Helicopters, Burnouts and Autonomous Cars: Welcome to Continental Tyres Uvalde Proving Ground
Continental Tyre’s Proving Ground at Uvalde in Texas is part fun fair and part serious place of work…seems you can have your cake and eat it too. Here’s what we learned in our day testing tyres.
Everything’s bigger in Texas is something that someone once said. And that couldn’t be truer of Continental’s tyre test centre at Uvalde. More than 50 years old, the Uvalde facility was formerly a General Tire research centre, switching to a Continental site when the latter purchased the former back in the 1980s.
The first tracks were built at the site back in 1959 with the first tracks intended for use in the development of passenger car tyres. With the development of road cars and tyres needing to handle higher speeds, a 14-kilometre-long oval track was added. Over the years, other tracks were added for testing commercial vehicle tyres and 4×4 tyres with water crossings, mud and rubble tracks being added as test requirements grew. Indeed, it has a dedicated vehicle dynamics facility, traction testing facility and a wet grip testing facility.
More than that, the 5000-acre site in Texas has become a jewel in Continental’s crown. See, with its warm climate the site allows Continental to test tyres all-year-round. Indeed, with, according to Continental, US consumers favouring longevity and reliability from their tyres while European buyers prefer performance in wet weather and short braking distances. Uvalde, said Continental, unlike its facilities in Europe, allows the company to keep testing across a range of performance criteria, from rough roads to wet roads.
At Uvalde, Continental’s test drivers get through around 20,000 tyres a year and drive around 5 million kilometres each year.
But let’s get to the reason we’re here…
As it regularly does, Continental invited journalists and consumers to attend an open day at Uvalde and experience the variety of testing environments and vehicle types the brand develops products for. It’s a huge place, like nothing else you can imagine, and we’ve been to car maker test sites and race tracks all around the world but Uvalde eclipses everything.
The safety briefing upon arrival is simple…keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, wear sunscreen, and don’t crash.
Continental showed us some of its future product developments, told us about where it sees its business going as a systems business with an interest in tyres (only 25% of its business is in selling tyres). But the fun stuff was being able to get out onto the track and experience a little bit of what it’s like to test tyres at Continental.
You can read about my experience in Continental’s autonomous tyre test vehicle by following the link but we also got to test the continental tyres against their key competitors which highlighted that not all tyres are created equal… I got to get into passenger cars and SUVs and drive them at speed around the track to test out grip, tyre roll and more…you really could feel, from inside the car, the differences between the tyres (but, as Tim Shaw often said, ‘but wait, there’s more’).
Then there were the off-road tracks where Jeep Wranglers (and even some buggies too for the fast dirt and sand tracks) were on hand for clambering over boulders, through mud bogs and sand, and even a 36-degree mountain slope that can be flooded like a Universal Studios ride. All the obstacles were intended to not just test out the machinery but also to test the tyres they were shod with to their absolute limits.
All throughout the day, Continental had used a helicopter, yes, a helicopter to ferry us around and follow some of the cars being driven by its test drivers, and when I say follow, I mean, like a few feet away from the thing. The reason being, Continental said, was because the helicopter allows you to see what the tyre is doing in each situation. And it was right, you could see the tyre rolling as the car cornered, you could see the water being shed by the tyre, and so on. But, yeah, doing it while strapped into a chopper just feet away from the car is as nuts as it sounds.
Our day finished with Dusty Holt, the chopper pilot who’d been running us around Uvalde all day, and occasionally using a skid on his helicopter to nudge a knocked-over-cone back into place, yeah, the guy is that good… and then there was Tommy Van Cleef, the chief driving instructor at Uvalde who in his liveried M3 had been taking journos on hot laps and more. Well, you know what’s coming…
That’s right, Continental put the two blokes together. It’s called the Smoke Show and it sees Dusty chase Tommy around the race track; Tommy drifting the M3 almost the entire way, and Dusty sitting off him by just a few metres. It was insane, epic, jaw-dropping all rolled up in a big dose of bloody marvellous.
In all our years, we’ve never seen anything like this…in fact, we’ve never experienced anything like the Uvalde experience Continental put on for us; words don’t do it justice. We’ve been tut-tutted by Japanese car company handlers for squealing tyres on a test track, and had speed limits of 80km/h imposed on us at some new car launches, and even been limited to a test drive of just a few kilometres after flying half way around the world… but this wasn’t like any of that. This was just good old-fashioned fun; it just so happened we learned a bit about how Continental tests its tyres along the way.