AKRON-Goodyear and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. fired the first few cross-volleys of their renewed racing tire war in March. But unlike most wars, this one could prove beneficial to both combatants, as well as the tire dealers and consumers that fill the ranks of their armies.
The competition stands to increase public exposure for both the Goodyear and Fire-stone brands, boost dealership sales of Eagle and Firehawk tires and improve street tire performance via technological innovations, according to officials from both companies.
So far, Goodyear has retained its dominance on the race track, sup-porting first- and second-place finishers in both the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami, March 4, where Firestone Firehawks ended their 21-year hiatus from Indycar racing, and Indy Car Australia, March 19.
But Firestone impressed most race watchers with a fourth-place finish during the Miami season opener.
So far, the Firestone-Goodyear battle has centered around Bobby Rahal, riding on Goodyear Eagles, and Scott Pruett, using Firestone Firehawks. Mr. Rahal, in his Mercedes-powered car sponsored by Miller Genuine Draft, edged out Mr. Pruett, who drives the Firestone-sponsored Patrick Racing car powered by a Ford/Cosworth engine, for third place in Miami and beat him out for second, two weeks later in Australia.
Of the other drivers using Firehawks so far this season-Andre Ribeiro, Hiro Matsushita, Eric Bachelart and Alessandro Zampedri-Mr. Matsushita has fared best, with an 11th-place finish March 19.
``We couldn't have dreamed of a better start in our return to Indycar racing.*.*.*,'' said Al Speyer, BFS motorsports manager. ``We are doing exactly what we said we would do-make our return to Indy racing professional. We said from the beginning our focus was safety and durability, and it's plainly evident we have accomplished our goals.''
The Indycar teams were scheduled to compete in their third race of the year, the Slick 50 200 in Phoenix, April 2.
But the major battle stands to take place May 28 during the Indianapolis 500-an event watched by even casual racing fans. And both tire makers hope the publicity surrounding the race, as well as the rest of the Indycar season, will help drive dealership sales.
Firestone sales are expected to more than match last year's 20-percent increase, a BFS spokesman said, capitalizing on a ``Born on Indy Technology'' marketing strategy.
So far, Bridgestone/Firestone has introduced the Firehawk SS-10 tire, complete with sidewall markings identical to the Firehawk racing slicks. The company plans to roll out the Firehawk LH line on May 1 just prior to the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend.
The Firestone ``Legend Returns'' sweepstakes will send one winner and a guest to the Indy 500 as one of its prizes.
BFS also has created a set of television commercials that will air on ABC, ESPN and CBS and in local markets to help support its marketing campaign, which includes dealer point-of-purchase displays that have ``an Indy fla-vor,'' according to Stan Cooper, Firestone consumer products manager.
Although Firestone has captured much of the publicity as the relative newcomer to the Indycar circuit, Goodyear plans to capitalize on the renewed competition, according to Leo Mehl, general manager of worldwide racing.
``The one thing you learn, after you've been in a monopoly for a long time, is never to underestimate anybody,'' Mr. Mehl said. ``And surely don't underestimate a competitor's technology or drive and desire to be what Goodyear now represents in the racing business.''
Goodyear also has created a sweepstakes, titled ``Raceway to the Driveway,'' offering 50 trips-for-two to the Indy 500, among other racing-oriented prizes.
And the company has redefined its corporate racing functions, in part to compete with the Firestone threat. Goodyear has unleashed new advertising in popular auto enthusiast magazines that proclaims its racing dominance.
``What we are trying to do is develop an advertising and marketing campaign that explains what it takes to win a championship-you need Goodyear Eagle racing tires as part of that package-and then make that link to Eagle high performance street tires,'' said Stu Grant, Goodyear director of race tire sales and marketing. ``That is the crux of our focus in 1995, and it is new for 1995.''