AKRON (Jan. 22, 2014) — With the first major U.S. racing events just around the corner, tire makers large and small are gearing up their efforts for the coming season. The efforts include some completely new initiatives and many longtime relationships being renewed.
The following is a look at companies' motorsports programs, based on interviews with Tire Business.
Bridgestone Americas' primary motorsports focus in the Americas in 2014 will be continuing to supply Firestone Firehawk racing tires for the IZOD IndyCar Series. The tire maker's supply agreement for the series, which began in 1996, is contracted to continue through the 2018 race season.
Firestone exited the IndyCar Indy Lights open-wheel racing series after last season and was replaced by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. as the series tire supplier.
Lisa Boggs, director of motorsports for Bridgestone, said having a narrower series focus is allowing the tire maker to boost its involvement with the IndyCar series.
"Obviously for us it's very important we engage all of our stakeholders—the consumers, retailers, independent dealers, (Bridgestone) teammates. We're always growing and leveraging our assets to really engage those key stakeholders," she said. "…We are increasing our activation at tracks, our presence and our fan engagement."
In addition to being the official tire of IndyCar, Firestone will be the event sponsor of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (March 30) and a 600-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway (June 7).
No new event or series sponsorships have been added for 2014, Ms. Boggs said.
Continental Tire the Americas L.L.C. is broadening its involvement in the North American endurance racing scene.
The tire maker is taking on the role of spec tire supplier to three of the four classes in the newly formed Tudor United SportsCar Championship and continuing as spec tire supplier and title sponsor of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a companion to the Tudor USCC.
Continental will supply all the competitors in the series' prototype, prototype challenge and GT Daytona classes along with the SportsCar Challenge teams—a task that could involve more than 100 cars at some tracks.
This will be Conti's fifth year supplying and supporting endurance racing in North America. Conti's race tires are manufactured by Hoosier Racing Tire Corp. under terms of a strategic alliance the companies signed in mid-2009 to work together in the fields of motorsports and high-performance street tires.
The Tudor series' GT Le Mans class is an open tire class. Thus far Michelin and Falken have lined up teams there.
Conti's General Tire brand will continue to be involved primarily in off-road racing, both as a sponsor and tire supplier. It's sponsoring the Best In The Desert (BITD) and the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing series as well as several teams in each.
Continental said it also is evaluating other venues for the General brand as well.
Cooper Tire & Rubber
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. — still regaining its corporate bearings following the dissolution of the merger/takeover agreement with India's Apollo Tyres Ltd. — rolls into 2014 with its most extensive motorsports agenda to date.
The major change from last year is its deal to become the sponsor of and race tire supplier for the Indy Lights Series—the open-wheel racing series one step below IndyCar—for the next five years, replacing Firestone as series' longtime sponsor and supplier.
That deal makes Cooper the tire supplier and sponsor of the entire "Mazda Road to Indy" ladder, the stepping-stone system developed to foster young racing talent up to IndyCar level.
Cooper's Indy Lights deal is with Andersen Promotions, the Palmetto, Fla.-based motorsports event organizer that also oversees the other two Mazda Road ladder steps—the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.
Andersen Promotions CEO Dan Andersen called Cooper a "terrific partner" that allows the revived Indy Lights program a "fantastic foundation to build upon."
Mr. Andersen said that Indy Lights wanted "a partner that would provide a great product with substantial cost savings for teams…(and) would actively promote and support the series…."
To revive the series, which had dwindled to just a handful of teams last year, Andersen Promotions is updating the 12-year-old Indy Lights chassis for 2014. It also plans to have an all-new chassis in 2015 along with a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from Advanced Engine Research Ltd. that promises about 450 hp and a 6,000-mile lifespan.
As of mid-January, 11 teams have submitted entries for 15 drivers.
In addition to supporting the Mazda Road to Indy, Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper supports the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship Powered by Mazda development series and supplies teams in the TORC Series off-road racing, GRC - Global Rallycross and in drifting in North America and supplies and sponsors the British Formula 3 series.
In addition, Cooper's Mickey Thompson and Avon associate brands have their own motorsports programs, the former primarily in off-roading, drag racing and land-speed record attempts and the latter in a number of European racing series, most notably the Avon Tyres British GT Championship for touring cars, along with numerous motorcycle racing events.
Falken Tire Corp.
Falken said it aims to continue to be active in the motorsports area. In both the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and Formula Drift, Falken owns and operates its teams in these series,, according to Nick Fousekis, Falken's director, motorsports marketing and events.
"Meaning we own all the assets—race cars, trucks and trailers, equipment, etc.—and hire our own drivers and professional teams to ensure everything is run to our expectations and standards," he continued.
Mr. Fousekis said this gives Falken "full rights" to the look of each vehicle and how it's used in advertisements, along with "the freedom to use any of our assets and athletes" for sales or dealer support.
"We believe our approach has helped in us clinching two championships and countless wins in Formula Drift and also allowed us to take down the 'traditional' titans within arguably the most competitive GT racing series in the world, including a series closing GT Class win at last year's Petit Le Mans," he said.
For the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship—formerly the American Le Mans Series—drivers Bryan Sellers and Wolf Henzler will drive a Porsche 911 RSR race car on Falken RT Slicks, which Mr. Fousekis said were built exclusively for this vehicle and program.
In the Formula Drift series, Daijiro Yoshihara will drive a Subaru BRZ, Justin Pawlak a Ford Mustang GT and Darren McNamara a Nissan 240SX—all on off-the-shelf Falken Tire RT615K tires.
In off-road racing, Mr. Fousekis said Falken has had success using off-the-shelf Falken Wildpeak A/T tires in Ultra 4 Series events, including the King of the Hammers Every Man Challenge.
"In 2014, we'll test our new M/T Prototype design with several teams in a variety of off-road events and will actually be the spec tire for the 4700 Class in Ultra 4," he added.
"Nearly 20 vehicles will be outfitted in Falken product and competing within the 2014 King of the Hammers week range of events."
By year-end 2014, Mr. Fousekis said Falken product will also have run in the historic Dakar Rally as well as Baja competitions.
He said the vehicles will involve "a wide range including Jeep chassis race cars and tube chassis machines" on Falken Wildpeak A/T & M/T Prototype tires. Mr. Fousekis said both tires are off the shelf and Custom Spec, depending on series rules and regulations.
Goodyear's primary motorsports focus for 2014 continues to be on NASCAR, along with the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, according to a Goodyear spokesman.
"Those are kind of the two biggest sports for us on the racing front," he said, noting that the tire maker's motorsports schedule looks about the same as it did in 2013.
Goodyear also will continue to be involved in NASCAR's Touring Series (K&N Pro Series East, K&N Pro Series West and Canadian Tire Series) along with various sports car competitions, such as the Sports Car Club of America's (SCCA) GT1 series, Spec Racer Ford and World Speed/Formula Car Challenge.
What is changing, at least for some events, are the tires.
In 2013, Goodyear debuted its Goodyear Eagle racing slick featuring Multi-Zone Tread technology, which the company said combines two different rubber compounds in a single tread in an attempt to better balance wear and traction.
The technology comes directly from Goodyear's Assurance TripleTred All-Season passenger tire line, which Goodyear said pioneered the concept of multiple tread zones with its three distinct zones for traction in wet, icy and dry conditions. The racing tires feature an "Endurance Zone" on the inside shoulder with a firmer compound, while the outer two-thirds of the tread is a softer "Traction Zone."
"Even though it's a slick tire that doesn't have a tread pattern, the use of the two different compounds was able to give us the best of both worlds," the spokesman said. "You can have a little more traction on the outside edge of the tires where most of your grip comes from without going with a softer compound that's going to wear too much on the inside."
The technology made its competition debut Sept. 1, 2013, in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After a successful first race, Goodyear supplied teams with the Multi-Zone Tread tires for the Oct. 6 Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
This year, Goodyear will be expanding the use of the technology to additional tracks, the spokesman said.
"Last year certainly ended up being a proof of concept at least for us in switching over," he said. "I think everyone on the racing side was happy with the results and the way that played out."
On the amateur drag racing side, Goodyear has released a new tire for 2014, the D2775, aimed at competitors in Super Comp, Top Sportsman and Top Dragster categories. The tire is 33.5 inches tall and 17 inches across the face of the tread, the spokesman said.
It features a 16-inch rim diameter and uses a new mold design, which the spokesman said will "allow cars to better apply the power to the ground without having to deal with tire shake."
Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc.
Kumho will participate in various motorsports events throughout 2014. In Germany, Kumho said it will be sponsoring the Twin Busch Team, driving an Audi LMS R8 Ultra, in the VLN series that runs March through October.
The company also will be supplying the Auto GP World Series, the China Touring Car Championship in China, the Master of F3 in the Netherlands in July and the CJ Super Race Series in South Korea.
A company spokeswoman said Kumho has a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) contingency award program for Solo (Autocross) and regional club racing in which drivers sign up, then receive awards if they place in a race.
The tire marketer also has a contingency program for the Porsche Owners Club in the Southern California region. Similar to its SCCA contingency, drivers receive awards if they place in a race while running on Kumho tires, according to the spokeswoman.
In the arena of new product development, she said Kumho has an Ecsta XS replacement tire in development, with plans to release it in the first quarter of 2015. It will be targeted at SCCA autocross and weekend racers.
The company also has a number of individual drivers it sponsors in SCCA national and regional club racing, she added.
"We are very excited to continue our support of grassroots motorsports as we enter the new year," the spokeswoman said. "Kumho has a long history of involvement in grassroots racing and we believe that a strong motorsports program is essential to our company's success."
Kumho also will be ramping up its outreach efforts in preparation for 2015 when, according to the spokeswoman, the com¬pany plans to release its Ecsta V720 tire—"the replacement to our popular Ecsta XS.
"When it is released in the first quarter of 2015, we are confident that the Ecsta V720 will be one of the fastest street tires available to grassroots racers," she said.
"To support the tire's launch, we are planning a number of events across the country, including ride-and-drives and increased sponsorship opportunities. We will also be sending motorsports staff to a number of events to support the new product and talk to racers about the technology that will make the Ecsta V720 the tire that they will want to race on in the 2015 season."
Michelin North America Inc. (MNA) said it is developing breakthroughs in racing tire development both with its Michelin and BFGoodrich racing tires.
The company is working on an 18-inch rim diameter racing tire for the FIA Formula e designed with a tread pattern that can be used in dry or wet conditions.
The tire maker also plans to continue development of a methodology it debuted mid last year in which the tire designers custom-grooved the tire treads at the track to adapt to changing conditions.
Motorsports has yielded a better understanding of tire function and tire technology (materials, inflated shape, etc.) which has had a major impact on its consumer products, such as the Pilot Super Sport and Pilot Sport All Season 3 lines, said Chris Baker, motorsports director for MNA.
"There is something new coming that is generating more buzz than, frankly, anyone in the motorsports community could have expected," Mr. Baker said. "The new FIA Formula e championship will come to North America in 2015 (in Miami and in Los Angeles), but the global race season kicks off in September of 2014 in Beijing.
Meanwhile, he said Michelin's BFGoodrich brand "will increase its engagement in short (closed)-course off-road racing during 2014. This type of racing presents a very particular technical challenge for us in terms of off-road traction."
Last year during the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series, Michelin introduced a tire technology and at-track methodology that allowed the tire maker to custom-groove BFGoodrich slicks for its Pro-2 and Pro-4 teams on-site as a function of track and ambient conditions.
"This approach allowed us to adapt our tire solutions in close collaboration with our race team partners. We learned a lot via this approach and we will continue to develop the methodology throughout the 2014 racing season," Mr. Baker said.
Michelin is participating in several racing series this year, including:
- Dakar cross-country rally in South America;
- FIA World Rally Championship;
- The new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, the result of the merger of the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Rolex Series. "The GT Le Mans class is the only 'open tire' class in this championship and we are heavily involved with our technical partners Corvette Racing, SRT/Viper, BMW Team RLL, Porsche Motorsport North America, Risi Competizione Ferrari and Aston Martin Racing," Mr. Baker said; and
- FIA World Endurance Championship."Top-level endurance racing, such as the TUDOR Championship and WEC, is an ideal fit for Michelin," he said. "We are constantly striving to provide long-wearing, low-energy-consumption, high-traction, terrific-driving tire solutions for everyone—not just racers."
He noted that Michelin has had a successful run at the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1998 and has increased the longevity of its race tires by a factor of three. "In fact, at Le Mans alone in the last three years, we've reduced our consumption of tires by fully 25 percent—-all while going faster than we ever have before."
In North America, Michelin will race in the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Canada by Michelin series while the BFGoodrich brand will race in:
- SCCA Pro Racing's Mazda MX-5 Cup;
- Best in the Desert series;
- SCORE International; and
- Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series.
North America is the only geographic zone in the world in which Group Michelin races at a high level with both its Michelin and BFGoodrich brands, according to Mr. Baker.
Michelin has adopted a three-pillar approach to its global motorsports strategy, and "each one of them may have a higher priority than the other two at any given time, simply as a function of the particular motorsports opportunity in front of us," he said.
- Pillar 1: Racing supports the brands to reinforce what they stand for.
- Pillar 2: Racing provides technology development and deployment. "We say that, for us, racing is our 'lab within the lab.'
"It is a technology-discovery ecosystem, enabling transfer to our consumer product offers for our Michelin and BFGoodrich brands," Mr. Baker said.
- Pillar 3: Racing operates as a small business that supports the main business of delivering better mobility.
"Globally, over the last two years, Group Michelin has consolidated its global motorsports organization into a more coherent effort that is well-aligned with the company's growth ambitions—and this includes not only the mature economies of Western Europe and North America, but also the Group's efforts in what are commonly referred to as the 'developing economies,' such as Asia, South America and Eastern Europe.
"We now have 'formal' motorsports arms in Europe, North America and in Asia and they are focused, on-mission and making progress," Mr. Baker added.
Pirelli Tyre S.p.A. has ramped up its already crowded motorsports calendar for 2014, rejoining the World Rally Championship circuit after a three-year hiatus and broadening its support of GT road racing in Europe and North America.
At the top of the ladder, the Federation International de l'Automobile renewed Pirelli's Formula 1 race tire supply contract for three more seasons, including some key caveats designed to improve safety and performance levels.
This extension goes hand in hand with Pirelli's "multiple" season race tire supply commitment to the GP2 and GP3 single-seat, open-wheel racing series—both "feeder series" for Formula 1.
Among the changes in the renewed F1 contract are: one of the 12 days of official pre-season testing will be dedicated exclusively to wet weather tire testing; and each team must dedicate one its sanctioned eight days of in-season testing exclusively to tire testing.
In North America, Pirelli's title contract and race tire partnership with the Pirelli World Challenge Championship was extended for five more years.
Scott Bove, president and CEO of WC Vision, the Arlington-based series organizer, called the extension a "strong bond between our two brands," and Rafael Navarro, vice president, communications, media relations and motorsports for Pirelli, called it "natural fit because that absolute passion is shared by WC Vision and the manufacturers, teams and drivers that compete in the series."
Pirelli took over as the series' tire supplier in October 2010 and added the title sponsorship role in March 2011.
The extension through the 2018 season continues an integrated sponsorship program that includes in-market activation, and multi-platform, cross-promotional efforts, WC Vision said.
The Pirelli World Challenge features five classes of competition for a variety of production-based sports cars and sports sedans, including a new touring class, dubbed TCA that is an evolution of the existing TCB class with an emphasis on maintaining cost effectiveness.
Pirelli also is supporting the FIA GT Series in Europe, whose classes are similar to the World Challenge. The GT series has both sprint and endurance championships.
Duane Sampson, motorsports manager for Yokohama Tire Corp. (YTC), said not much is changing within the company's motorsports program in 2014.
The tire maker will continue to be involved with its desert racing program, which includes SCORE International Off-Road Ricing, Best in the Desert (BITD) and High Desert Racing Association (HDRA) off-road racing. Yokohama will continue its sponsorship of Desert Assassins teammates Cameron and Heidi Steele.
The company also will continue supplying its Advan ENV-R2 racing tires to the GT3 series, which has changed its name in 2014 to the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama.
The biggest change for the year is that the Platinum class Porsche 911 GT3 cup cars have upgraded to the Porsche 991 chassis and, along with it, a new tire size.
Mr. Sampson said the new GT3 cars will ride on tires in size 280/650R18 (front) and 330/710R18 (rear), while the 997 chassis cars in the Gold class will continue to ride on tires in size 240/640R18 (front) and 280/680R18 (rear).
"It complicates things because it's two different tires to bring," Mr. Sampson said. "We bring enough rain tires for every event for every car, and then some. It's part of the deal. So going from four part numbers to eight part numbers is more of a logistic challenge."
That said, the company is looking forward to the expected increase in speed that comes with the larger tire size.
"It's knocking on the door of the faster, bigger cars," Mr. Sampson said. "That's going to be a quick car. Last year alone we were setting qualifying lap records and race lap records with the older tire and the older car."
Yokohama will enter its third year of participation with Lotus Cup USA, to which it supplies its A005 race tires. In addition, the company's grassroots racing program is "a constant evolving and growing thing," Mr. Sampson said.
With the merger of the American Le Mans Series and Rolex Sports Car Series into the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, and the subsequent selection of Continental Tire the Americas L.L.C. as the series' lone tire supplier, Yokohama said it will no longer participate in the series.