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Flying Alligators

by bj max

On the road to Bike Week last month, my buddies and I were riding across I-10 in Florida. I was in the lead and it was a typical Florida day, balmy and pleasant. As we rode along enjoying the fine weather I noticed something hanging from the power lines that crossed the Interstate in the distance. I first thought it was a bird of some sort. Maybe a sea gull or sand crane. It looked like it had gotten tangled in the wires and maybe strangled to death. I keyed the two-way and mentioned it to my friends. But as we got closer I realized that it wasn’t a sea gull or sand crane. In fact, it wasn’t a bird at all. It was an alligator. Right about now I’ll betcha’ you’re scratching your head and thinking, ‘Now alligator’s can’t fly so how in the name of Steve Irwin did an alligator get tangled up in them power lines?’ Right? Well drag up a chair neighbor and I’ll tell you.

Back in 1991 my wife and I attended the Daytona 500. We were down in row one, the cheap seats, the best we could do even though we ordered the tickets a year in advance. We almost didn’t go because of the lousy seats but, as it turned out, those sorry tickets plopped us virtually on top of the action and I think every NASCAR star from Richard Petty to Rusty Wallace smacked the wall right in front of us that year. But out of all those spins and crashes, there was one I’ll never forget. It involved a minor contender by the name of Hut Strickland and a tire that couldn’t stand the pressure.

The incident happened about half way through the big race. Hut was running about mid-pack when suddenly his right rear tire explodes. Now we’ve seen this happen a thousand times on the tube but television just can’t convey the violence and mayhem of an exploding tire. The quarter panel on Strickland’s Chevy was completely destroyed, blown to bits, and the back of the 3400 pound race car was visibly lifted by the blast causing it to spin madly out of control. I can still hear the metallic “WHANGGGG” of the explosion and our proximity was such that my eyes actually blurred momentarily from the concussion. The violence of that episode burned an image in my mind that is as sobering today as it was then and left me with a new respect for those black bombs we call tires.

Cut to Interstate 55 near Water Valley, Mississippi three years later. Its two AM and I’m tooling along in my eighteen wheeler digging on the radio and watching the night go by. A cab over Pete pulling a short box container blows by on my left. I flash my headlights signaling the driver that he’s cleared me and it’s safe to move back into the right lane. As he begins drifting over, his outside rear tandem (trailer tire) suddenly explodes in a shower of sparks and rubber, ripping off his mud flap and destroying the tail lamps. A three foot length of tread helicopters into my passenger side windshield, wiping out the wiper (no pun intended), shattering the glass and leaving a dent in the cab like I had center punched a telephone pole. I hailed the driver on the CB but the dastardly dog wouldn’t answer and motors away in his faster truck.

Three weeks later, Music City USA. Once again its early AM and I’m outbound on I-40 descending a long hill with a left-hand sweeper at the bottom. I’m doing about sixty MPH when, without warning, my left steering tire explodes. KA-BOOM! The truck takes a heart stopping swerve towards a four-foot concrete divider that separates the east and westbound lanes. Bringing to bear all the dumb luck I’ve accumulated over the years, I manage to bring the rig to a safe stop. Whew! Man that was a close one.

After a short prayer of thanks I step down from the cab, still shaking, to inspect the damage. The wheel well looked like it had been dynamited. The mud flap was gone and its bracket (fabricated out of three inch diameter steel pipe) is twisted like a pretzel. Steel fittings were snapped off and their lines wrapped and twisted around the axle. The tire is shredded to pieces and scattered for half a mile back up the hill. Fortunately, at this early hour, traffic is light and there were no four wheelers around when the tire let go.

If you noticed, In each of these examples I used the term “explode” instead of “Blow Out”. Mainly because that’s exactly what happened. Those tires didn’t let go with a wimpy little pop. They were blown to smithereens with big chunks of rubber flying in all directions. And eighteen wheelers run steel belted radials so most of these chunks are bristling with tiny strands of solid steel wire. Imagine, if you can, riding through a swarm of winged porcupines.

Exploding tires on tractor-trailers are not uncommon. Happens all the time. Especially in the hot summer months when we do most of our riding. Take one well worn truck tire, heat then beat well with 5000 pounds of dead weight for 10,000 miles and you have a recipe for disaster. All this is certainly a big factor in the demise of truck tires but a lot of the blame can be laid squarely on the shoulders of the trucking companies and their tightwad maintenance programs. A lot of them have subscribed to a simple and cheap tire replacement system. If it ain’t flat, run it. The way they figure it, there’s seventeen more tires left on a rig after a blowout, more than enough to get to the nearest truck stop, so why waste money on new one’s when the old one’s still manage to hold air. Never mind the safety of the motoring public.

And, as if exploding tires weren’t enough you have to deal with their aftermath. Alligator’s. Not your common, everyday alligator’ or alligator mississippiensis as they are formally known but the more dangerous synthetic strain that prefers the warm asphalt of the Interstate highway and sometimes, as we have seen, the high tension wires that crosses the Interstate. Most big rigs run re-caps and when a re-cap blows, the tread has a tendency to separate from the carcass as a whole or in part and in my career as a professional driver I’ve seen a million of ’em curled up in the middle of the highway just waiting for some unsuspecting motorist to come along. Nicknamed “Alligator’s” by truckers, they can be anywhere from one to six feet long and weigh upwards of seventy pounds. These things are capable of severe damage to the underside of semis, ripping out fuel crossover pipes, air lines and hydraulics. Truck drivers are wary of these things and constantly warn each other of their presence and location. If they’re a hazard to the mechanical undersides of an eighteen wheeler just think what they could do to a motorcycle or worse yet, a motorcyclist.

So beware of those black bombs and give the big rigs plenty of room. When you overtake a semi, don’t dawdle good people. You have the power in your right wrist to blast by in the wink of an eye. Use it. I’ve seen motorcyclist pass tractor-trailers and piddle around forever, gradually inching by. Not only is this frustrating to the trucker, diverting his attention from the road ahead to the pissant running alongside, but, like playing Russian Roulette with an automatic pistol, it’s a very dangerous game.

Ya’ll think about it.

M.M.M.

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