Basics of Proper Trailer Towing

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Racers, we all log a lot of miles transporting ourselves and our cars to the dragstrip on a weekly basis. This is no small task but many of us take it for granted. Think about it: we’re not only driving a vehicle, but that vehicle is towing another vehicle that’s carrying yet another vehicle. Then think about how many knucklehead drivers we encounter on a daily basis when we’re driving our regular cars. It’s bad enough having to take evasive action when driving a daily driver. It’s even worse when we’re driving a loaded trailer. Having a properly equipped and loaded trailer won’t prevent any encounters with knucklehead drivers, but it can change the outcome from being catastrophic to being a minor annoyance. Proper towing means having the right equipment, knowing how to load and employing safe drive habits. Let’s look at the loading first.

Proper Loading
Your ability to handle and control your tow vehicle and trailer is greatly improved when the cargo is properly loaded and distributed. Load your trailer heavier in front: the trailer should have about 60% of the cargo weight in front and 40% in the back. This is pretty easily accomplished in the case of hauling a door car where the engine is in the front. In the case of hauling the typical rear-engine dragster, care should be taken to add some more cargo to the front of the trailer to get to that 60%.

Refer to your tow vehicle and trailer owner’s manuals to find out how to balance weight from side to side, distribute cargo weight evenly along the length of the trailer, adjust the height of the tow vehicle/trailer interface, and apply load leveling (weight distributing hitch bars).

The Right Equipment
Racers, I’ve seen some stupid things in my time going to the track. I used to tow the Dodge with my 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee (it also doubled as my hotel which I referred to as The Cherokee Grand). I was towing the Dodge on an open car carrier and I was always under the towing limits of the Jeep. However, I’ve witnessed a Jeep like mine hauling a box that had to be at least 24 ft. What was that guy thinking? If the box had anything in it, it was way beyond the capacity of that Jeep, and one good gust of wind would send the whole rig off the road. I now tow the Dodge in a 24 ft. box with a 2500-series ¾-ton Chevrolet Suburban which is maxed for towing: 8.1 liter engine, 4.10 gears, extra cooling, and heavy duty suspension.

Suspension is a key component to safe towing. More specifically, a fully-functioning suspension system (meaning having the ability to travel as designed) is crucial to safe towing. Trailers and tow vehicles should be level (parallel to the ground) during travel. To learn more about this, I spoke with Todd Green, Sales Manager at Firestone Ride-Rite, which manufactures air-ride systems for tow vehicles like ours. That's a Ride-Rite system pictured. States Todd, “When vehicles are towing and the rear is sagging, the weight of the trailer decreases the suspension travel which reduces the ability for the suspension to compensate for road conditions. When this happens the suspension cannot perform at its best. OE suspensions are a compromise between comfort and capacity. Cheat the system by adding an adjustable air helper spring system and get the full potential out of your tow vehicle. Bringing the suspension back up to the designed height with a kit like Ride-Rite will allow the suspension to cycle normally, distribute the load and reduce suspension fatigue.” There are other benefits to having a properly level rig. Says Todd, “Our air suspension kits will reduce bottoming out, reduce sway, improve braking effectiveness and level your headlights.” I hadn’t thought of the headlights, but when Todd said that, a lightbulb went off in my head. How much do we hate driving toward someone who’s headlights are angled right up to us? I don’t want to be that guy!

I asked Todd if there were a particular Ride-Rite system that’s especially easy to install. He replied, “Ride-Rite™ Air Helper Springs. They are a simple “bolt in” no-drill solution for towing and hauling. When installed correctly and properly maintained a Ride-Rite kit should last the lifetime of the vehicle. Kits are made to fit a specific make, model, and year.” Here's a video that details a Ride-Rite No-Drill Kit installation.

Another area of equipment that should never be compromised is the tires. Most trailers that I’ve used have come with Load Range D tires specifically for trailer service. When it comes time to change them, do yourself a favor and switch up to Load Range E. Everything in our world (meaning our race cars) is literally riding on the tires, so inspect them regularly for dry rotting and the dreaded sidewall bubble. When it comes time to replace, step it up to Load E tires. Also, always check your pressures. To get full load-carrying ability, tires need to be inflated to their maximums, but don’t go over. That leads to poor handling and premature wear.

Driving Habits
Racers, I’m sure we’ve all seen it: other racers rushing to get to the track, passing us on the highway with their rigs, obviously well-exceeding the speed limit. Just slow down! Keeping your speed reasonable makes for a safer trip and puts less heat in the tires. The likelihood of trailer-sway also increases at higher speeds. If you do get sway, activate the trailer brakes by hand with the brake controller, but do not also activate the tow vehicle brakes. To control swaying caused by air pressure changes and wind buffeting when larger vehicles pass from either direction, release the accelerator pedal to slow down and keep a firm grip on the steering wheel.

Pre-Departure Safety Checklist

  • Check and correct tire pressure on the tow vehicle and trailer.
  • Make sure the wheel lug nuts/bolts on the tow vehicle and trailer are tightened to the correct torque.
  • Be sure the hitch, coupler, draw bar, and other equipment that connect the trailer and the tow vehicle are properly secured and adjusted.
  • Check that the wiring is properly connected— not touching the road, but loose enough to make turns without disconnecting or damaging the wires.
  • Make sure all running lights, brake lights, turn signals, and hazard lights are working.
  • Verify that the brakes on the tow vehicle and trailer are operating correctly.
  • Check that all items are securely fastened on and in the trailer.
  • Be sure the trailer jack, tongue support, and any attached stabilizers are raised and locked in place.
  • Check load distribution to make sure the tow vehicle and trailer are properly balanced front to back and side to side.
  • Check side- and rear-view mirrors to make sure you have good visibility.
  • Check routes and restrictions on bridges and tunnels.
  • Make sure you have wheel chocks and jack stands.

Firestone Ride-Rite

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration