ELKHART LAKE, Wis.-Whatever you do, don't call it simply a marriage of convenience. When Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. introduced in early June its newest baby-the Firehawk SZ50, christened the ``flagship'' of the Firestone brand-one company official after the other called the ultra-high performance tire a coupling of the tire maker's racing and consumer tire technologies.
Shu Ishibashi, executive director of consumer tire marketing, told tire dealers and trade journalists that after years of brand-name decline, the SZ50 returns a reinvigorated Firestone to the forefront of tire technology. It is, he said, the ``first Firestone tire that marries the lessons we have learned in Indycar'' with other newly developed technologies.
A slew of BFS executives credited Firestone's 1995 re-entry into Indycar racing as the spark that has created new excitement over the brand, spawning the ``Born of Indy, Driven Everywhere'' tagline for the company's Firehawk performance tire line.
At the famous Road America race course in Elkhart Lake, first journalists, then dealers tested the Z-rated SZ50 under weather conditions punctuated with periodic deluges-appropriate for a tire its makers boasted features superior wet- and dry-weather handling via a tread pattern that is a descendant of the Firehawk Indy rain tire.
The company claimed the SZ50-a product of its trademark ``Ultimate Network of Intelligent Tire Technology'' (UNI-T)-also offers low noise and competitive wear characteristics. Three new BFS technologies are wedded in UNI-T:
Computer Optimized Component System (CO CS), which John Cervone, manager of trade tire development, attributed to a revised casing shape for the SZ50 that gives it improved handling by optimizing belt and carcass tensions;
Long-linked (LL) Carbon, an improved reinforcing material that stabilizes the rubber, providing longer tread life; and
O-Bead, a design that he said creates a rounder tire/wheel assembly, eliminating steering wheel shake to produce a smooth, uniform ride and consistent wet traction through the tread's life.
The tire also has a continuous steel strand bead without splices to minimize non-uniformity in the bead area.
Another feature of the SZ50 is ``Rim Guard,'' an extension of the upper sidewall area to protect the wheels from damage. That's ``very important on 50-series and lower aspect ratios,'' Mr. Cervone said.
To enhance wet handling, the SZ50 has special siping for water evacuation from the sides. BFS said silica in the tire's tread compound helps improve wet performance and provide consistent grip through variations in temperature and road conditions.
Targeted at a number of high-performance cars, the tire will be available to Firestone dealers and company-owned stores in August in the following 11 sizes: P225/60ZR15; P225/60ZR16; P205/55ZR16; P225/55ZR16; P225/50ZR16; P245/50ZR16; P255/50ZR16; 245/45ZR17; P255/45ZR17; P275/40ZR17; and P285/40ZR17.
In January, three sizes will be added: 215/45ZR17, 235/45ZR17 and 255/40ZR17.
Promotions include a special introductory video for dealers, national Corvette Club activities, and print and TV ads highlighting Firestone racing wins.
Rick Bangs, Firestone marketing manager, said an extensive media campaign will ``be the first TV ads we've devoted to a specific line in many, many years for the Firestone brand.''
Dealers will get a store display featuring both the SZ50 and its Firehawk Indy racing tire cousin.
The Elkhart Lake event was the first ride-and-drive for Jim Wochinske, owner/president of Pomp's Tire Service Inc., Green Bay, Wis. A Firestone dealer since about 1981, he said attending such events ``gives dealers good firsthand experience in how the tire works in relation to other products that were there.''
At the track, the SZ50 was run against what BFS claimed were comparable Goodyear and BFGoodrich performance tires.
``I'm sure every manufacturer is going to slant the tests such that they look best at it,'' Mr. Wochinske stated. ``That's just the name of the game. But it still makes you feel good about the product you sell.
``If you can convey that to the customer across the counter from you, I'm sure you have a better opportunity to close the sale.''
The ``racing angle has had a positive impact on Firestone sales in the last couple years,'' he said, and has boosted ``overall confidence and belief in the product.''
Tire dealer John L. Marshall agreed.
The vice president of Dayton, Ohio-based Grismer Tire Co.-which has sold Firestones since its founding in 1932-said ``the (SZ50) tires we sell will probably be because of the racing connection. It's not so much how the public perceives it. The first reason is it excites the troops.''
After personally testing the new tire under various track conditions, he added, only partially in jest: ``I was disappointed when I looked at the tires after a day of racing on them. They weren't wearing.
``I thought, `Just what we need: another long-wearing tire-and a performance one, to boot!'*''
While performance tire sales at Grismer Tire's 19 outlets are ``not real strong,'' the potential is there, Mr. Marshall said. A couple of employees are real performance enthusiasts/specialists, and the dealership has conducted some in-house ride-and-drives.
``That was to show our people the difference between plus-sizing tires and speed ratings. . . to give them confidence that there are truly noticeable differences'' in tire performance and handling.
``I am amazed at how advanced tire technology has become,'' Mr. Marshall continued. ``Sometimes I get the impression we're selling the quality of a Mercedes in a tire-at a Yugo price!''