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The Dragtime News - Towing Basics

Basics of Proper Trailer Towing
(More tech articles on the Tech, Tests & Installs page HERE)

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
Before Heading Out For A Long-Distance Tow
Wherever you live and whatever track you race for, if you’ve had a good season in either NHRA or IHRA ET bracket competition, you’ve secured a spot on your track’s team and will be going to do battle with the best of the best of all of the tracks in your division. Some of you might have a long tow ahead of you, and some of you might not be used to towing for long distances. Before you take to the road, here’s a handy check list to refer to before heading out.
  • First, always have a spare trailer tire, and if possible carry two spares. If you have a blowout of a trailer tire and you use the spare, then you’ll be completing your trip with no additional spare. Another issue is the remaining tire that was on the same side as the blowout may have taken a lot of abuse when it had to support all of the weight on that side by itself. It’s possible the tire has been compromised. When it comes time to replace the tire that blew out, you should replace the other one at the same time. Make sure that when you check the tire pressures on the truck and trailer before hitting the road, you also air up the spare. If it's been sitting for a while, it's likely not inflated enough to last very long while carrying a heavy load.
  • If you do have a blowout on your trailer, the easiest way to get that tire off the ground is to drive the good tire up onto a ramp. I keep two ramps I made of wood in my tow vehicle (pictured). If I do blow a tire, I put the ramps on both sides of the trailer and drive it up evenly. You’ll want to break the lug nuts loose before getting the flat tire off the ground.
  • Go to your auto parts store and stock up on emergency road flares to use if you need to pull over on the side of the road. Also pick up a tire plug kit. Not all flats are blowouts. Many are punctures from a nail or screw that are easily repaired with a rope plug. You can then air the tire back up using the portable compressor you keep in your trailer to air up your slicks. Don’t have one? Time to get one!
  • Give your tow vehicle an oil change, and if possible new transmission fluid. A little bit of cheap maintenance can go a long way toward keeping your rig happy and healthy.
  • If you’re traveling a long distance to get to your bracket finals, you may find yourself parking your rig in a hotel parking lot on the way to and from the event (when you’re at the event, you’ll likely unhook the trailer and leave it at the track as you go back and forth to the hotel). This brings up the questions of security. How much would THAT stink to go out to the parking lot the next morning to find an empty spot where your truck, trailer and race car were parked. A good insurance policy is a trailer security system like the Pro-Tec System One from Trailer Alarms LLC, which monitors and protects the trailer and its contents. Any movement of the trailer, or the opening of a door will trigger the alarm. This will cause the electrical brakes of the trailer to be applied making movement impossible in addition to exterior alarms alerting the public.

Last but not least, know your loaded weight! Take your fully loaded trailer to a weigh station or scrap yard with a scale and find out how much you’re really towing. Good luck and safe travels.

Firestone Ride-Rite

Trailer Alarms, LLC / Pro-Tec System One

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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