AKRON-The unbelievable was about to happen. With just 30 laps left in the Indianapolis 500, Firestone dealers across the country were riveted to their TV sets, ready to bask in the publicity a 1-2 finish for Firestone Firehawks would bring their supplier and their dealerships.
Then Firestone's premier driver, Scott Pruett, trying desperately to overtake Scott Goodyear for the lead, tagged the wall coming out of turn two on lap 184.
No matter. That still left Mr. Goodyear and his Firestone-shod Reynard-Honda with an almost certain victory.
But he blew past the pace car on the race's final restart-a move that earned him a black flag penalty and dashed Firestone's hopes of returning to The Brickyard winner's circle in its first Indy Car season in 21 years.
But heartbreak on the track hasn't damped the enthusiasm of Firestone dealers, who generally said the brand's May media blitz should boost high performance tire sales in their stores.
``The racing program, along with the new tire introductions, have definitely helped business,'' said Charlie Thum, co-owner of Southampton, Pa.-based McCleery Tire Service.
The business climate in his area has sales down, but ``Firestone business is very healthy,'' he said.
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said sales of Firestone passenger and light truck tires are up over the past few years, and a company spokesman said sales of the brand new Firehawk SS10 are running 300 percent above projections.
Company officials were not about to let the race's disappoint-ing ending undermine the time, energy and money they had dumped into the ``Legend Returns'' Indy Car marketing campaign.
``We showed everybody around the world the competitiveness of our tires,'' said BFS motorsports manager Al Speyer after the race.
That clearly was a major goal for the company.
Tire makers generally are involved in racing for two reasons: to alter corporate images and learn technology for their high-performance tires.
The Indianapolis 500 gives Goodyear and BFS a showcase-not just for race-tire technology, but for consumer tires as well, since both tire makers tie their consumer marketing campaigns to racing.
``It's the biggest one-day sporting event in the world,'' said Leo Mehl, Goodyear's director of racing, estimating attendance at the race to be more than 400,000. ``Most every American is aware of the Indianapolis 500.''
Goodyear changed its corporate image from a conservative, backward company into a technology-driven tire maker by entering Indy racing in the 1960s, Mr. Mehl said.
Bridgestone/Firestone now is trying to do the same.
But it was Jacques Villeneuve, riding on Goodyear Eagles, who finished first, with an average speed of 153.616 mph. The next seven finishers also rode on Goodyears.
The highest finisher on Firestones was Hiro Matsushita at ninth. Mr. Goodyear, who ignored his final penalty and kept driving to the finish, placed 14th. Others riding on Firestones finished 15th, 18th and 19th; two Firestone-shod cars left the race in the early laps.
Still, most dealers contacted by TIRE BUSINESS who had watched the race said they were impressed with the Firehawks' performance and believe they will capitalize on renewed racing spirit among their employees and customers.
Mr. Thum said he believes employees and customers lost their enthusiasm for Firestone 20 years ago, after the financially strapped company pulled itself out of Indy Car racing.
``It's all part of a total feeling; it's part of a total trend,'' Mr. Thum said. Firestone's leaving Indy Car racing in 1974 was ``another thing that contributed to a losing of enthusiasm, a losing of morale-one more step. Now we've had many reasons to be re-excited.''
For Mr. Thum, the racing program is a part of a new corporate attitude that has ``given us more confidence in the brand.''
More than anything, it has given dealers the chance to capitalize on promotions within their market areas, he said.
To help tie into the return to Indy, McCleery Tire painted Scott Pruett's Indy car on the sides of two new service trucks, creating what Mr. Thum called ``two rolling billboards.''
``(Painting the two trucks) was the single most effective thing I've ever done to draw attention to our business or a program-period,'' he said.
Most dealers, like Peter Lilly of Lilly's Firestone Inc. in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., said they will be able to determine the sales impact later in the year.
``With the advertising exposure and everything, I'm sure it is going to make an impact,'' Mr. Lilly said. ``But I don't know how big of an impact yet.''
Salespeople at his dealership are mentioning that racing technology has been built into the new Firehawk SS10, he added.
Joseph Klis, co-owner of North Shore Firestone in East Northport, N.Y., said Firestone performance line sales are up 8 percent in the past six months, which he partially attributed to the racing promotions.
North Shore Firestone has increased orders on Firehawks in the hopes of a strong selling season, he said.
``The direction they went with the racing tires is a much better way of advertising than what they were doing'' with co-op advertising, Mr. Klis said.
National name recognition advertising aimed at racing and automotive enthusiasts is more likely to help dealers keep profit margins up, than are local newspaper ads touting sales or special promotions, he said.
Not all Firestone dealers were enthusiastic about the racing program, however.
``I really didn't have any feelings for it one way or another,'' said Lanny Graham, owner of Lanny Graham Tire Co. Inc. in Beaumont, Texas. ``I just don't think it helped my sales.''
Steve Walters in Akron contributed to this report.