Where the Rubber Meets the Road

The Dunlop Proving Grounds Revealed

By Ari Henning, Photography by Dunlop

In an industrial park just south of Huntsville, Alabama, a yellow Dunlop flag flies in front of a nondescript two-story building. The low-key appearance gives away nothing of the significance of the place. In fact, this is ground zero for a massive amount of Dunlop's testing. Sitting on 80 acres of red clay earth, the Dunlop Proving Grounds boasts a total of four miles of pavement for streetbikes, a stadium-style supercross track and faster motocross track for dirtbikes, and a three-mile woods course for enduros, dual-sports, and ATVs. The place is equipped to test everything from race rubber to touring tires to knobbies. The DPG is literally where Dunlop rubber first meets the road.

When the DPG's gates first opened in 1989, it served the needs of both Dunlop's automotive and powersports divisions. Over time, motorcycles took priority, and by 2000 the facility transitioned to two-wheel only, making it the only motorcycle-specific proving grounds in America. When it went all bike, the layout was modified to suit the specific needs of motorcycle tire testing, and the current arrangement, which includes two skid pads and an encyclopedic variety of turns, allows the DPG staff to assess every aspect of a tire's performance.

What about wet testing? If the weather isn't cooperative, in-ground sprinklers can soak a half-mile circuit on demand. "The track was designed to do exactly what it does and that's test tires' performance," Danny Roberts, Dunlop's test manager, says. Performance testing doesn't just entail lap times, lean angle, and courage. It also means ensuring the tires still perform acceptably when a bike is loaded to capacity, when the tires are worn, or when brands are mismatched. "You can't test for every scenario, but we try," he adds.

"The DPG allows us to continuously develop of our own product and lets us test our competitors' tires on a regular basis," Roberts explains. Developing a new tire typically takes two to three years, and the DPG plays a major role in the process. Once the marketing department decides on a set of objectives––creating an all-new tire or updating an existing model to offer more grip or better mileage––the engineers at Dunlop's Buffalo, New York, factory produce a batch of prototypes. The beta buns are then sent to the DPG to see if they hit the target. A bull's-eye on the first shot is unlikely; the team might go through dozens of prototypes en route to the final tire design. Roberts and Senior Test Engineer Rich Conicelli are responsible for evaluating road products, while Test Engineer Clark Stiles handles off-road, supermoto, and ATV testing.

Besides the riders, the DPG is home to two full-time techs who maintain a fleet of testbikes. The multi-bay garage houses a range of sportbikes, various cruisers, multiple generations of Gold Wing, several dirtbikes, and a supermoto. There's even an ex-AMA GSX-R1000 Superbike and GSX-R600 Supersport machine that the guys use for sport- and race-tire testing. The racebikes and several other motorcycles are wired for data acquisition. "It's a lot more than just lap times," Roberts says of sport tire testing. "We use GPS along with a variety of other sensors to collect lots of empirical data that the engineers use to better understand our subjective comments and understand what the tires are doing in a mechanical sense.

"Our evaluations focus purely on what one tires does versus another tire, and our tests are blind, so we don't know anything about the tires except the project objective," Roberts says. Imagine trying to identify the performance differences among tires with slightly different compounds or carcass designs––without having any knowledge or information to go on except what you feel. "For big projects, we'll take two or three days and test 100 tires," Roberts says. "In the end, we'll narrow the choices down to a few sets, and the differences among them might be so slight you could slide a piece of paper between them."

Being a professional test rider obviously takes a very specific skill set. "All current and former Dunlop test riders have been hand-picked from the racing world," says Roberts, who left a successful AMA roadracing career to work at the DPG more than 17 years ago. "There's no shortage of fast guys out there, but the list thins when you start to combine all the other elements required for a good development rider," he continues. "It takes more than just riding skill. Focus, consistency, and communication are at the top of the list.

"It also takes a different mindset than just going fast," he says. "One day we may be testing sport or race product, and the next day we could be testing touring or cruiser tires."
Danny, Rich, and Clark may be charged with testing any type of tire at any level of production, be it a consumer tire or professional race tire. (In case you somehow missed the news, Dunlop is the spec tire for AMA Pro Racing.) These three riders are responsible for evaluating about 2,500 tires a year, which means balancing up to 10 different projects at any one time.

So, if you've ridden a bike shod with Dunlop rubber recently––whether touring tires, sport rubber, or even knobbies––you've had the benefit of Roberts, Conicelli, and Stiles' experience and hard work at the Dunlop Proving Grounds. They say you're welcome.

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