Michelin Tire School
April 28, 2012
Story & Photos By John Budinich

On March 13 thru 15, Shane Tisdale, Carolinas Region Chief Driving Instructor, and I attended Michelin’s Influencer Tire School. This class brought together 18 enthusiasts from PCA, BMWCCA, Corvette Clubs and other enthusiast organizations to learn more about high performance tires versus all season tires and how to help our constituents decide what is best suited for their driving styles. The short two and a half day schedule was packed with information and practical insight into what goes into building a high quality tire and how the various types of tires perform. This information is useful for both street and track applications.

The program started with a “get to know each other” dinner at one of the Michelin training facilities. This gave us all the opportunity to meet our fellow classmates and the Michelin people involved in putting together this inaugural event. After dinner, we were given some insight as to how Michelin trains their dealers and prototypes their showroom displays. There were three key players from the Michelin side that were with us throughout the program. Kimbrelly Kegler, Marketing - Influencer Manager, who was the driving force in putting the group together. She also coordinates the 25th Hour, a social media outlet for the key influencer group. Johnny Valencia, Training & Development Manager - TCAR, handled the classroom instruction portion of the program and answered the technical and sometimes “unusual” questions posed by the group. Last but not least was Doug Brown, Brand Category Manager - Michelin Sport UHP (Ultra High Performance), whose 30+ years of experience in the industry and performance & motorsports background provided valuable insight surrounding our track and “spirited” street driving questions. There were three other members of PCA in the class beside Shane and I; Vu Nguyen, Executive Director of PCA, Greg Files of Hurricane Region, and Christian Maloof of PorschePurist.com.

The next day the program started in earnest. We met at the Michelin Sales Training facility in Greenville, SC. Once we gathered and got our morning coffee, it was time to get down to business. We were given a walkthrough of the extensive amount of technology behind the “round black donuts” that we take for granted. They do not just pour molten rubber into a mold and pop out a finished tire. They described the various products that go into a tire (different types of rubber, textiles, wire and additives) and the precise placement of each of those items. We were also shown a variety of finished tires that demonstrated two very distinct means of manufacturing. One method is used for mass production and when the products used are fairly consistent across the tire. The other method allows for more precise placement of product within the tire. A great example of this technology in practice is the new Michelin Pilot Super Sport tire. The tread of this tire consists of the same carbon black rubber used in the ALMS race tire in the outer rib and shoulder for extreme cornering capability and a silica rich compound across the balance of the tread for exceptional wet weather grip and wear resistance. Another example of the precision this technology provides is in the BFGoodrich KDW tire. In one of the rows of blocks around the tread, the individual blocks are made up of two different rubber compounds resulting in different performance for the inside of the block versus the outside of the block.

We also went through some exercises in determining how to calculate air pressures required when going to different size tires in a plus configuration. This was enlightening in that some of our preconceived notions on the differences in air pressure were in effect, wrong. Michelin, and other tire manufacturers, publish fitment guides that aid in determining correct air pressures to use when changing from one tire size to another. This can be going to a wider tire on the same diameter rim or in a plus one or plus two fitment. These guides are provided to tire retailers, yet I cannot remember when I have ever seen one consult the book for the correct pressures to use. Most either go by the sticker on your door (no longer valid) or “swag” the pressure based on “experience”. A few of those present gave examples of cases where the dealer was up to 15 PSI off on their “recommended” settings.

Finally, we discussed the differences between an Ultra High Performance tire and an All-Season tire. This put to rest the common misconception that an all all-season would be better in the wet due to the greater number of “sipes” and groves in the tread pattern. They proved that logic just does not “hold water”. The performance tire performs better in the wet due to the grip of the compounds used. The all-season tire reflects its name in that it is in effect, a compromise. The all-season really shines based on temperature, not moisture. The performance tire falls off considerably below 40 degrees, where as the all-season remains consistent across the temperature range. The lesson learned here: if you want very high levels of grip above 40 degrees and the best performance below 40 degrees and in snow, get two sets of tires. A set of UHP Summer tires and a set of dedicated winter tires will provide the best result. The All-Season tires are for those looking for inherently longer tire life but are willing to settle for consistent, but compromised, performance.

We then were given a tour of the manufacturing facility in Greenville. This facility is one of 29 worldwide tire production facilities. The complexity of the number of products that go into a tire, and the level of automation in building a given tire was impressive. This facility primarily builds passenger car tires for Original Equipment and Replacement markets. In addition to observing the processes involved in making the tires, we also saw all of the quality checks that are built in to the process. Every tire is inspected by hand and a sampling of tires goes through additional quality checks. Talk about being obsessed with quality!

The final day started out with some practical application of what was learned so far. We met at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, SC for some “hands on” with the Michelin tires using the Center’s various BMWs. The lead instructor for the day was Jimmy Clark. No, not THAT Jimmy Clark. He reviewed courses we would be driving and the basic handling characteristics we should be evaluating.

First up was an Autocross using a portion of their road course. After an orientation lap and one “warm up” lap, each student was given six runs on the course. This was done using 335d sedans on sticker Michelin Pilot Super Sports. The diesel in the 335d produced a tremendous amount of torque but the Super Sports were up to the task at hand. The tires were very communicative when they approached the limit without the typical squeal of most tires. They were then quick to correct, utilizing the same carbon black rubber on their outer band as that used in the Michelins made for ALMS racing. After our runs, the tires showed very little wear or feathering, despite not having been “run in” before we were let loose on the track. The thing that amazed me the most is how consistent the tires were and the consistent times they allowed across the students of varying experience. The proof, the fastest time of day was produced by a student with lots of racing experience and more that a few competition licenses. The slowest time of day, from a student with markedly less experience, was only 1.1 second slower over a course averaging 29 seconds. This speaks to the confidence the tires gave the students and the forgiveness they demonstrated on the track. They even allowed a driver like me, who can barely work the pedals and chew gum at the same time to post a time in the middle of the pack. In addition to all that performance, they come with a warranty (the Michelin Promise Plan offering 30,000 miles on square fitments). It’s definitely got to be the tires...

Following the Autocross we moved to the BMW X5s for the off road course. The vehicles and the Michelin Latitude tires both impressed the group with their abilities to climb slippery rocks and perform at extreme angles to the goat path posing as a road. While not in the same class as an off-road equipped Jeep conquering the Rubicon Trail, the vehicle and tires proved they are easily up to any off-road driving 95% of luxury SUV buyers will ever encounter.

Finally, we moved to the wet skid pad. Here students faced off on opposite sides of the oval for a “rat race” demonstration. We were in identical BMW 335 sedans, with one exception. One vehicle had the Michelin Pilot Super Sport Ultra High Performance tires and the other had the Michelin Pilot Sport All-Season Plus tires. Shane and I squared off for the first run, Shane had the Super Sports and I had the PSAS+. Even though the all season tires looked to have a more aggressive tread pattern we thought would shed water quicker, the results of the run proved interesting. My comments after the “race” we’re that the all season tires were consistent and fun. By this I meant I could hang the tail of the car out at the stab of the gas pedal and then keep it there as long as I wanted. Shane had a different experience on the Super Sports. While the carbon black outer band allowed for quick initial turn-in, the remaining bands of silica rich rubber across the tread allowed the car to stick to the inside line of the oval as if on rails. The result: within two short laps around the oval, Shane was right on my rear bumper and wanting to pass. The difference was consistent across all of the runs by the various students. Most of us were seriously impressed by the sticking ability of the Super Sports and this demonstration drove that point home.

This exercise showcased the amazing wet traction of the new Pilot Super Sport. While most of the track savvy students have experienced the exceptional dry weather grip of the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tire, they were talking about how good the Pilot Super Sport would be on a damp to wet track. If the weather looks iffy when you head out for a Driver’s Ed or Autocross event, you can still bring the Pilot Sport Cup tires in case the track dries out but you can be confident that the day will not be ruined if you have the Pilot Super Sports already mounted on the car. You can just run them in the wet and still enjoy the day and set good times in general summer temperatures.

After lunch and awards for the quickest Autocross time, we thanked the Performance Center instructors and headed back to Michelin’s Sales Training Center. We completed our school by debriefing about what we learned over the two days and we discussed how this experience would be put to use. I for one have a much better appreciation of the technology and track testing that goes into a Michelin tire and the ways to make them perform better through correct application and tire pressures. I also know that when someone in the club asks me which tire I would recommend, instead of giving a quick answer of what is popular or “aggressive looking”, I will ask some important questions. What type of driving will you be doing? What conditions will you encounter? Are you willing to change to dedicated winter tires in cold weather? Only then will I be able to make an informed recommendation.

Imagine that, I did learn something by going “Back to School”.