PALM SPRINGS, California — This smells like a publicity stunt: Introduce a new ultra-high-performance tire, have five IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship drivers show up, and tell everybody the drivers actually worked with tire engineers during the tire’s development — and made some significant contributions.
But apparently it’s true.
The event is the media and dealer introduction of the Continental ExtremeContact Sport. Though Continental has a full roster of tire engineers and professional testers, management realized that through its involvement with the IMSA WeatherTech Championship came access to many of the best sports-car racers in the world, like Ryan Dalziel, who has wins at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans on his resume.
At the moment, Dalziel is accelerating up to and beyond 150 mph at the wheel of a new Dodge Challenger SRT 392, a 485-horsepower manual-transmission monster with a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8. At the end of the straight at the Thermal Club, a private driving facility outside Palm Springs, California, Dalziel throws the 4,279-pound Challenger into a sweeping left-hander, keeping the car sideways as long as possible. The Scottish driver grins, even though he says, “This car really has no business being on a racetrack.”
Continental involved IMSA drivers and incorporating their feedback into the development of the ExtremeContact Sport to help the tire manufacturer reach its goal of making it the best consumer ultra-high-performance tire available. But not just on the racetrack or in high-speed situations; the tire also had to raise the bar on wet-pavement handling, and wet and dry braking ability.
That’s where Dalziel (Visit Florida Racing and Tequila Patron ESM Racing), Ozz Negri (Michael Shank Racing), Joao Barbosa (Action Express Racing), Andy Lally (Magnus Racing), and Lawson Aschenbach (Stevenson Motorsports) come in. The five played key roles in the development of the ExtremeContact Sport.
“We chose five of the best sports-car drivers in the world to help deliver what the performance-driving enthusiasts demand in a tire,” said Travis Roffler, Continental’s director of marketing. Dalziel likes the new tire.
“This is a great tire on the track because you can abuse it and it never gives up,” he said. “As a street tire, this was already an excellent product, but wet traction has been improved, tire life has been drastically improved — and those are areas where this tire was already near the top.”
Repeatedly, Continental stressed that this was not a publicity stunt to involve some high-profile race drivers. This was, it said, an extensive effort to get the input of drivers who compete at the highest levels in a series where speeds can top 200 mph and cars run in daylight and dark, wet and dry, on surfaces that range from maximum grip to slick as butter.
The IMSA drivers evaluated the tires under a variety of circumstances at several locations, including Continental’s own massive testing facility in Uvalde, Texas.
“We didn’t know which tire we were testing,” said Negri, fresh from leading his team to an overall win at the IMSA season-ending, 10-hour Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. “We just knew them as tire A, B, C, or D. And then they debriefed us separately.”
At first, Negri said he wasn’t immediately interested.
“I thought, ‘You know, I drive a pretty cool race car, with a lot of tire grip,”’ he said, and he wasn’t sure what he could bring to the table for a street-tire program.
“But when we got started, I realized that when I was working to make my race car better, it was just for me and the team. But with this project, we’re working on making a tire better for a whole lot of other people. And we learned how many good folks there are behind these tires, how much passion and professionalism they have to make this tire the best.”
At the Thermal Club facility, Continental had dealers and media participate in tests that included a dry autocross; an autocross that had dry and wet pavement with a wet braking test; and a comparatively slow track session where Continental tire engineers and testers demonstrated their own testing procedures.
And finally there was a high-speed test of the tires on a variety of cars that included BMWs, a Challenger SRT Hellcat, a Ford Mustang massaged by NASCAR’s Richard Petty-owned Petty’s garage that was supercharged to more than 800 horsepower, and a track-ready Porsche Cayman race car.
The overall impression: This tire is predictable and forgiving on the track, but the big surprise is the grip on wet surfaces, especially in braking. Tested against not only the current generation ExtremeContact Sport tires, the new tires were compared to other top-of-the-line performance tires from multiple brands, and it was apparent Continental wants more of this ultra-high-performance market.
The ExtremeContact Sport, available in February, will come in 71 sizes, including 17 new sizes, ranging from 15- to 20-inch wheel diameters with a W and Y speed rating. At present it will not be offered on any OEM’s new cars, which seems sort of surprising.
“I was proud to be part of this,” Dalziel said. “And I don’t think this is the end of programs like this one.”