendum waving hello as you enter, waiting for hugs and selfies. Old photos and advertisements adorned the walls. Tires from nearly every decade are displayed open-air style, eager for curious hands to explore and fondle. A full sized F1 race car, in full Michelin livery, nearly obstructed the large aisle way.
We eventually made our way to Tires 101, where Michelin’s Johnny Valencia discussed with us some basic tire information. Within a few moments he had refreshed our memories of the differences between winter, all-seasons, and summer tires; taught a few of us that every tire has a birthdate designated by a four-digit code that can be found on the outer sidewall; and blew our minds that each tire can take four years to develop. We learned a lot about Michelin’s newest baby, the PS4s, an Ultra High Performance Summer Tire. Shockingly, this tire just debuted January 2017, however, the next version is already in development!
The PS4s tire is visually appealing with Michelin’s Premium Touch, a velvet like texture, patterned on the sidewall. The standard PS4s has the darker texture outlining the Bib graphic & Michelin name and a small checkered flag pattern following the “Pilot Sport 4 s” designation. It creates a nice dark black on black contrast. There is a limited edition version available that incorporates the Premium Touch around the entire face of the tire. A nice option for those who want to stand out and perform. This new aesthetic feature will also be found on Michelin’s Sport Cup 2 tires. Fun fact: as the tire gets older and the smooth surfaces typically fade, Premium Touch areas will remain a dark black, creating even more contrast.
The next venture in Tire School was a tour through Michelin’s US1 plant. Its inner workings are still a closely guarded secret, such that before entering the complex we had to show ID and receive a visitor’s pass. Next, we stopped in a room full of Hi-Vis vests, radios and safety shoes. Wearing different shoes, bright vests and a headset with receiver, we walked behind our tour guide. Tator, a 42-year Michelin employee, proud of his nickname and who did kind of look like a potato, lead us into the factory. As we entered, the smell of rubber was the first sign that you were in a tire manufacturing plant. We were warned of the smell’s potency, but honestly, I liked it. We weaved around large machines, handled different rubber compounds, and attentively listened as Tator told us each component’s function.
Tires are built, layered actually, from the inside out. Each layer a different combination of ingredients, some incorporating nylon cord, and even steel. Once fully assembled the tires are turned right side out and individually dropped into large ovens. The ovens use a combination of heat and pressure to press the tread pattern from multi-piece molds into the tire. Hopefully that’s not an industry secret, as it’s a unique technique Michelin uses to produce the most symmetrical tires on the market. After a long cooling period, every tire is hand inspected by qualified technicians required to complete a 60-90 day training program. If, somehow, one tire slips through the expert’s hands a machine just down the line takes one last look, separating good from bad. My entire visit I never saw a tire get rejected. A more advanced quality control is performed every five days. One tire from each line is dissected by engineers who use x-ray, micrometers, and precise standards to ascertain that the tire is perfect. Another important note, there is hardly any waste. Trimmed rubber during tire fabrication gets re-melted and reused, and tires that do not pass inspection get broken-down and used for mulch or other shredded rubber applications. Astonishingly, US1 produces over 25,000 tires daily, yet this is only a fraction of Michelin’s total tire production. This facility mostly produces tires for their passenger-vehicle and light truck division.
After a day of studious activities, it was time for recess. At Le Mans Karting, in Greenville, we were divided into ten teams, with the addition of one Michelin staff member to each team. The ten teams proceeded to complete a 90-minute endurance race, with two mandatory driver swaps. My team, “the Locals”, took 2nd and I have the trophy to prove it.
The next day we were divided into small groups and shuttled to our first testing location. For my group that was hot laps in a Shelby GT350R wearing PS4s tires. The GT350R, the more track focused version of GT350, was a feast for the senses. Sexy, sporty, and a glorious high revving flat-plane crank V8 exhaust note all had me smiling before I even got in the car. This is a car typically seen wearing a more track focused tire, like Michelin’s Sport Cup 2, so I was excited to see how the PS4s would perform. The tires were able to put down the R’s 526hp/429 lb-ft of torque smoothly and quickly. The tires provided audible feedback during the 100mph – 9:30 steering angle – sweeping left turn, and I never felt the car slip or bobble. Coming in fast to tight turns was met with smooth, firm, and quick braking. It was exhilarating to feel the performance capabilities of the car combined with the tires.
For our next activity, we arrived to find 2 Ford Focuses (Foci?), a front wheel drive car, each with 2 new tires. One Focus had the new tires on the front, the other on the rear. We drove each at 45-55mph around a wet concrete oval. Driving the car with new tires on the rear, I could feel the front tires hydroplane and understeer to the outside of the oval, but a gentle release of the throttle held the car planted. Next car, with new tires on the front, was completely different. As soon as I felt the car hydroplane, it was over and I was spinning out. For the average driver, and even above average driver, this could not be controlled. ALWAYS PUT NEW TIRES ON THE REAR, doesn’t matter if the vehicle is front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive. (Editor’s note: this does not hold true for your track use.)
Next, we simulated wet braking and measured braking distances with two Hyundai Santa Fe’s. One equipped with Michelin Premier LTX tires that had been buffed down to half tread (half-worn), the other with new Bridgestone H/L Alenza Plus tires. We were required to reach 45mph, re-engage cruise control, drive into an aisle-way made of cones and flooded with water, and wait for a verbal command to stop. When told “now” we had to stand, and I mean STAND, on the brakes. My personal testing alone showed the half-worn Michelins stopped over 15 feet shorter than the new Bridgestones.
Next, we autocrossed V6 Automatic Mustang Convertibles on dry pavement. One on the PS4s, the other on the Bridgestone Potenza S-04 Pole Positions. I was frustrated with the automatic gearbox, but the PS4s was the winner. Better turn-in response and greater ability to hold higher speeds in sweeping turns were the two major improvements I noticed.
Our last activity compared a Chrysler Minivan on its OE (Original Equipment, aka from factory) Michelin Tires vs an F30 BMW 328i on the cheapest OE fitment tires. The course was a large wet oval with a few chicanes, a decreasing radius turn and an increasing radius turn. The minivan glaringly outperformed the BMW. The minivan did not feel super nimble, but the handling was quick and responsive while the vehicle maintained grip at higher speeds and inspired a lot of driver confidence. It was truly frightening to feel how unstable the BMW handled on the cheap tires. To have “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, and mount inferior tires, quickly created “The Ultimate Danger Machine”.
While we were wet testing on three different skid pads, I wondered “Where does all this water go?”. Well, just as in the manufacturing process, there’s hardly any waste. Minus water lost to evaporation, all runoff is collected, cycled through a large filtration system and used over and over again. After two days of in-class learning, witnessing the intense quality control implemented in the tire manufacturing process, and actual behind the wheel testing, it’s easy to validate the opinion that I already had from my time autocrossing on Michelin tires: this company is making all the right moves. Is the PS4S the best tire on earth? For what I’m doing… yes!