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Team of professional drivers take on tire test

Vernon-based Kal Tire collecting data on driving in harsh Canadian conditions
Kal Tire

If you were to pick any one person to test tire performance in extreme conditions, you couldn't do much better than Whistler's Alan Sidorov.

Kind of a cross between a mad scientist and a fighter pilot, Sidorov is the man that Vernon-based tire outfit Kal Tire chose to conduct a wide range of tests to determine how different tire brands and styles perform in our rugged Canadian winter conditions. Sidorov, who runs an advanced driver training program when he's not racing cars around the world, says he first started driving rally races when he was 14 years old. When he was 17 he left home to chase his driving dreams in Europe, arriving in England with "$300, my racing suit and a pup tent," he says with a laugh.

He's been pushing his limits inside automobiles ever since as a driver, trainer and equipment tester. The life of a professional driver can be a wild one. Sidorov tells the story of riding shotgun with a driver whose bravado was not matched by his skills in an amateur race involving high-performance Dodge Vipers. At one point Sidorov had to punch the driver in the head and wrestle the controls away to keep them from a high-speed meeting with a wall.

On this day in late October, however, the excitement level is dialed down a bit but the work is just as important. On a rough patch of asphalt in a parking lot beside Edmonton's Northlands Park, Sidorov and his team of professional drivers are showing visiting journalists a few of the tests they use to provide the detailed data that Kal Tire is passing on to consumers. There are two Chrysler 300s roaring around the parking lot, their drivers testing out lateral traction on a high-speed circle route before measuring braking distance with a thrilling straight-line slam through a huge puddle.

The braking test is a tricky exercise for many drivers who for some reason are loathe to slam a brake pedal all the way to the floor and hold it there without letting off.

"A lot of people are tentative on the brakes," says Sidorov. "That's great if you want to smash into something."

Sidorov obviously knows driving. It's the other half of his personality - the scientific part - that makes him the right man to test out the equipment. As he casually rips through the parking lot he explains that when they are testing tires they do everything possible to make sure that every run is identical except for the type of rubber on the road (and they never know what brand of tire is underneath them until the testing is complete). The cars are wired up with all manner of high-tech gadgets, including G-force monitors and GPS trackers that are communicating with more than a dozen satellites.

"You have to know that every single instrument is exact," he says. "Let's say we had two different pyrometer readings giving two different track temperatures. Just that little bit, and you might as well throw away the day's test results."

The most important variable that needs to be controlled is the driver, Sidorov says. He and his team obsess over making every single test run the same so that driver input does not corrupt the data.

"If the driver is a factor, if the driver has a bunch of inconsistencies, it's garbage," he says. "We have to be obsessive about getting the data right and doing the driving precisely."

The word "obsessive" is one that Sidorov uses a lot while describing his team's testing techniques. Even when they're doing something kind of crazy, they have to do it perfectly. "It's impossible to say that plummeting over a blind drop-off into a dip and a hard right-hander isn't fun for a professional driver. But having said that, you cannot come into that blind drop- off at a faster speed than you did on the tire before."

The tests done for the Kal Tire study examine braking, cornering, road noise, hydroplaning, slush straight-line stability and slush cornering. The tests are conducted on Canadian roads in dry, wet, slushy, snowy and icy conditions.

Here are a few of the key findings of the tests:

-Winter tires, on average, stopped 14.68 metres sooner on ice compared to three-season tires from a speed of 30 kilometres per hour.

-Winter tires were nearly three times better at holding corners on ice than three-season tires.

-Contrary to popular belief, winter tires were, on average, quieter than all-weather and three-season tires.

"We're a Canadian company, we wanted Canadian facts based on real-life situations," says Brent Spruston, a Kal Tire manager who was on hand in Edmonton to talk tires. "Unbiased was our biggest goal in this. We are a retailer. We don't make tires, we sell tires. We wanted to give our consumers facts as opposed to opinions. If you look at a lot of consumer reports out there it's opinions: a guy drives one tire and says one thing, another guy drives the same tire and they say maybe the opposite."

Sidorov certainly thinks that the Kal Tire folks have gotten it right with their testing initiative, which began in early 2015 and will have covered nearly 75 different tires by mid-2016. The testing is completely independent. Kal Tire provides the rubber and Sidorov's team does the rest.

The data makes a compelling argument for having the right tires for driving in winter conditions. Spruston, however, said the purpose of the tests isn't to convince people to buy something but rather give them as much information as possible to make an informed decision.

Living in Sea to Sky country with some wild roads and even wilder weather, Sidorov says he never lets a tire get below 50 per cent tread wear and always makes sure he has the right equipment for the conditions.

"Way too many people take their tires for granted," he says. "I look at it as something that can save me or kill me."