One Slick Operator: Remembering Marv Rifchin

Marv Rifchin passed away on Wednesday, June 3, 2009 at the age of 94. If Marvin’s name isn’t immediately familiar to you, know that he’s the “M” in M&H tires, one of the pioneers in the world of drag race slick technology. The M&H tire company ran out of Watertown, (and later Gardner) Massachusetts and was operated by Marvin and his father Harry (the “H” part of the company name).

At first Marvin and Harry focused on re-cap racing tires for midget and stock car racers competing on the many dirt and asphalt tracks throughout the East coast. But by the late Fifties, the growing popularity of drag racing forced M&H to introduce numerous drag slicks for improved traction.

The early designs were similar to those offered by other tire manufacturers in that they featured wide tread surfaces that were devoid of any and all siping (grooves, etc.) but were otherwise unremarkable in terms of sidewall construction and rubber compound. As racers provided more feedback, M&H experimented with softer rubber compounds which were more effective at gripping the asphalt starting line. But M&H was not alone in this field. Firestone had also entered the drag slick market and by 1960 both companies were actively marketing soft compound slicks nation wide.

But as the Sixties unfolded and everything from Top Fuel dragsters to Super Stock door slammers struggled for bite, M&H began to see that the tire sidewall was just as important as the chemistry of the rubber of the contact patch in coupling horsepower to the strip surface. The standard multi-ply sidewall carcass was very stiff and offered minimal cushioning of the shock load between the rim and tread surface when the gas pedal hit the floor.

On lower powered stockers, gassers and grass roots rail jobs, the increased contact patch was still enough to do the job. But in more violent applications, the sudden shock of a 5000 rpm clutch dump was too much for the tires to take and instant tire spin resulted. Sure, a softer launch or some throttle feathering would reduce power and help give the tires a fighting chance at traction, but what’s the point of having power if you can’t use it all?

M&H sensed that if the tire sidewall was made thinner and more flexible, an instant of cushion was achieved – often long enough to help the tread surface bite into the strip rather than churn into exciting (but wasteful) smoke. They toyed with cord angles, cord material and reducing the number of plies in the sidewall. By late 1964 a new type of drag slick was ready to take on the world. Quickly dubbed the wrinkle wall for how the sidewalls rippled with the application of full power, racers everywhere reduced their 60-foot times and started winning more races.

Sure, the wrinkle wall approach resulted in a squishy tire with a nasty tendency to allow massive amounts of side-to-side body sway, but since drag racing is conducted in a straight line, the benefits greatly outweighed the disadvantages. Even more traction was available if the tires were inflated to a mere 6-psi – at a time when traditional stiff-wall slicks were run at as much as 30-psi. No, top end handling was not the wrinkle wall’s forte but its ability to absorb massive horsepower shocks on the starting line without spinning excessively truly revolutionized drag racing.