Night Dragon Tire Tour of North America

Alfonse Palaima
by Alfonse Palaima

Sharing the Same Passion

Despite all being motorcyclists, we don’t all share the same passion for speed.
Not every rider needs to be the first guy to the café or the finish line. Some of us want to enjoy the scenery as well as the ride. I like to call it a more patient Zen in the art of transportation.

Regardless of the speed differential between us, a common thread we have is the love of that asphalt ribbon and our scientifically crafted, friction-based connection to it. The kinetic experience of carving a turn can be found nowhere else on earth – in the air, maybe, but not down here. Pirelli is here to help us like the famed Doctor Ruth.

Where the Throttle Meets the Road

Entangled in this scientifically enhanced dance with rubber and the road, there’s an entire world of experience, technology and passion for speed, style and good old-fashioned getting away from the current state of life. Pirelli is here to help keep you holding on to that escapist dream with bigger friction zones and sexier meat than your stock rubber provides you.

If you think you’ve already read about the Pirelli’s Night Dragon, you’ve probably read Pete Brissette’s report on the bias-ply version of the tire in which he provides a more in-depth look at the science involved with tire technology. The non-radial Night Dragon Pete reported on is just now hitting the streets in fitments for nearly every Harley-Davidson model – the largest market OEM. Take a peek at the guide in his story to find your size.

Built for high-horsepower high-torque motorcycles in the V-Twin market, the Night Dragon is said to have an 8% larger contact patch than that of the next best competitor and has a more uniformly performing grip than the traditional stock tire. Pirelli is in the business for performance as well as speed.

This time around the website, we’re going to look at the attention to detail that goes into making that connection happen with safe and repeatable results. Pirelli Tire heard the public’s cry for larger-scale testing after the introduction in March, so it created the Night Dragon Tour of North America.

Five thousand miles and counting.

This tour was Pirelli’s way of testing its new radial version of the Night Dragon, giving a dedicated team of Italian technicians the opportunity to optimize it for American roads. It was an epic journey across North America to test the new, rear-fitment-only radial. A motorcycle’s front tire simply doesn’t endure the same torque load as a rear tire, grip being more important that carcass durability.

Market testing can only teach a company so much, and in order to truly understand the needs of the American market, Pirelli dove headfirst into a large-scale, 17-stage, 6000-mile test of its final Night Dragon radial compound and tread designs by coming to our great nation and taking a big bite of the Americas.

The journey began in Anchorage, Alaska, and stretched to Miami, Florida. Pirelli testers rode through widely varied conditions such as burning deserts, icy mountain passes and humid tornado-threatened swampland, traveling daily on average about 350 miles. One tester expressed in his limited English his astonishment for the scale of the U.S. “In Europe, next town 200 meters. In America, next junction 100 miles. Oh my!”

I was invited to join Pirelli’s group of testers for part of this tour, and graciously given one of their motorcycles while they doubled up on a Harley Ultra Glide. Taking in only 1% of their total experience, I learned more about tires in one day than I’d ever known. First lesson learned: Italian enthusiasm for motorcycling is a concentrate and it should be consumed in small doses!

I arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, before the testing team did, so I found myself killing a few hours in the hotel lobby of the Galt House. Eventually a few Euro-looking guys rolled into the hotel carrying Touratech luggage and motorcycle helmets. What I didn’t expect was a near complete language barrier.

As they were checking in to the hotel, I approached them, hoping to find my English speaking contact, Salvo Pennisi, Pirelli’s test team manager. “Hello, gentlemen. Salvo?” Test team rider Vincenzo Frisina replies, “Salvo be here one half hour."

I stand there with a puzzled look on my face, speaking with a similar broken English (like that would help!). "Um, he's on his way here? Or he is here now for one half hour?" I ask.

Another gentleman by the name Domenico points to his watch and gestures "Half hour, here, 10 o'clock." What they don’t yet know, they’ve crossed another time zone today and his watch reads 9:30 pm. Oh great, curse me for being an ignorant American! I can see that his watch reads 9:30 pm, but it’s an hour behind the local time. So I’m still unsure on the status of Salvo, who is my only hope for communicating with this group. So began what eventually became a very interesting and educational journey with a humorous twist.

Lucky for me, the concierge helped to connect me to the now-resting-in-his-room Salvo Pennisi and we were able to exchange hellos and good-nights, plus a plan for breakfast and a departure time. Whew! Unfortunately, there were two restaurants in the hotel come that morning and I found myself guiding the same two men I met in the lobby through the American-sized bounty that is a breakfast buffet with made-to-order omelet bar. What’s Italian for all-you-can-eat?

The Gravy

Along this two-week-plus tire-testing schedule, the team had also been equipped with some aftermarket products to make the mileage more comfortable.

Saddlemen provided luggage and bags where necessary, accessory windscreens for the Fat Boys came from Memphis Shades, highway bars and pegsets came from Lindby Custom, Inc and Khrome Werks provided the Fat Boys with the necessary luggage racks. Barry Matteson, Frank Earwood and Mike Rink of Anchorage Harley-Davidson get the thank-yous for receiving and prepping the test bikes at the beginning of the tour.

Like true engineers, Pirelli’s test team planned their trip to the minutia before they boarded the plane from Sicily. The prepared everything from tire caches along their intended route to the decision to buy all new 2008 Harleys from The House of Harley-Davidson in Anchorage in order to make the trip financially feasible. Shipping four of Harley’s fleet bikes to and from Milwaukee would have proved to be a waste of time and money. Pirelli’s motivation to test its Night Dragon tire on the North American roadways was a whole-hearted effort.

My rendezvous began as their trip was nearly complete, but the sensation that they were making a difference wasn’t waning one iota. I met Pirelli’s testing group (team manager Salvo Pennisi, Vincenzo Frisina and Domenico Oliveri) in Louisville to ride along with them, southbound along the scenic byways and highways of the American southeast towards the Pirelli plant in Rome, Georgia. It might have been their 5000th mile, but these gentlemen were raring to go each morning, ready to reach mile 6000, excited to find the next curve and to learn the next bit of knowledge that riding our roads would provide to them. My day in the saddle, as with many on their tour, consisted of both local roads and big chunks of super slab.

From one extreme to another, the Pirelli Night Dragon Tour of North America sought to ride every condition possible with a 6000-mile road test.

Bigger & Better Meat

I found myself touring the Gustav-threatened Southeastern American states on September 11th with a group of Italian motorcycle lovers, only one of whom spoke more than primitive English. Talk about a weird day in a strange land. Here, my newfound friends came to America to ride our roads, on our bikes, in order to build us a better product. I couldn’t help getting a chuckle out of the typical jealousy us guys feel when foreigners steal our women. This time, the good men in yellow and red were there to help us make better lovers to our own roads, with longer lasting, radial versions of the Night Dragons.

High-torque motorcycles and all those grin-ful burnouts and hard launches test a motorcycle tire’s limits. Radial belting takes the traditional method of tire construction one step further into a longer wearing and stronger, more balanced product with the addition of steel belting. The MIRS construction employed in the construction of the Night Dragon lends a more uniform construction throughout the carcass as well as tread with one uninterrupted production cycle from raw materials to finished product, improving high-speed stability. Combined with Pirelli’s exclusively designed larger contact patch for more evenly distributed warm-up, durability and pressure/weight distribution creates predictable handling at all lean angles.

Many factors go into making a premium experience for the tire-buying public. For most consumers, that choice doesn’t come for years after the initial purchase of their motorcycle, while for others, changing tires comes with their morning coffee. When the time comes, Pirelli will have you covered with Harley-Davidson and metric-cruiser fitments. Initial sizes available will be replacement fitment for Harley-Davidson Road King, Road Glide, Street Glide, Electra Glide and Sportster models. Additional Harley-Davidson model fitments and metric V-Twins will follow.

With the Night Dragon, Pirelli brings its sporting image to the streets of the V-Twin, combining its winning race heritage with image and sex appeal. The Night Dragon ties the culture of performance to the culture of individuality. The sound, the feel, the freedom, the road and the destination - all redefined by the Night Dragon - providing good looks and performance in a refined product. Power is Nothing Without Control.

Being the massive chunk of land that America is, not only did Pirelli analyze the tires they rode on this trip, but they even brought along a doctor and previous guest tester by the name of Alfredo Speranzoni to check for wear and tear on their bodies the same as the tires they’re here to test. Collecting clinical data for a medical study Alfredo is conducting at the University of Siena, he sampled blood pressures while the others measured tread depths every 1000 miles. Unlike the team members, however, some tires got relieved along the way, getting swapped out in order to test another compound or to run a reverse tread, for example. They had only one unintentional tire change when they picked up a nail somewhere in Montana. To have only one flat tire in the first 5000 miles demonstrates impressive durability. Successful planning on their part gave them fresh testing meat at their next dealership stop.

Putting on the miles is only part of Pirelli’s task at hand. They could have easily strapped a wheel to a dyno and simulated a million miles back in Italy, but they wanted to know firsthand what we Americans encounter on our roads. And when asked what might have been the most unique road condition they experienced, they noted the rain-grooved surfaces on some of our highways, typically constructed of concrete. Salvo told me they went beyond just riding this condition – weaving, braking, even skidding perhaps – but they also stopped and actually measured the groove distances and depths. “We don’t have these constructs in Italy, so it will help us to more understand your roads and our product. We’ll take that back to the design in Italy.”

Welcome to Rome, Georgia, home of Pirelli’s North American manufacturing plant.

Something I witnessed for myself form the back of the pack was how animated these guys are – constantly taking in information and actively sharing it. One mile they’re zipping along the highway side-by-side gesturing to each other, watching each other more than the road.

The next mile took me by surprise when a plume of dust rose up from bike in front of me. In yet another examination of unique road conditions met along the way, within the first miles of some road construction, where one lane had been grazed off, creating an uneven pavement condition, Vincenzo casually and gracefully weaves his Fat Boy back and forth across this traditionally avoided road condition. Running parallel to our direction of travel and dropping probably 5 inches, he’s rubbing the sidewalls and hopping back and forth with the ease of a bike with four times the suspension travel.

Nothing said, no stops made, onward we went. I was impressed. They might not know the local laws of the road, but they sure as hell know how to ride a motorcycle. And since I didn’t know where I was going, I simply followed them to the next stop on the tour with a smile on my face.

Of the four Harleys on the tour, eight rolling tires in all, they retained one control tire for all the intended 6000 miles. The Fat Boys had 140/75R17M/CTL 67V Fronts mounted on them with a 200/55R17M/CTL 78V Rear. The Ultra Electra-Glide was packing a MT90B16 M/CTL 72H in the front and a MU85B16 M/CTL 77H in the rear. At the 5000-mile mark there was still considerable tread left, as you can see in the photo at the stop of the story. The projected life of the tire is more than the 6,000 miles these guys will ride – within reasonable use of course. Other wheels on the tour had routine swaps performed, trading compounds as well as running tire treads in reverse to inspect for unintentional usage wear – they think of everything. It was a very interesting peek into the minds and processes of testing a tire in its final process.

L to R: Salvo Pennisi, Vincenzo Frisina and Domenico Oliveri in the back row. Alfredo and myself upfront at the Rome, Georgia, Pirelli factory.

Never alone in their tour, the multi-staged trip made regular stops at Harley dealerships like Hal’s, Black Hills Harley, Bruce Rossmeyers’s Destination Daytona, and events such as the tail-ends of Sturgis Bike Week and the Harley 105th party in Milwaukee. They also stopped just long enough to get a tour of the H-D Milwaukee plant, the Drag Specialties warehouse and Pirelli’s own MIRS (Modular Integrated Robotized System) manufacturing plant in Rome Georgia.

Pirelli doesn’t make motorcycle tires here in the states (Brazil and Germany only), but I was lucky enough to be one of the very few people to tour the specialized machinery. Also along with the Italians and myself on the factory tour were some of the plant’s own employees who were getting their first look at the MIRS tire-building technology. Of course, no photography was allowed of the patented machinery, but we did get to huff raw rubber for an hour and ask as many questions as we wanted. The MIRS system is a truly remarkable piece of robotics.

Although the team was slightly off the party train with their testing tour, missing a few biker parties in many American states, they did get their own party when they arrived in Miami. Upon arriving at Peterson's Harley-Davidson, the local television and radio media was there throwing an open-house celebration just for them, complete with the Pirelli demo truck to entertain the public and a good old-fashioned American-style bikini wash for the Hogs they rode in on.

After a last dip to the southern most tip of the United States - as if they needed another ride in order to “walk off” the last 6000 miles - they took their last data recordings and sold the bikes to Petersons before heading back to Italy.

If you want a piece of Pirelli history – or a bike that Fonzie rode for a mere 500 miles – give the GM of Sales, Ron Catronio, a ring down there in Miami and fulfill that dream. On sale will be three 2008 Harley-Davidson Fat Boys that were used for testing of the latest Night Dragon tires, and one 2008 Ultra Classic Electra Glide used for Brembo ABS system feedback when paired with the bias-ply Night Dragon tires.

The new radial Night Dragons will be shipping in January 2009, pricing is not yet available.

Start and end point Harley-Davidson dealerships

Barry Matteson
The House of Harley-Davidson
4334 Spenard Road
Anchorage AK 99517

Ron Catronio
General Vehicle Sales Manager
Peterson's Harley-Davidson of Miami
19400 NW 2nd Ave.
Miami, Florida 33169
305-651-4811 ext 101
[email protected]

Related Reading
Pirelli Night Dragon
Pirelli Night Dragon Tire Review
Pirelli test ride across North America

Alfonse Palaima
Alfonse Palaima

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