AKRON-Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s return to Indycar racing has thrown Goodyear into the underdog role. In only its second year back on the track, Firestone's Firehawk Indycar tire has won every race this season-in both the established PPG Indy Car World Series and the upstart Indy Racing League. The latest victory was April 14 in Long Beach, Calif., where Jimmy Vasser won for the third time this year.
The success hasn't been a surprise to BFS officials.
``When we decided to return, we wanted to test in '94, race in '95 and win in '96,'' a company spokesman said. ``We actually began winning in '95, so we were a bit ahead of schedule.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker has teamed with Honda engines in Mr. Vasser's three victories. It also has had success with Ford and Mercury engines, as well as Reynard and Lola chassis.
But Goodyear isn't panicking and is confident its Eagle racing tire will bounce back after seeing an end to its 21-year solo reign in Indycar racing.
``This is a situation that we've been through before in other forms of racing,'' said Stu Grant, Goodyear's director of worldwide racing. ``We are focused on doing our business.''
The Firehawk's success also has helped BFS beyond the track. The firm's spokesman said sales of the Firehawk SS10 radial have jumped 40 percent since the company announced its return to racing.
In addition, the company is hoping to add more racing teams to its roster.
``The one common denominator of the victories is that all of the winners have been on Firehawks,'' the spokesman said. ``Other teams have been showing more interest in our tire since we started winning regularly.
Even drivers have taken notice.
``The surprise that we had in Australia (at the Australian Grand Prix) was (learning that) Firestone definitely has a good racing tire and Goodyear needs to do some homework,'' driver Al Unser Jr. told The Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. ``The gap is about one second (a lap) between the Firestone and Goodyear tires right now. No matter what engine you've got or what car you've got, the tire's what's on the ground, and that's what's important.''
For Goodyear, it's time to play catch-up-something the company is not used to.
``We're taking it one race at a time,'' Mr. Grant said.
``We're not ashamed of our performance, but we know we have to do a little more work to get back to where we were.''
The next race, the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix, was scheduled for April 28 in Nazareth, Pa.
In addition to the on-track competition, the BFS spokesman said competition in the technology laboratories of the two companies is a driving force.