Farewell To Firestone
Several years ago, during race weekend of one of the Nashville IndyCar races, I met Leo Mehl – the retired head of Goodyear’s motorsports division. He was very personable and he seemed flattered that someone in Nashville, TN would even recognize him after his retirement from Goodyear a decade earlier. Keep in mind that when Leo Mehl retired from Goodyear in the mid-nineties, he was one of the most powerful men in racing throughout the entire world. His tire was either the exclusive or most dominant tire in the top three racing series – Formula One, CART and NASCAR, so it wasn’t hard for me to spot him.
After our conversation, it occurred to me that he might represent an avenue for me to pursue my dream – a career in motorsports. I had tried unsuccessfully, for years, to find a way to interview with Nashville based Bridgestone North America – the parent company for Firestone, but to no avail. Once in 2002, I was lucky enough to get Al Speyer, Firestone’s Director of Motorsports, on the phone to plead my case. He was pleasant enough, but things never went past the courtesy chat.
I wrote a letter to Mr. Mehl asking him if he could put me in touch with someone at Firestone. I realize that fans don’t often make the best employees when it comes to the business of sports. They can become awestruck when dealing with people they have followed for years. It becomes especially hard to say “no” to someone you have grown to admire. If I were still in the job market today (which I’m not – I’m now too old), I would probably be better suited working for the Nashville Predators. I know nothing about their sport and it would be strictly a business to me.
But this would have been a perfect match. I knew the sport, I knew Firestone’s long history in the sport and I was already here. I could be with one of the key players in IndyCar and not even have to change my address.
A few months passed and I heard nothing. I had actually forgotten about it when I got a call from Joe Barbieri, the longtime manager of Bridgestone Motorsports. Ironically, the call came on my birthday. He explained that Leo Mehl had forwarded my letter to them and he wanted to follow up. We had a good conversation about my background and my longtime passion for the sport. A few days later, he called back and said he wanted me to come by their offices. As is common in the corporate world, the meeting was pushed back a few times. Finally, a lunch meeting was set. I was to meet with Joe Barbieri and Al Speyer at Ruby Tuesday’s.
We had a great meeting, although I was probably more impressed than they were. Still, I felt like this was more than just a courtesy. We sat and talked for more than two hours. This was before unification, so I offered up my ideas on how to solve things between the two series. I also offered up my naïve ideas on how Firestone could promote themselves as well as the two series.
Obviously, no motorsports career blossomed from that meeting. I had given it my best shot and didn’t walk away wishing I had done something different (other than ordering an expensive entrée, while they both had salads). They explained how surprisingly small their motorsports division was and there was little, if any, turnover. Most of their staff had been there well over twenty years. Since that meeting, I have maintained a friendly relationship with Joe Barbieri. We touch base from time to time and we always say hi to each other at races.
It’s funny how things happen. When Firestone confirmed that they would be leaving the IZOD IndyCar Series at the end of the 2011 season, it had a rippling effect throughout the racing world. It also made me grateful that things had not worked out. Had I been offered the “dream job”, I would find myself facing unemployment at the end of this year.
While there are the obvious questions about who should replace them (Michelin gets my vote, closely followed by Hoosier – I’ll get into my logic at another time); I’m concerned for the futures of the two men who were cordial enough to talk to me that rainy day at Ruby Tuesday’s. This is the second time Al Speyer has been stung by a decision made higher up the corporate ladder. Shortly after he joined Firestone after graduating from Syracuse University, Firestone announced they were pulling the plug on their Indy car program.
Almost twenty years later, after Firestone was acquired by Japanese tire maker Bridgestone – Speyer led Firestone’s entry back into CART. When the IRL began operations in 1996, Firestone and Goodyear supplied tires to both open-wheel series. Firestone eventually chased Goodyear out of CART and the IRL and Bridgestone ran them out of Formula One.
In my opinion, Firestone was the best and most important partner to the IZOD IndyCar Series. They had great ads (the “magic rings” commercial is still one of my favorites) and spent a ton of money promoting the series. But their greatest legacy is their safety record. In all their years since they returned to open-wheel racing, not once did any of their tires suffer a failure. In recent years, we have seen Goodyear and Michelin leave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with egg on their faces. Firestone has always been prepared. Al Speyer and his staff did their homework. Their efforts will be missed.
As much as I’ve read quotes from Speyer that this was a mutual decision throughout the company and that there are better ways to promote the Firestone brand in the future, you’ve got to wonder how he really feels. I wonder if Firestone might go the way of Mercury, Pontiac and Oldsmobile – an iconic name for a brand that no longer seems relevant to today’s hip, younger buyer. Other than what Firestone did with the IZOD IndyCar Series, most of the parent company’s promotional efforts lately, seem to focus on the Bridgestone brand.
Here locally, the downtown arena in Nashville has been re-named Bridgestone arena. Bridgestone is the official tire of the NFL. For the last few years, Bridgestone has presented the Super Bowl halftime show. Other than IndyCar races, where else do you see Firestone advertised?
Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri are both good men who have pretty much devoted their careers to open-wheel racing. Now that that’s going away, I’m wondering what the future holds for these men and their staff. Yes, there may be other opportunities within the company – but what could bring the joy and satisfaction that they got from their involvement in racing? They are putting on their best face for now, but I wonder what they will be feeling in May of 2012.