The Silent Partner

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The Izod IndyCar Series is fortunate to have the partners that they do. Honda certainly should be lauded for being there in 2006 after Toyota and Chevrolet bailed on the series. They reluctantly agreed to become the sole engine supplier to the league with the hope that another engine manufacturer would come to the party. Five seasons later it hasn’t happened, but Honda hasn’t wavered in its commitment. Dallara has done a respectable job of building a relatively safe car that has lasted way beyond its original intent. They have worked well with the sanctioning body, but have basically stuck it to the owners by still charging a premium price for a nine-year-old design.

Throughout all of the turmoil that has arisen regarding future chassis and possible engine manufactures for 2012 and beyond, there has been one partner of the league that goes about its business while quietly continuing to supply superb products each and every year – Firestone.

The Firestone name has been associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the beginning. Their tires were on the Marmon Wasp when Ray Harroun drove to victory in the inaugural 500 in 1911. In fact, when Graham Hill won the Indianapolis 500 in 1966, that was the forty-third win in a row for Firestone. It would have been more had there not been four lost years due to World War II, when there was no race.

The streak was finally broken when AJ Foyt won with Goodyear in 1967. Mario Andretti got Firestone back in Victory Lane in 1969, along with Al Unser’s two wins in 1970 and 1971. However, that would be their last win for a long time, as Goodyear essentially drove the longtime brand out of Indy car racing after the 1974 season. For twenty years, Goodyear enjoyed solidarity at Indianapolis while Firestone toiled in stressed financial times.

At the end of the seventies, Firestone owed more than a billion dollars in debt – a sizable sum by today’s standards, but a staggering amount in those days. They were also losing over $250 million a year, with no end in sight. After multiple efforts to trim costs and reduce debt, Firestone was acquired by Japanese tire maker Bridgestone. The result was a resurgence of the proud name – especially in racing.

The combined company moved their North American corporate headquarters to my home city of Nashville, TN in 1992. Since then, the company has been probably the best corporate citizen in town. Just last week, it was announced that they are taking over the naming rights of the downtown hockey arena where the Nashville Predators play. What was formerly known as the Sommet Center will now be referred to as Bridgestone Arena. They also lead the way in charity works for the area. About a year after the move – Al Speyer, the Executive Director of Motorsports at Bridgestone/Firestone, announced that the Firestone brand would be returning to Indy car competition.

They did things the right way. They partnered with Pat Patrick who was on somewhat of a forced sabbatical from CART. They hired unemployed driver Scott Pruett as their test driver. They went to every track with the CART series during the 1994 season. There, they practiced and accumulated a massive amount of data for each venue.

For 1995, it was time to go racing. Patrick and Pruett campaigned a ‘95 Lola-Ford shod with the new Firestone tires. A few of the smaller teams took a gamble with Firestone. The most notable was Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports with Andre Ribeiro (full-time) and Scott Goodyear (Indy only) as drivers. Some of the other teams that took a chance on the new tires were on the level of Payton-Coyne, Beck Motorsports and Arciero-Wells.

As it turned out, two of the Firestone cars were in a position to win late in the race. Scott Pruett was in a late race battle for the lead when he had a spectacular crash coming out of turn-two on lap 184. Then Scott Goodyear pulled his now infamous move by passing the pace car on the re-start. Had he restrained himself, Goodyear would have given Firestone an Indy win in their first year back at the Speedway.

It didn’t take long to become obvious to all of the owners that Firestone had done their homework and had a product that was far superior to Goodyear. By the following year – the first year of the split, Firestone was the desired brand and on most of the cars of the good teams. By the end of the decade, Firestone had completely driven Goodyear out of American open-wheel racing. The same thing had happened across the pond as the Bridgestone brand drove Goodyear out of Formula One, as well.

Under the direction of Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri, their Manager of Motorsports – Bridgestone/Firestone have thrived and excelled. Speyer is a case study in staying the course. He joined Firestone in the spring of 1974 upon graduating from Syracuse. All of the offices were vacant that May because everyone was in Indianapolis for the month. He thought he had died and gone to heaven to be with a company with a racing division.

The euphoria quickly went away as Firestone announced they were leaving the sport after so many years of involvement. While somewhat devastated, Speyer focused on the job at hand and helped develop all types of tires for the brand. He weathered all of the financial problems in the seventies and eighties, withstood a move of the corporate headquarters from Akron, OH to Chicago before ultimately settling in Nashville.

Speyer credits the company’s success on the track to a combination of the Japanese and American business cultures. The Japanese brought a very structured and detailed way of conducting business, while the American engineers were willing to be innovative and take risks. The result has been a superb racing tire that has been universally and genuinely praised by every participant in the paddock.

I refer to them as “The Silent Partner” in a good way. Much like an officiating crew in a football game, it is never a good thing when they draw attention to themselves. Much is the same with racing tires. If no one is complaining, they are doing their job. While Goodyear and Michelin have had their well-documented troubles at the Speedway, Bridgestone/Firestone just keep doing what they are doing – and that is making high performing, yet safe and reliable tires.

While I am a big proponent of multiple chassis and engine manufacturers, I am of the firm belief that there should only be one tire supplier. The risks are too great to push tire engineering to the limit in the name of more speed. The consequences are dire if the line is crossed…and in the spirit of competition, it would be crossed out of necessity.

Al Speyer, Joe Barbieri and Firestone have been longtime loyal and quiet partners for the league. Yes, they get a lot of exposure for their brand and they work endlessly to constantly improve their product. But you never hear them making demands of the league or the teams. They should receive a lot more credit for what they have done for the Izod IndyCar series, than they have gotten.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “The Silent Partner”

  1. “The Japanese brought a very structured and detailed way of conducting business, while the American engineers were willing to be innovative and take risks….”
    Wasn’t this the beginning of the end for American auto- manufacturer?

    Without Honda, there would be no motors in the IRL race-car so obviously Honda is the most important “partner”.

    The owners of Honda are like Apex-Brasil in many ways, ….the IRL race is just a very successful advertising agency for their product.
    I am guessing there are some Goodyear Tire companies in Japan. Probably Sumitomo Tire company is for the top performing cars….
    The IRL race-car drivers don’t drive Honda, they are driving BMW, Mercedes, Lamborghini, Ferrari and those cars probably use Michelin’s or Pirelli.
    The team owners are promoting Honda to their friends and family, of course, but are they driving Honda? The High schools are full of Honda!

    NASCAR has much more loyalty than this series, and that is interesting because NASCAR is (unfortunately) so totally American.
    Do you think IZOD will be popular in San Pao and Rio….I’m guessing that is what Izod is hoping.
    Targeting kids cash is also so ludicrous for a mature racing series…

  2. Since Penske Racing has announced that they will be abandoning Marlboro team colors is another sign that the last of the Big Tobacco $$$ is going up in smoke…
    No Beer, No smoke, No motor oil, No dot com companies ….

  3. Well, well, i have to follow yet another MARS diatribe. Gee, how wonderful is that?!

    Sarcasm aside, I-unlike the individual above me-do not come with an agenda and I can stay on subject. You are correct, George, about Firestone and Honda’s support, which at times-and I’ve only truly began following IndyCar since the reunification so please excuse me if I’m wrong-sometimes feel like the ONLY commercial partners the series has. That to me begets the question: Since Honda and Firestone are clearly comfortable with their partnership with IndyCar, why can’t the league/teams develop similar partnerships? And that’s one thing IndyCar needs to be successful. Not sponsors, but partnerships.

    • “Well.Well” why then have the consumer brands that have flocked to NASCAR —so out of reach for the IRL? Why is NASCAR so succesful?

      I shop at Dollar General because Sarah Fisher is my favorite driver…and.
      I would never have a GO-Daddy domain name…that is how it is done in America!

      • MARS, your ratio of sentences that don’t make sense to sentences that do continues to hover around 9 to 1.

        Stop it. We all know that you have a problem with Honda. I understand why you have a problem with Honda, even if I don’t believe that that opinion is rooted in reality even one iota. You continue to bash IndyCar as preying on young people, and continue to claim that it is not a family friendly sport. I don’t agree with either of those sentiments, but those are your opinions. With that being the case, why are you still here? You think the team owners are untrustworthy, many of the drivers are unsavory characters, the sponsors are all money grubbing snakes, and that the main goals of the League are to promote unsafe behavior and to pervert the minds and take the money of young people. If the IndyCar series is such an awful entity, why do you follow it and why do you find it necessary to post gibberish that nobody agrees with (or can even understand) here?

        You have a blog. Go write your nonsense there.

  4. George,

    If the IRL races in Japan because of Honda and in Brazil because of Apex-Brazil, why don’t we still have the oval race near Firestone Headquaters in Nashville? Would letters to Firestone help get the Nashville race back on the schedule?

  5. Bridgestone/Firestone does not get nearly the credit they deserve. The red/black tires, in my opinion, were a great success last year, and they continually make tires that work for every condition that the IndyCar series sees with almost zero problems. That’s no mean feat.

    On a personal level, Bridgestone also makes a fine street tire. Based on Bridgestone’s longstanding F1/CART/ChampCar support, I bought a set for my street car a little over two years ago. 24,000+ miles and 9-10 autocross events later (I use the tires for commuting and competing), and they still have some tread left. They’ll handle rain, snow, a little dirt and provide pretty good autocross grip, for a street tire.

    I’m the Speedgeek. And Bridgestone’s my tire.

    [This ad paid for entirely by Bridgestone/Firestone in free Indy 500 starting grid posters.]

    • I have Goodyear on my Nissan Quest-the front tires have had 2 repairs since 2010. The tires will be replaced- No more Goodyears for me!

      My SAAB has Sumitomo tires, no problems so far.

      We still live in a free country-Speedgeek,
      BTW I have read your blog and it could use some work-Try “Hot for words, your expressive tone could use a tune-up.

      Since my daughter was killed in a brand new Honda Civic before one of your grand prix races, (The Civic could not hold the road 95- 100 mph while passing) than again Honda vehicles are not really made for speed.

      I will be watching for entertainment …and I will say whatever I want!

      I have a neighbor whose Dad actually won and Indy 500, fantastic people! Great sportsmanship, great American….he recently lost his Chrysler Dealership, like many American Dealership Owners.

      Not all owners and fans are so toxic but this league could use some adjustments, it has gone down hill lately,

      Why is NASCAR succeeding? Maybe worth looking into-

      Why not have more than one tire company? That might give you some interest….everything else is the same, especially the attitude!

      Brazil and Japan are not really that “great or loyal” as American Business Partners….
      read the rest of the news..
      .
      I like the Goodyear guy-Scott- as an announcer, but then again he was an actual race-car driver so he knows what he is talking about.

      Google ghas changed the advertising world, notice they don’t have a racecar. Also, George, why no “ad-sence” on your page?

      • Wait. *You* are telling *me* that my writing needs some work. Wow. I’m going to need a few days for the irony to fully soak in there. I’ll report back around about Saturday on that.

        There’s so much wrong with your post that it’s not even worth arguing with you. I certainly wish you’d give it a rest, but far be it from me to infringe on your First Ammendment Rights. Proceed with the crazy talk.

      • “Why not have more than one tire company?”

        Repeat after me.
        S–A–F–E–T–Y

        The speeds and costs would spiral out of control rather quickly.

  6. Boo Boo Says:

    I’m curious about your characterization of Honda as reluctant to take over as sole engine supplier. Is there a source for that? The reason I mention it is that I remember reading an article in a racing magazine shortly after Honda joined the series (sorry, no link) that stated flatly that Honda came into the league with a three year plan to become the sole engine supplier.

    Honda doesn’t mind at all being the sole supplier. If they did, they would have shown more flexibility on the I4 vs. V6 discussion. Honda was the only potential supplier that objected to the I4. At first they said they would be willing to do an I4, but later changed their tune, even though they knew that for Volkswagen it was a make or break issue. Honda simply declared that they were fine with continuing as the sole supplier, and Volkswagen responded by saying they were no longer interested.

    Honda has the IRL in a Full Nelson, and there’s apparently nothing the league can do about it at this point. Honda dictates technical changes to the series—paddle shifters, for instance—and Honda apparently controls the terms of the debate over future engine specs, chasing off other potential partners while reiterating their desire for competition.

    I’m trying to think of one area of motor sports where Honda is still competitive. Dirt bike racing?

    It’s just one of those things. The IRL would be screwed without them, or so one would think, but I suspect Brian B. would rather be in a position to say, “This is what we’re doing, and if that’s something you’re interested in then we’d be glad to have your continued involvement.”

    That’s not the position Brian B. is in, and that’s not really A Good Thing.

    • oilpressure Says:

      I have no “source” other than my memory. I can recall both Robin Miller and Curt Cavin stating that Honda emphatically wanted competition. That’s what they were in it for. However, when faced with the prospect of supplying the entire field – they chose to de-tune the engines to reduce the risk of engine failures.

      They may or may not have “changed their tune” but in 2006, the message Honda was sending out was that they embraced competition. They had competition, beat them like a drum and ran them out of the series. – GP.

      • I’ll back up your take as well, George. I haven’t understood their hardline on the V6 vs. I4 thing, when an I4 format makes sense for far more manufacturers, but they’ve always claimed that they were interested in competition. I’ve never gotten the impression that they’re interested in being a spec supplier, as it reduces the marketing value of trumpeting their successes. The V6 thing does kind of undermine that, though…

        Honda/Acura is still competetive in ALMS. Or, at least they were until Porsche and Audi took off for their separate reasons after 2008, leaving it an all-Acura series. They’re also around and about at a grassroots level, in SCCA the Showroom Stock, GT and Production classes, and I’m relatively sure that they’ve got cars in the GrandAm Continental Tire Challenge, and they’ve been championship level for years in the Touring class of SCCA World Challenge with the Realtime Acuras. There’s even a decent chance that if they’d hung around in F1 last year, that the Brawn would have been a top-3 car with a Honda engine instead of the Mercedes. They’ve always been a racing company, and I don’t think it’s really down to them when their competition packs up and leaves when Honda beats them.

      • My take on Honda’s purported 3 yr. plan is that they simply understood that there wasn’t room (read “value”) in the series for more than one, and they planned for that one to be themselves.

        My other point is more important. They could have competition if they would get on board with a different engine spec than the one that they prefer. Why did they say they were OK with it, and then change their tune? I’m guessing it was a marketing decision. Perhaps the fact that Honda already has turbo V6 formula car racing engines plays a part?

        Nonetheless, they prefer their idea/plans over competition. They’ve stated that themselves. During the engine discussion they said publicly that they were quite happy to continue as the sole supplier. They also made public statements putting time pressure on the IRL to make a decision (i.e. we need to know now, because our decision is being made at the corporate level in the immediate future). Those are hard line negotiating tactics. They see enough value in the single-supplier, non-competing model that they are happy to put their foot down and say, “Take it or leave it.”

        There’s no question that causes harm to the league. The IRL can only grow and move forward by bring more partners into the league. And second tier teams can only compete successfully when they have partners that are dedicated to giving them a competitive edge.

        It’s no accident that the last time Panther racing won a race it was with a Chevy engine. That happened at Texas, during Chevy’s last year in the IRL. Texas is a horsepower track, so perhaps Chevy wasn’t as outclassed as people like to think. It’s unfortunate that after spending all that effort catching up to Honda they decided to quit, but it wasn’t because they couldn’t compete, it was because they didn’t think it was worth the effort.

        GM did not see a good enough value proposition in the IRL and they decided to quit. That’s business. Volkswagen (and others), on the other hand, did see value. But, turbo I4 engines are core to their business going forward, and that was what it was going to take to get them involved in the series.

        Oh well.

      • Not sure if this’ll wind up in the right spot, but this is in reply to Boo Boo’s second post.

        I’m not saying that they didn’t have a 3 year plan, just that I never read or heard such a thing. The sound bites that I’ve always heard from them was that they wanted competition, but of course there can be an ocean of difference between sound bites and actions.

        I should say that I do agree with you 100% on their hardline about the V6 format. I don’t understand that, since they’ve known that that’s not anything anybody else is interested in. What V6 turbo engines do you mean, though? The 1980s F1 engines? Those are the only Honda V6 turbos I can think of.

        If Honda actually wants competition, they should either acquiesce and go for an I4 format (which they already build one of for their RDX sport ute, so they could easily market that), or allow the spec to be open to I4s and V6s. I don’t think the I4 option is off the table entirely, but then again, things have gone deathly silent on the engine front as of late. Maybe somebody will talk about it on Trackside tonight…

  7. On my Ford Explorer are Firestone Tires. “The name that’s known is Firestone, where the rubber meets the road.” By the way, I think the Honda Accord is a fantastic car and through the years I have had 6 of them. I also like “Go Daddy” and I am pulling for RHR and everyone else at Andretti Racing this year!

  8. From a different perspective, Honda Motors has proven its “motor” by being the ONLY motor supplier for IRL. The monopoly-thing has never been an “American” model…Honda seems to enjoy the monopoly.

    If you watch “Honda short films” it is very obvious that Honda claims to have the world-market on engineering, from the light-bulb to robotics. (Very unappealing to me personally but we are still free to have our own oppinion.)

    I was really hopeful that RHR would bring a change “I could believe in” and I liked the beautiful people in their Izod sportswear-and the song “everything’s gonna be alright.” What happened to GR…no ride?Paul Newman would also be disappointed today-

    The Pagoda in the middle of the Speedway is something Honda is very proud of to be sure! It is just another piece of our America but it will never be an American Landmark… it is a Japanese landmark! (I’m trying to identify an American Landmark that we have in Japan? ) Hopefully, they at least have a Goodyear Tire Co. in Japan, considering all the business we give them! The “partnership” seems a little off to most of us-

    Google has changed the advertising world BTW and they don’t seem to need a race-car. Better write to Randy….and get Adsence on your page Speedgeek!

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