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April 2011 Trail Head

Posted in Features on April 1, 2011
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My first set of off-road tires was just plain ugly. I didn't choose them, mind you. They just happened to come on a truck that I purchased from some small, seedy dealership. They fulfilled two purposes for that dealer who specialized in used lifted trucks: they were bigger than stock and they were cheap. I don't even remember the brand-but I do remember that they didn't perform all that well off-road, especially in the mud. The tread would quickly pack up and the Budget-Muds became drag slicks. Fortunately, I wasn't too bright at the time and I insisted on filling them to the maximum tire pressure listed on the sidewall. This ensured that they wore out in the centers very quickly so that I could unknowingly move on to my next set of tires.

I liked the look of really wide tires and wheels. So I did what any dumb kid would do: I installed the widest street-legal tires and wheels I could fit on my truck. I spent nearly as much on the new rolling stock as I had spent on the 4x4 I was putting them on. I went with aluminum 15x12 Progressive wheels wrapped with 33x14.50-15 Mickey Thompson Baja Belted tires. They made my truck look like a roller skate going down the road. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), at the time I didn't understand a thing about vehicle dynamics and scrub radius. It wasn't until after I had them bolted up that I realized wider wheels and tires can make your 4x4 wander all over the road like a crackhead in the desert searching for aluminum cans. The extra-wide tires and wheels and a little abusive airtime lead to worn wheel bearings and bent axlehousings. But it was worth it-at least my 4x4 looked cool.

My next set of off-road tires was on my first Jeep: 31x10.50R15 Armstrong Norseman radials. They weren't particularly good off-road tires, but with a single locker in the rear, it didn't seem to matter what tires I had on that Jeep. It would always go further up the trail than my buddy's rig that had open differentials front and rear.

I never had a chance to actually wear out any of my tires, although I always imagined being able to take advantage of the road hazard warranties that I purchased religiously. I only dreamed of thrashing the sidewall of a tire that had most of its tread worn out. The problem was that I always seemed to destroy the newest of my four tires, no matter what corner of the Jeep I tried to hide it on.

Off-road radial tires had really gained momentum, but I simply couldn't keep from popping the thin sidewalls that were common in that era. I was at the tire store more often than some of its employees. It was getting expensive, even though I only had to pay for a new road hazard warranty and balancing. So I stepped into some bias-ply 33x14.00-15 Super Swamper Boggers and slapped them on some 15x12 aluminum wheels. Of course I had already forgotten my earlier experience with wide tires and wheels, but I had also accepted that this Jeep was not my daily driver. Somehow the stock Dana 25 front axle survived the massive tires and wheels and V-8 power without a single failure-at least for a season or two. I actually broke a rear axleshaft and then later split the tranny in half on that Jeep before the Dana 25 even whimpered. After that, I got on the bigger-better fast track. I kept stepping up in tire size almost every time I tore a hole in the sidewall or when they had about 75 percent of their tread left-whichever came first.

Since my early 4x4 days I've wheeled with everything from nearly bald, dry-rotted pizza cutters to monster 49-inch Swampers. Every size has its pros and cons. It's just different. Tire size should really be dictated by the kind of wheeling you do and the wheelbase of the Jeep you are driving. Of course your drivetrain selection is somewhat important too, but I suspect that not many people will actually try to put 54-inch tires on a four-cylinder Wrangler with stock axles.

Anyway, after all of that you'd probably guess that I would have learned something. Well, you would have guessed wrong. I still love the look of wide wheels and tires. But I'm ready to step back a bit. Tires in the 37-inch-plus range make most of the trails in my area too easy. Don't get me wrong, I still love to see 44-inch-tired Jeeps on the trail, but not on a trail that can be just as easily traversed with 33s-that's just silly. I've almost gone full circle again. I've been keeping my eyes out for some aluminum 15x12 wheels for my next Jeep project. This time around it will have the axles to support them, though. Looky there, maybe I have learned something after all.
-John Cappa

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