The Silent Partner
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.