Think your shop had a tough week handling inventory and your customers' wheels and tire needs? Consider the major league grind faced by Champion Tire & Wheel Inc.
About 37 weeks during the year, the Cornelius, N.C.-based company just north of Charlotte serves some of the most demanding drivers in the U.S. Just a few of the names you should recognize: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Champion Tire—which has no retail stores and operates solely for racing venues—is entrusted to take care of more than 4,000 wheels per week for most of the teams in NASCAR's Nextel Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck racing. Champion Tire operates 17 tractor-trailers to take care of its customers.
They may be just 15-inch wheels, but the investment is anything but ordinary in NASCAR's brutal environment. Each team buys roughly 300 wheels per year at $100 a pop, said Kevin Mahl, who started the dealership in 2002 with Jamie Rolewicz.
Wrecks take their toll, and that's why NAS-CAR teams usually have 60 wheels each on race weekends (72 at Darlington Race¬way in South Carolina).
“We bring back at least 10 damaged wheels every week,” Mr. Mahl said. “Some get smashed up pretty good—to the point where it is a challenge to get the tire off the wheel. They come back smashed with paint on them from another car, the wall or concrete dust—depending on what kind of hazard they got into.
“Even though they are wrecked, we still bring them back so we can scan them out of the system and tag that wheel number as damaged.”
Champion marks the “low spot” on each wheel with a bar code. This lets the mounters at the racetrack line that mark up with the yellow dot on the tire, also known as the “high spot” or the radial first harmonic dot.
This creates what might be called a “match-mounted” assembly and helps the teams manage the consistency of the tires and wheels better throughout the course of a race, Mr. Rolewicz said.
“It is not always safe to assume that the things that make a wheel 'good' will stay in check throughout the course of a 37-race season,” according to Mr. Mahl. “If you think of the life of a race wheel—we take delivery of the wheels for teams in December and January, it gets prepped for the season, then transported, unloaded, mounted, raced on, loaded at the track, unloaded, dismounted, de-glued, washed, re¬stocked and ready to transport to the next race—there are plenty of opportunities for something to cause a wheel to go out of tolerance.
“We try and look at what we do from a crew chief's perspective and ask ourselves how we would want our wheels and tires handled if we were them. It is becoming more and more recognized that every force that the driver feels travels through those four wheels and they should be considered a critical piece of the overall suspension. The teams have developed a confidence in us to know that the wheels we are bringing to the race track are ready to go on the race track.”
Champion Tire, which has 50 full-time employees and several part-timers, was formed in September 2002 and supplied and tested race tires to NASCAR teams. Mr. Mahl, who holds a B.S. in chemical engineering and an M.B.A., was with Goodyear for 13 years as a race tire engineer and product manager. Mr. Rolewicz, who holds a B.S. in civil engineering, worked in Goodyear's racing projects as well. NASCAR instituted a tire leasing program for the 2006 season, but Champion Tire still works with teams that have stockpiled tires.
All tires are mounted with “state-of-the-art” equipment from Bridgeton, Mo.-based Hunter Engineering Co., Mr. Mahl said.
“The thing we like about the Hunter is the nylon mounting heads, which tend to take care of the wheel, the safety inner-liner and the tire beads,” he said. “They are then balanced on the Hunter GSP9700 using the new 'SmartWeight' technology. We really are starting to build a lot of confidence in the Smart¬Weight software.
“The technology seems to be changing decades-old thinking about 'balance' by essentially shifting the amount of residual radial and lateral forces left in the assembly after balancing is completed. Because of this, we are starting to believe that the end result is a better performing tire-and-wheel assembly, especially in a high-speed racing situation.”
“It's not that traditional balancing is wrong, but it's a waste of time and a waste of weight,” said Dave Scribner, product manager for Hunter's line of wheel balancers.
He said Champion and Hunter have tested complete tire-and-wheel assemblies that had been balanced the traditional way. “You'd think they would come up zero but, I would say 40 percent of the time, there was an extra half-ounce of weight being added,” Mr. Scribner said. “Now, at 200 miles per hour, can a racer feel half an ounce? Probably not, but it's the stacking up of tolerance errors that causes vibrations.”
Though NASCAR teams and Champion may use Hunter's equipment, the technology's impact can be even greater with considerably tamer drivers. When it comes to minute out-of-balance conditions, Mr. Scribner said, “retirees in Florida are going to be much more sensitive than a NASCAR driver.”
Strictly speaking, neither Champion Tire nor Hunter Engineering works for or is a partner with NASCAR. Champion serves teams that race in NASCAR's top three series. Although Champion Tire's foundation relies on its technical expertise, Mr. Mahl noted, “We have become a transportation company, as well, be¬cause it is all part of completing the loop. In the whole 'loop,' we try and minimize the chance of something knocking a wheel out of tolerance.”
Wheels are not transported to the tracks with mounted tires, he added, “so we take special precautions in shipping the wheel bare. We try and transport as many wheels as we can to the track in custom-engineered racks that cradle the wheel and allow for its own little space.”
Every tire mounted at Champion Tire is filled with nitrogen. “Teams like to have the tires filled initially with nitrogen, as the purity levels tend to be higher than purging the air out,” Mr. Mahl explained. “This helps teams control the pressure build-up in a racing situation. Pressure changes will change the balance of a race car, so controlling that build-up is important to them.”
He said the company's nitrogen generator is the largest system ever built for a tire shop by Patton's Air Compressor Systems, a company that serves several NASCAR teams.
Each of Champion Tire's 17 tractor-trailers racks up about 60,000 miles a year. If a tire shop near a race track is interested in having one of the company's colorful rigs parked out front during a NASCAR event, Mr. Mahl said they may call him at (704) 892-2500 or send an email to [email protected] “The ones we have done it for love the attention that it brings the dealership,” he noted.
“We also contract with various companies like Goodyear, Airgas, Mech¬anix Wear, Sony Pictures, to wrap our trailers to gain the exposure at the race track and on the highways,” Mr. Mahl added. “We typically unload on a Wednesday or Thursday before a race weekend so the transporters are available for a couple of days to put on display or help a local dealer attract people.”