The Towering Potential of Towing

Dec 2, 2009

When discussing performance, our thinking tends to dwell on considerations of power and speed for racing. However, it’s important to remember that there are also practical applications for performance, whether for work or recreational towing.

Though they may not be as exciting as watching a diesel pickup tear down the drag strip in 10 seconds, those practical applications also make practical business sense for performance shops. The reason for this, says BD Diesel Performance’s Brian Roth, is that the towing segment is the largest portion of the diesel aftermarket.

“Performance and towing go hand-in-hand. I think performance and towing areas closeas performance and racing. Racing is a different category though.It’sdifferent fueling, turbos plusa different transmission, different tires,” says Roth. “The towing market represents the largest portion of diesel repair business. The racing and performance sides are more visible, but it’s the people that are towing with their trucks that are the largest portion of the market.”

The bottom line: race-minded diesel performance is for the track. However, diesel performance for towing applies both to the trucks that work hard to earn their keep on a daily basis, as well as recreational towing to take the fifth-wheel camping, the boat to the lake or the trailer to the track.

Makes & Models

Before digging into the products and the pertinent information regarding them, let’s take a look at the trucks in which these performance upgrades are most likely to find a home.

Gary Croyle notes that the best market for the clutches of Zoom Performance is the Ford 7.3-liter, 1999 through 2003 models.

“That’s top dog on clutch sales. Ford made a bunch of trucks that were painted white with manual transmissions. That makes sense because, by volume, the Ford F-series has laid claim as the most popular truck on the market for several years. Next in line would be virtually anything in the Dodge Cummins 5.9-liter category. Those are popular and strong. They just seem to run forever, and they do very well for us. Following that are a mix of the older Fords, pre-’97 and older. Those are also still running strong and hanging in there,” says Croyle.

Another company that does well with older vehicles is Firestone Industrial Products. According to Todd Green, “Our top sellers are the Ride-Rite air helper spring kits, and that’s because we have a universal kit that fits mid- to late-’70s trucks up to current model years. That tends to be our best seller because it covers quite a range of vehicles,” says Green.

Bruce Beck says that for Pacbrake, over the years Dodge has dominated the company’s exhaust brake sales. “The Cummins engine has been the diesel that has been easiest for our customers to work with. However, we also work with a lot of new stuff, such as the 2008 Duramax.”

Products & Packages

Now that we know a little more about the top-selling makes and models for towing, let’s delve a little deeper into its performance parts.

Pacbrake’s exhaust brakes are one of its core items. Equally important, however, is the complementary nature of its other products.

“We try to surround our core products with other products that can work off of or in conjunction with it. For example, our exhaust brake is activated with an air compressor, so if someone has our exhaust brake, they can use an air horn, and we sell those. Or, if they have an air-leveling kit, which we sell, the air compressor will operate that as well. So, it opens the door to add-on sales; sales that don’t all have to be made at the same time,” says Beck, noting that a customer may add one product and then come back in a few months for more upgrades.

Transmissions and torque converters are also important to consider as part of a package, or at least, they should be mentioned when a power package is sold. Additional horsepower often necessitates an upgrade to the transmission and torque converter, as well as the clutches Zoom’s Croyle mentioned earlier.

BD Diesel’s Roth tells us, “We build transmissions and torque converters for the towing market for the work truck. Transmissions have always been a main focal point of people in the towing industry. They watch their transmission temperatures closely.”

Again making the link between towing and racing performance, Roth adds, “We use the high performance industry to show us the weaknesses in our transmissions-to a point, of course-we’re not talking about the same transmission that goes into a 10-second truck going into a highway towing truck, not at all. It’s a different transmission entirely. But, the guy that goes to the track and runs 12 seconds, that’s the transmission that is actually designed for the towing market, and that’s what we’ve built.”

Of course, the potential for packaged towing parts goes well beyond the items already mentioned. Green notes that suspension upgrades make sense for anyone who’s putting a hitch on or adding a towing-type product. He says that anytime weight is added to a vehicle it compromises the stock suspension, making anyone who is towing or hauling a potential customer for an aftermarket air helper spring kit.

Roth says that packaging parts is important for customers who want to add a lot of horsepower. In fact, he says diesel drivers should limit their horsepower increases in a towing application.

“There’s an endurance and durability issue here. Therefore, anywhere from a 50- to a 100-hp increase is as far as they should go. We have people that will do a lot of fuel increases and want 150 more horsepower, and that’s fine. We’ve got twin turbos that’ll cool that down. You can have a Dodge with 450 or 550 rear-wheel horsepower that you tow with, but you’ve really got to build that truck for that now, because you will definitely need a transmission that’s designed to handle heavier loads. The torque converter, intake and exhaust all have to go together as well. But ideally, for the main towing truck today, 400 hp seems to be a nice, comfortable horsepower towing range.”

Roth says that selling parts that keep temperatures down (transmission temperatures, EGTs, etc.), and gauges that read and display those temperatures, are also great parts to package with any performance upgrade applied toward better towing.

Important Questions

When discussing sales techniques for towing parts, it becomes very clear very quickly that asking the correct questions is critical.

Croyle says that when handling a clutch customer, the important questions to ask pertain to the engine’s size and power.

“From a clutch’s point of view, I don’t think a clutch knows what’s behind it. It only knows what’s in front of it. You can put anything you want behind it, but the source of power that moves the vehicle is the engine in front of the clutch. So, the clutch has to be stronger than the engine in front of it, and then the weight that it pulls is the weight that it pulls,” he explains.

He adds, “When I talk to speed shops, I start with the make, model and year, and then I know the part number possibilities. Then I ask whether or not the truck is stock. If they say, ‘Yes,” I say, ‘It’s stock this year, what about next year? What are this guy’s plans for his truck? Is he going to put a programmer on it? Is he going to put on a big turbo? Air intake? Exhaust?’ You want a clutch that looks ahead beyond your current needs.”

While Croyle and Zoom need to know what’s in the engine, Beck says that Pacbrake also needs to know the type of transmission being used.

“From a pickup point of view, we want to know what type of transmission it has, what type of engine it has and of course, the year of the truck,” says Beck. He points out that it’s also important to be aware of the application.

“A one-ton Dodge pickup truck is licensed to tow 20,000 pounds; that’s 10 tons of weight. Now imagine towing that same weight and going down a steep grade. Can you imagine trying to stop 10 tons of cargo rolling downhill? You want to consider how much strain and force will be placed on the vehicle. We also really try to emphasize the safety of our product. It’s like a one-time cost for a safety policy. Over the course of the long life of these vehicles, the cost of our product is very inexpensive,” says Beck.

With suspension, Green says, “Any shop needs to know what the vehicle is going to be used for. Is it hauling a fifth wheel or gooseneck versus a bumper-pull or does it have an offset load? For anything with a center load, like a gooseneck or bumper-pull, any of the Ride Rite kits would be appropriate. If someone has a vehicle that’s going to have a heavy offset load, they’ll want to have a kit that’s mounted more toward the wheels, outboard mount gear, for more stability. And they’ll want to control those pressures individually with an air accessory kit.”

Roth again stresses the temperature issue as another vital question.

“It all goes down to temperature. When we’re talking to somebody and they say they’re having problems being underpowered, we ask about their temperatures. If the temperatures are cool, there’s room for improved power. But, if the temperatures are high, or if he doesn’t even know what his temperatures are, the sales opportunities are different. You’ve got to know what the exhaust gas temperatures and transmission temperatures are, because we know that high temperatures decrease performance and durability. Instrumentation has as much sales potential as anything else, because that will tell him what the upgrades he has added are doing.”

Sales Support

When dealing with a wide range of products, it’s nearly impossible for a shop to employ staff members who are experts on everything. With this in mind, it’s important to have manufacturer support available when shops and customers need it. All of the companies contributing to this article have support available and encourage shops to use it.

“I think any product is only as good as the company that supports it. The more time we avail ourselves to answer questions just makes it easier for everyone concerned. Although, I do think that with the Internet, today’s consumer often knows as much as anybody about a product before they come into the store; the Internet is a great resource,” says Beck.

Roth adds that the industry also needs to stay abreast of emissions regulations.

“We’re looking at the enforcement of some pretty tough EPA regulations,” he says. “We’re working closely with CARB, and we have to improve our emissions. We can actually get grants to improve fuel economy, and of course, as you improve fuel economy, you have to make sure that emissions continue to improve, and that’s really a tough balancing act.”