'The Michelangelo of Tire Repair:' With skilled hands, Rick Smith turns truck tires into works of re-usable art

Dec. 1, 2003

According to historians, when Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Italian artist resisted at first, but eventually relented. When Rick Smith, "The Michelangelo of Tire Repair," is asked to patch a truck tire, he doesn't hesitate. Whether the job is big or small, he dives right in. In each case, the result is art.

Smith's shop mates at Grismer Tire Co.'s retread and repair center in Dayton, Ohio, gave him the "Michelangelo" moniker several years ago as a tribute to his craftsmanship. The comparison couldn't be more appropriate.

Smith, who's been performing repairs for 20 years -- all of them at Grismer Tire -- brings an artist's sensibility to a normally mundane task. He wields rasps and buffers as deftly as Michelangelo once manipulated brushes, all with the intention of restoring a damaged tire to its former state.

Smith takes the responsibility seriously, according to Charles "Rusty" Marshall II, who oversees Grismer Tire's commercial division. "He's saved customers thousands of dollars," says Marshall, who calls Smith and other repairmen "the unsung heroes of the tire industry."

Eye for detail

Smith approaches each repair "one cable at a time," says Marshall. "The sidewall cables of a truck tire are bound together by a thin strand called a front wire. If that front wire is damaged, you have to consider the cables damaged. You have to be extremely careful.

"That's where Rick's artistry comes in. To have such skillful hands -- I couldn't do it."

"His craft is to the point where it's poetry in motion," says Tim Stover, Grismer Tire's commercial general manager and Smith's immediate supervisor.

Smith is so good that he's the only person at the dealership who performs section repairs on a full-time basis. (Fellow employee Don Rawlins pinch-hits for Smith on occasion.)

He performs around 75 section repairs per week in addition to other duties, including final inspection of retreads -- another area in which he excels.

Stover recalls a recent incident in which Grismer techs retreaded a low profile, 22.5-inch trailer tire. While inspecting it, Smith noticed it had a miniscule kink in the bead area. "He caught it with the naked eye." Smith pulled the tire aside, grabbed a buffer and removed all the rubber down to the sidewall cables, which he discovered were bent out of shape.

Stover contacted the tire's manufacturer and is still waiting for an explanation of the cables' condition. A lesser tech would have easily overlooked the kink, he believes. "But because of Rick's experience we were able to catch it."

Grismer Tire tracks its adjustments fastidiously. Last year the company's commercial tire adjustment rate was one-half of 1%, according to Stover. "We're probably going to improve upon that rate this year. I can't think of the last time we lost a customer over a quality issue."

He lays much of the credit at Smith's feet. "He's so highly trained and he cares. How do you teach that?"

High praise

Smith's bosses and co-workers aren't the only people who are impressed with his ability to salvage damaged tires. He also receives praise from Grismer Tire's customers. One client -- Dick Lavy, president of Bradford, Ohio-based Dick Lavy Trucking Inc. -- even commended him in a letter to Rusty Marshall. A framed copy sits on top of Smith's workbench.

"I just wanted to let you know how impressed I am with the tire repairs and recaps that are being done for us at your shop," he wrote. "I understand that your employee, Rick Smith, is the one doing these repairs. It is very obvious that he takes a lot of pride in the quality of work he is doing.

"I feel that his repairs are the best we have ever had done, and I thought you should know what an excellent job he is doing. Being in business myself, I know what an asset it is to have an employee like Rick Smith working for you."

A quiet man by nature, Smith lights up when discussing the nuances of his trade. He likes to know what happened to a tire so he can treat the injury properly. He also takes his time. "Taking one or two cables out of the sidewall is hard to do. If you hit another cable, then that one has to come out, too," he says.

"Another problem is that if you put a patch on too early, it'll work itself loose. A lot of guys get in a hurry" and do more damage than good.

He downplays his near-zero failure rate. ("I'm not perfect") but admits he gets a tremendous amount of satisfaction from performing a quality repair. "It makes me feel good if I can save a tire from the junk pile. I can't save them all but I try to save as many as I can.

"I can't control what happens to the tire once it goes out that door," he says, pointing to a truck being filled with tires. But when the tires come back to be retreaded again, he often sees repairs he performed three or four years ago that are functioning as well as they did the day they were applied. "It's a challenge. But if you patch it the right way, it'll hold up a long time."

"Rick is a master craftsman," says Stover. "We're very fortunate to have him here."