Vile Gossip | Adventures in tire testing
Jean Jennings has been writing about cars for more than 30 years, after stints as a taxicab driver and as a mechanic in the Chrysler Proving Grounds Impact Lab. She was a staff writer at Car and Driver magazine, the first executive editor and former president and editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, the founder of the blog Jean Knows Cars and former automotive correspondent for Good Morning America. She has lifetime awards from both the Motor Press Guild and the New England Motor Press Association.This is her first column for Autoblog — look for more Vile Gossip in the future.
I began writing at Car and Driver magazine back in its golden age in the 1970s, before I’d actually read it. I knew very little about cars. The only magazine I read religiously was Four Wheeler because I owned big trucks and liked to go off-roading with my Chrysler Proving Grounds friends.
My vast 10 years of driving experience up to that point (high-speed dirt-road idiot, taxicab driver, Chrysler Proving Grounds test driver) had less bearing on my being hired at Car and Driver than the fact that the editor just wanted to rile up the all-male staff.
He didn’t need me for that. They were already in full dudgeon when I arrived. They’d just spent a chunk of time testing a stack of tires for their big tire-test issue, and the editor-in-chief was toe-to-toe with the technical editor over the rankings of the top 10 tires. It was loud, and it was angry.
I had no idea that car magazines tested tires. Cab driving had led me to believe that airing up a tire and changing a flat was all you needed to know. I changed so many flats on that cab, I eventually wound up in front of a live audience on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” demonstrating my brilliance with a jack and a tire iron.
My point, of course, is that tires are more controversial, and also more essential, than you’d think. My other point is that it’s good to get worked up about the subject, but not quite so good to let yourself be seen, as I did, on my hands and knees with my ass up in the air on national TV.
This is how I prefer to test a tire:
First, pick a top brand. Then accept their invitation to try and beat the crap out of their tire. I chose Yokohama, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The big news for them was the GEOLANDER M/T G003! (My boldface, my italics, my exclamation point.) This is the fourth and most intimidating of the Geolander lineup, looking so badass that I couldn’t imagine anything but a mortar perforating its craggy carcass.
More important, my test of one tire was to take place in Western Colorado at the luxurious Gateway Canyon resort, which included a car museum and an off-road, Baja-like racing course, complete with big jumps and long, pronounced banked turns. Did I say I like off-roading? Did I add that I’ve done the Baja 1000 with a Russian and won the Frontier 250 with the legendary Walker Evans? Did I say I can catch major air on pro jumps like Ricky Johnson, King of the Hammers? Because that last one would be a lie.
And then we arrived at the dirt test track, a regular old race course littered with big dirt hills.
I was suddenly not so … OK, I was terrified.
There were a bunch of other guys with me, by which I mean guys, not girls, there to test the hell out of those Geolanders. There were instructors with credentials including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400, even the 24 Hours of Daytona, who gave us a few safety tips (thumbs outside the wheel, hit any big rocks in the middle, stay in the vehicle if you roll it and turn off the power and ignition switches).
The pro Baja trucks looked like Spiders from Mars (RIP Bowie) made of little more than a massively compliant racing suspension, four monster Geolanders, a cab with floppy bodywork and fake headlamp decals, no real doors — just windows — and an instructor in each truck to talk us through the fine art of blasting through the banked turns and catching air off the jumps without flipping backward or barrel rolling. I was all ears.
A more pressing problem was crawling up the side of the truck without a ladder, and piling into the cabin headfirst without showing plumber butt. With that horror behind me, I hooked up my window net, buckled my safety harness, hooked up the air pumper to my helmet and snapped in the communication cord.
I faced the first jump, a hill that looked 50 feet tall. All I had to do was gun it up the hill in a straight line, crest the top 100 percent square, leave the earth with my front tires while my right foot was still planted, and then lift throttle when the rear tires left the ground, too, and nail the gas when I hit the ground.
I chicken-lifted and limped over the top of that first jump, much to my utter shame. I put it all together for the second. Something amazing happens when you mash the throttle and sail off the top of a hill. You can feel the rear tires leave the ground, and you know that they are ready and waiting to hit the ground running when you nail the gas.
That was all it took. I spent the rest of my “testing” opportunity — 10 laps — racing around from jump to jump, flying through the air with the greatest of ease and crashing to earth without snapping my spine. In between, I blasted up and through the banked turns, motodrome-style, using those big-block sidewalls to stay the course. And again.
It was an awesome “test.”
Later that day, once the adrenaline had gone back to where it belonged, we Jeeped around up in the surrounding LaSalle mountains on rocky paths very much like the rocks of the brutal Rubicon Trail in Northern California. A pleasant afternoon drive on torturous terrain showcasing a mighty fine tire. The G003 is a stellar choice for major-league off-road driving enthusiasts, but Yokohama will also sell you a set if you never intend to take your new Range Rover off-road. And wouldn’t that be a waste of a good time? There are 37 sizes to start things off, fitting 15-inch to 20-inch rims. Just the thing to complete your Raptor and your life, right?
Far be it from me to suggest more reasonable 18-inch rims for that Raptor.