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BEFORE YOU TOW:
Pre-Trip Safety Checkup

John Tiger, Jr.
Speedway Illustrated
June 9, 2003


Before you slam the truck door, pop the gearshift into "drive" and head off to that next race, ask yourself: is your towing system and trailer safe to tow? When was the last time you performed a full-on safety checkup before towing? What steps does your "pre-flight" check consist of? Do you really check everything out thoroughly before leaving on a trip? For most, the answer is "probably not." While most check the coupler, safety chains, tires and tiedowns, there's a lot more that can and just might go wrong if not checked every so often. Here's what to look for before heading down the road.

UNDER THE TRUCK

A fifteen-minute look under the rear of your tow vehicle can save a lot of trouble and even tragedy later on. Begin by looking closely at the hitch, its attachment points to the truck frame, and the frame itself. Look for loose bolts attaching the hitch to the frame. Every once in awhile, it wouldn't hurt to grab a torque wrench and re-check the tightness of all the hitch attachment hardware. Usually, there's a maximum of six to eight bolts holding the hitch to the frame; it would only take a minute or two to check them all.

Look for cracks in the hitch side brackets; these can occur near welds or bends in the hitch structure. Typically, cracks can occur where the side brackets are welded to the cross tube, or where the cross tube is welded to the receiver tube. In addition, cracks can occur where the hitch side brackets are bolted to the vehicle frame. Look for similar cracks or breaks in the vehicle frame; these can occur near bends or welds. You may have to clean the area to be inspected to get a good look; often, problems are hidden by dirt and grime. It's worthwhile to blow off the area with a pressure washer or compressed air. Look also for rusted-out areas, both on the hitch and the frame. Sometimes, rusty surfaces can hide structurally weakened components. Use a sharp tool such as an awl to probe rusted surfaces for porosity. Use a strong pair of pliers to grab suspect metal (such as a hitch cross tube or side bracket) and "feel" it for structural integrity.

After cleaning and checking the hitch and frame, it's not a bad idea to take an extra minute to wire brush any surface rust and spray a quick coat of black paint on all bare surfaces to keep the rust from spreading further.

If you've upgraded to a new trailer recently or are towing a buddy's trailer, check the rating on your hitch and compare it to the GTW (gross trailer weight) of the trailer you are towing. Does it measure up? Hitches are rated for GTW and TW (tongue weight). For safety's sake, you should take the time to weigh your trailer and check it against your hitch ratings. If your hitch is too small, it would be smart to upgrade to a higher-capacity receiver.

BALL MOUNT OR WEIGHT-DISTRIBUTION?

Check the components that connect your hitch to the trailer. If you're using a weight-carrying utility ball mount, check it for cracks, bending and rust. Check the tightness of the hitch ball retaining nut. Check to see that the ball mount fits securely into the receiver's tube, and that there's not too much end play between the mount and the receiver tube. More than 1/8" of movement side-to-side or up and down might indicate receiver tube wear, which would mean you need a new hitch. Finally, check the retaining pin and clip (or lock, if you're using one) for excess play in the receiver tube pin hole. If your pin has grooves worn in from hard years of towing, replace it. Likewise, if the clip doesn't fit securely into the pin, replace it as well.

If you're using a weight-distribution kit, you have more components to check. Check the head assembly carefully for cracks or rust. The head-to-shank bolts must be checked for tightness, as does the ball retaining nut. As with the utility ball mount, check the pin and clip for wear and fit.

The weight-distribution kit relies on proper setup and springbar height. Check the setup with the tow vehicle and trailer connected and level, and ensure that the tow vehicle and trailer both sit with equal ride height at the front and rear of each. If they don't, steering and handling will be negatively affected. You may have to refer to the weight-distribution kit setup instructions to correct these problems; visit your hitch or trailer dealer if you don't have a set of the instructions in your glove box or files. Check the weight-distribution assembly's lift-up brackets and chains for proper setup as well as for cracks and wear, and check the springbars themselves for fatigue cracks or wear (usually, wear occurs at the point the bars enter the head assembly). Finally, if your setup uses a sway control, check it carefully for proper setup and also for wear. If it's a friction type that's bolted to the trailer frame, check the bolts for proper tightness as well.

Don't forget the safety chains. Too many rely on inadequate chain thickness and connectors. Make sure your chains can handle the load of your trailer should the coupler or ball fail, and that they're connected securely to the hitch's chain loops with closed-end connectors that can't drop off during the trip. Cross them under the coupler as you connect them so that should the trailer come loose, it will drop into the cradle formed by the crossed chains and not dig into the road as you try to stop.

Check the trailer coupler carefully; this is the most abused part of any trailer, as it's often run over, jackknifed or otherwise bent and broken. Be sure the latching mechanism is secure and that the coupler is the right size for the ball. Make sure the welds or bolts holding it to the trailer tongue are secure.

LET THERE BE LIGHTS (AND BRAKES)

Electrical problems are rampant on towed trailers, particularly those that are used hard. Begin by checking the lights for proper operation. If there's a malfunctioning or erratic bulb, the time to correct it is now — not on the side of the road on the way to the race. Once all the lights (brake, turn signal and parking) are working correctly, check the connectors at the tow vehicle for corrosion, looseness, or broken, bare or exposed wires. For those in colder climates, check the connectors for corrosion carefully; winter takes a heavy toll on wiring connectors. Electrical tape-wrapped wiring harnesses retain water and corrode from the inside out. Coat all connectors with dielectric grease to keep out grime, protect from corrosion, and maintain a good connection. Check all light lenses carefully, as broken light covers invite moisture and corrosion. Remember what your Dad taught you about trailer wiring; if there's a problem, look at the ground circuit first. Don't rely, as many do, on the hitch ball and coupler connection for the trailer's ground. Wire a separate ground circuit and make sure it's connected cleanly and securely to the trailer frame.

Most race-car trailers use electric brakes connected to a tow vehicle brake control. Check to see that the brake control is set up and working properly, and that it applies the trailer brakes evenly and firmly without locking them up during a hard stop. You may have to perform this check in an empty parking lot if your driveway's not long enough. The trailer brakes can be a source of frustration if not maintained. Ensure that they apply promptly and strongly when the tow vehicle brake control is activated, with no squealing or hanging up. Just as important is their release; when the brake control is deactivated, the trailer brakes should release promptly with no dragging.

If your trailer has brakes, then it has a breakaway switch and battery. The battery must remain fully charged and ready to activate the brakes in case the trailer is separated from the tow vehicle. You can check this by simply jacking up the trailer wheels and then spinning them, then pulling the breakaway cord to see if they stop. Breakaway switches usually don't fail; if there's a problem with this system, it's typically an uncharged battery or faulty wiring.

SUSPENSION, WHEELS AND TIRES

While you're checking the brakes, the tires and wheels should be given the once-over. Check for correct tire pressure, and give the tires a visual check for sidewall cracking or abnormal tread wear. Look underneath at the axle, suspension and mounting hardware as you check for cracks, rust and loose fasteners. Make sure the fenders aren't so close to the tires that they'll cut into them. Check the lug nuts for proper tightness. Take a look at the wheel bearings to make sure they have enough grease; grease them or change the grease if necessary. Finally, lie on a creeper and roll around under the trailer as you visually inspect the frame for cracks, rust or broken frame members.

GET LOADED AND GONE

With the car, tires and tools loaded, check the trailer's ride attitude — is it level, or tilted to one side? Make sure your load is distributed evenly both side-to-side and fore-to-aft. Lastly, make sure your load is secured with adequate tie downs, and that all the tie downs are in good condition; no frayed webbing or loose ratcheting mechanisms. While a complete checkup like this can delay your departure for a half-hour, you'll be surprised at how much more confident you are while trailering to the race — and that can translate to a more-rested attitude come race morning. After all, what's worse — getting there a half-hour later due to a thorough pre-trip check, or a half-day later due to a malfunction that could have been corrected before the trip?

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