Firestone Ends The Year On A High Note
Usually, there is very little, if any, racing news over the Christmas break. For the most part, that was the case this year. However, there was some very good news that we learned on the Friday leading into the long Christmas weekend. It was then that we learned that Firestone was renewing their deal as the sole tire supplier for the IZOD IndyCar Series through 2018.
This is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that the product that has been on every car in the series since 2000 will remain. The drivers that throw their cars into corners at speeds that exceed well over 200 mph, have been putting their trust into the tires that the Nashville-based company has produced for years. When you look at the troubles experienced by other tire manufacturers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the success that Firestone has had, it’s no wonder that the drivers are happy to hear this news.
I am a proponent of multiple engine manufacturers and chassis designs. I like a lot of variety in the series. Competition is usually a good thing. But one thing that I firmly believe should remain constant is the tire manufacturer. Competition among tire manufacturers compromises safety for speed. When it comes to tires, safety should be the primary concern. Tire wars are generally frowned upon by drivers and for good reason. There should be one and only one tire manufacturer in any racing series. Period.
But this is significant on other fronts. IndyCar has many partners – some stronger and more loyal than others. It has been strongly rumored that series sponsor IZOD will be gone after their contract allows them to. What started out as a very positive alliance has grown strained due strictly to a change in management at Phillips-Van Heusen. Quite simply, the new CEO sees no value in motorsports sponsorship so they are simply doing the bare minimum to satisfy the terms of the deal. I had thought that the IZOD sponsorship was a six-year deal, but some say they will be gone after next year.
Dallara has a tenuous relationship with the series and its owners. They have had a presence since 1997 and have developed a very racy car in the DW12. However, the new car came in much more expensive than originally promised and the deal for exclusivity on spare parts was in the best interest of Dallara and has outraged some owners.
Honda has been in the series since 2003 and has been a very good friend to IndyCar in that time frame. They became the reluctant sole engine supplier after their dominance ran Chevrolet and Toyota out of the series after the 2005 season. Honda wanted competition, but stood by the series during the five-year stretch that no other manufacturers showed any interest.
But in my opinion, no partner has been as important or as loyal to the series as Firestone. Granted, some may have questioned their loyalty a couple of years ago when Firestone announced that they would soon be leaving the series. A quick deal was struck to keep Firestone around through the 2014 season but the owners and teams would pay a significantly higher tire bill.
Being held hostage by a vendor didn’t set well with former CEO Randy Bernard, no matter how strong a partner they had been. It’s never good business to throw all your collective eggs into one basket, and that’s what had happened. So to make sure that IndyCar wasn’t caught unprepared, Randy Bernard sought a Plan B. In the event that Firestone decided to either bail or hike their prices again – Bernard looked for other possible suitors as a tire supplier for 2015 and beyond. Continental was the name that surfaced as the probable replacement should the series not be able to come to terms with Firestone.
There is a school of thought that says that Randy Bernard was simply using Continental for leverage in order to be in a better bargaining position with Firestone. Previously, IndyCar had no bargaining position. They were simply at the mercy of the terms that Firestone dictated. Others believe that Bernard had every intention of signing with Continental, in case Firestone wouldn’t negotiate or wanted to leave. Whatever the case, I considered it good business. Getting caught off-guard, without a Plan B is poor business, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, the public courting of Continental outraged many owners and some drivers. Their anger was justified when you consider the safety angle. No one knew if Continental could build a quality tire that could withstand speeds of over 225 mph. Everyone knew the performance record of Firestone. The owners and drivers saw this as a non-negotiable point, and I agree. Some say that this may have been the ultimate undoing of Randy Bernard. Personally, I think Randy Bernard was simply using Continental as a bargaining chip for negotiations. I don’t think he ever seriously considered letting Firestone walk in favor of an unproven manufacturer like Continental. But with his dismissal, we’ll never know.
Terms of the new deal with Firestone have not been announced. I’m sure the owners would agree to it no matter what the cost. Their product is that good. Watch any given NASCAR race and notice how many cars randomly blow tires while running Goodyear’s. Even more surprising is that it has become acceptable throughout their series. The consequences for that happening to an IndyCar are hard to think about, but I can assure you it is more than a crumpled fender to beat out with a sledge-hammer and repair with duct tape.
Bridgestone-Firestone is a very good corporate citizen here in Nashville. Their name is on the NHL arena, they sponsored the Nashville IndyCar while it was here and they are good friends of the Titans along with their sponsorship of the NFL. The top two figures in their motorsports division, Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri are both retiring next spring. Barbieri will retire in March, while Speyer will retire after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Combined, they represent over eighty years of motorsports experience. They will both be missed, by teams and fans alike.
Now that the matter of the short-term future of Firestone has been resolved; Mark Miles, Jeff Belskus and the brain-trust at 16th and Georgetown can turn their attention to other matters of importance. But make no mistake – the signing of a long-term deal with Firestone was huge. Not only did they win the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, and go on to win forty-two straight 500’s in a row before the streak was interrupted in 1967 – they have been back in open-wheel racing since 1995 and on every single car in the series since 2000. That speaks volumes.
So when you hear each driver giving a plug to Firestone in every driver interview – they aren’t just thanking a sponsor. They are thanking a longtime partner for the work they put into each tire and letting them know how much they are trusted and appreciated. Such respect is earned and Firestone has earned it.