First Shot from China
Remember that Norton didn’t take Honda seriously either.
Coming out of turn seven I can see the bikes ahead on the long back straight. Being externally motivated, attaining visual directly affects the rotating motion of my right wrist and the big Aprilia starts a steady controlled drift out to the exit curbing across the lightly textured concrete. The hard drive out gives me a substantial MPH advantage and I slip by one bike on the straight after Porsche knoll and, throttle pinned, tuck underneath the other at the apex of the fast back straight kink. Two down. But a surprise is waiting for me on the other side of the hill. Two other riders, out of sight until now, are jockeying for position in the braking zone. They had both backed off a little too early and my momentum was going to take me by them whether I wanted to or not. This being a Mille, with its joyful back torque limiting clutch, I wanted to. I lined up on the inside, dropped four gears, waited on the brakes and went by one bike. Hammering the front brakes, I dropped the clutch and started to squeeze towards the apex curbing, half a thought directed to the hope that the fourth and last rider would see me on the inside before committing to the turn. The Aprilia’s clutch allowed for just enough rear wheel slip to assist the turn and the front tire gave a warning vibration as I tipped it in while trailing brake. I slipped by the other rider but, since I had turned in from no further than mid track, I was hardly carrying any speed. The big twin pounded out power and I threw it into 10B already picking my spot on the bridge to line up for the drive to crucial turn 12 and the finish line. Accelerating from low speed the Aprilia challenged the rear tire which cautioned me that it was nearing its limits by giving a brief slow chatter out of the turn while the Mille charged up the hill towards the bridge. The Mille’s front end had been complementing the front tire all day over the rough bumps in the high speed and unforgiving turn twelve so I let the twin have its head under the bridge, short shifted to fourth and charged down the hill, 12 inches off the exit curbing. Fighting the instinct to turn early for the illusionary safety of the apex (which only leads to regret at the exit) I waited until the bottom of the hill before peeling off. Even with the G forces of the flattening hill, the front end load of the turn and the compounding influences of the bumps, my knee hit the pavement about 35 yards before the apex and I knew I hit it just right. I lifted my knee and grazed the top of the green and white curbing as I drive across the finish line. At Road Atlanta that’s the same shit different day but this isn’t a race, it’s a press launch. And the confidence inspiring tires gracing the refined Mille are built by Maxxis, a division of Cheng Shin.
Slow chatter on the way out accompanies low speed slides.
Taiwan is one of the Asian countries (or renegade Chinese provinces depending on who you talk to) that has made the quantum jump from a subsistence level of living to advanced manufacturing. Taiwan is known around the globe for its ability to manufacture sophisticated computer components, virtually all notebook computers and a myriad of other products that require a high degree of technical expertise. Despite all that, there is a historical prejudice about Taiwanese tires in the US. This prejudice, against Cheng Shin tires, is mainly due to the fact that Cheng Shin staked out the cheap tire market, and, of course, cheap tires are not usually very performance oriented.
Cheng Shin understood that Cheng Shin would never be taken seriously as a performance tire by Americans, so, in 1991 they opened the Maxxis division. Maxxis has since grown at a kudzu like rate of 50% a year. Most of this has been under most motorcyclist’s brand awareness radar because Maxxis sells dirt bike, bicycle, go-kart, ATV, truck and passenger car tires, as well as distributing about 60,000 of those cheap Cheng Shin motorcycle tires. If I had been paying attention to ATV racing (which I have not) I would know that Maxxis is not only in the market, they are a force to be taken very seriously. They win lots of races, they sponsor teams and they are now appearing as OEM tires on some of the sportiest ATVs on the market. The enormous warehouse in Atlanta (one of three in the country) bears physical witness to the fact that these people are serious.
Having established Maxxis as a serious tire brand for many other specialty forms of performance tires (see list above) they decided, two years ago, to build a serious motorcycle tire. Their official goal is “Comparable performance at a better price.”
Each tire is built by hand. Good thing labor is cheap in Taiwan.
To achieve that ends they dedicated a fair amount of resource and effort to building a tire to western tastes for the western market. They went so far as to hire noted Southeastern racer Wade Buffington and have hired other southeast racers to extensively test various compounds and constructions before finalizing the formula for the official release. It was not difficult to ascertain that the “comparable performance” benchmark they were aiming at is the D207 ZR street tire as most of the track tests were performed back to back with the Dunlops.
This is the warehouse that Maxxis outgrew two years ago.
The SuperMaxx have all the features of a modern performance radial. The front tires have two radial nylon plies with two opposing 45 degree Kevlar plies. The rear tire has two radial nylon plies with a single jointless mono spiral Kevlar belt. This is a single filament of Kevlar that is applied perpendicular to the nylon plies. The single strand applied in a jointless fashion increases the consistency of production and prevents tread loosening or other joint related flaws.
Joint type ply
Maxxis Jointless Kevlar
In addition to the track tester, Maxxis also employs a few street testers. These guys have put tens of thousands of miles on a variety of these tires. Their experience suggests that the tires should last in a similar manner to other performance street tires, about 3,500 miles or so. Much of that will depend on proper inflation and riding style.
The racer influence on the tires was instantly discernable at the Road Atlanta press launch by the air pressures. At many street tire test or street bike tests on racetracks the tire pressures are often set very high (36-40 psi) and it is only with great drama and resistance that it is possible to get them drained down to a more track suitable 30-31. The Maxxis tires were set 31 front, 32 rear.
There are thousands of variables affecting how a bike feels at any moment on a racetrack and it can be very difficult to figure out what it the precise aspect of the set up that is making a bike feel a particular.
My first session on the track I chose one of the Aprilia Falcos. We had been cautioned that the Falcos were in street trim and that the suspension was set up street bike soft. I was being very cautious and tentative on the bike since: A. the bike was set up with street shift, B. the suspension was soft, C. I was at Road Atlanta on Cheng Shin tires.
All that said I was pretty surprised when I banged my knee down entering the fast and tricky turn one on the second lap. I steadily increased the pace until, on the fifth lap, the bike was getting badly out of shape through some of the fastest turns on the track. Putting it into the pits (instead of a wall) I spent a few moment contemplating the irony of the situation. Usually at press launches we are supposed to find the limits of the test bike but instead find the limits of the tires, here we are supposed to test tires but I was limited by the fading suspension of the bike.
The Mille R, however, was an entirely different deal. With its excellent suspension, prodigious power and enviable slipper clutch the limitations of the bike were removed from the equation. Pushing the bike into a pretty fast pace (there were no stopwatches visible on the wall) allowed the tires to show their true character. They are really good. It wasn’t just a case of “they are really good for a first try” or “they are really good for a cheap price” they are just really good.
Considering what we had been doing to them, this tire looks surprisingly good.
SuperMaxx tires are available in:
- 120/65 ZR17
- 120/70 ZR17
- 180/55 ZR17
- 190/50 ZR17
Headed for a dealer near you.
Maxxis initially built the front tire in only a 70 series profile. It is very forgiving and easy to ride but because Maxxis chose to use a flattish profile (instead of a triangular profile) the 70 series tire is a little slow steering. The racer test riders asked Maxxis to release a faster steering front tire, Maxxis engineers responded with a 65 series front which, although a little more nervous over bumps mid-corner, is much more nimble.
I preferred the lighter steering 65 series tire and found that it was still able to cope with the most challenging front tire task at Road Atlanta: the bumps in the fast down hill turn twelve. The front tire (granted, it was at the end of the excellent Aprilia fork) gave positive and encouraging feedback even through the ripples and bumps. The only weakness of the front tire (and this is shared by the rear to some extent although it manifests in a different way) is that the voids in the tread are pretty large at the edge of the tire. Trail braking into slow turns gives the rider a slow vibration and squirm as the tire moves around on the large tread blocks. This is really only noticeable when trying to get an Aprilia slowed down enough to avoid collecting a trundling accessories distributor representative while still making the turn. This short of scenario should not show up very frequently in the average sport street ride.
The rear had great grip, feel and looked like it would have very good endurance as well. The limits of the tire were demonstrated by lazy and predictable slides. These slides were only reached with pretty severe throttle antics. Accelerating very aggressively out of slow speed second gear turns, the large tread voids at the edge of the tire would produce a light rear chatter. Once this characteristic was identified it did not prove to be a problem, more like a noticeable cautionary characteristic.
Both of these limitations were at a pace that would never be approached on the street and, actually, were at a pace well in excess of track day riders and, actually, a fair number of racers.
Having established that the “comparable performance” goal has been satisfactorily met, I asked about the price. Full retail is $276 a pair. Apparently this price includes very healthy margins for the aforementioned distributors as well as the dealer. Expect to be able to find these tires discounted to $225 or lower. This will have huge benefits not only for people that use up street tires quickly, but it will actually benefit consumers of all brands of tires. Downward pricing pressure on similar quality tires will result in more competitive tire prices from all the manufactures.
Maxxis is intending to sell approximately 1,500 pairs of these radial tires next year in the US. Giving a generous wholesale price of $150 a set that is a gross income of a paltry $225,000. Barely a drop in the proverbial bucket for a company that makes over $800 million a year. So why bother?
Maxxis has recognized that pushing the performance limits of their tire building enterprise will provide technology transfer to the rest of their product line and raise the profile of the tire company to another group of consumers. And their commitment to quality is admirable. The attitude of the entire company is that poor quality tires (and remember there is a difference between cheap tires that are supposed to be long wearing at the expense of traction and tires that are out of round, leak air, or fail) will hurt them in the long run and that every tire they make must be of consistent quality. This involves lots of statistical sampling of both raw materials and finished products.
To speed up the development of tires for the US market, Maxxis has built its own tire laboratory and specialty production center in Atlanta Georgia. This center (which is separate from their administration and warehouse in Atlanta) allows the US staff to experiment with compounds, mixing orders, and various other aspects of the alchemy of modern tire building. They cannot make carcasses in the US. So, for testing purposes, the US staff can make a new compound, retread a Taiwan built carcass and test it locally. If the results are positive they can email the formula to Taiwan and order a limited production run made from scratch. The tires are then air freighted to Atlanta for continued testing. This allows for very rapid development and provides a competitive edge for Maxxis in the realms of bicycle, go-kart and ATV racing. In addition to the ability to formulate and produce alternate compounds, the Atlanta R and D center has a full laboratory which employs seven people with specialty equipment to enable them to quantify the physical properties of each compound.
How does all this affect you, the racer?
Maxxis will be releasing their motorcycle DOT race tire in two years.