Goodyear and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. aren't the only tire makers fighting for supremacy on the race track. While these companies have grabbed most of the headlines in their heated battles this summer on the IndyCar circuits, smaller tire makers are competing just as fiercely in other race series.
A recent International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) World SportsCar event I attended July 14 at the invitation of Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. illustrated how intense and entertaining such competition can be.
The race took place at Sears Point Raceway, located in the California wine country about an hour's drive north of San Francisco.
While several races in various categories were held throughout the weekend, the featured event was the World SportsCar series, a three-hour, two-driver endurance race on Sunday.
About 60 cars were entered, including one team led by Craig T. Nelson, the star of TV's ``Coach.''
The race was fun to watch. Sitting high on a hillside overlooking a golden-colored valley, I could see why drivers call Sears Point demanding. It's got lots of twists and turns and ups and downs with no two alike-a real challenge to drivers.
Not knowing a lot about the drivers in the race, I tended to watch ``Coach's'' car as well as those of the leaders.
Then, with a half-hour left in the timed three-hour event, things got really interesting. An earlier yellow flag, caused when ``Coach's'' co-driver crashed end-over-end, had bunched up the lead cars, making it a three-car race.
With 10 minutes to go, the three were still running nose to tail with no more than 3 seconds separating them.
John Paul Jr. was in the lead, driving a Goodyear-shod Ford. Second was Wayne Taylor, in an Oldsmobile fitted with Pirellis. He was followed by Max Papis at the wheel of a Ferrari running on Yokohamas.
For a guy who lives and breathes tires, this was great stuff-three different brands in contention.
Adding to the tension was whether two of the leading cars would have enough fuel to finish.
Papis, in third place, had made a pit stop under the earlier yellow flag and had plenty of fuel; the other two weren't sure how much they had.
By this time I was in the pit area watching intently as the leaders tried to outduel each other.
On the white-flag lap before time expired, Paul Jr.'s tank ran dry, and Taylor and Papis roared by. Papis tried to pass Taylor several times on the last lap, but to no avail. Taylor crossed the finish line first after three hours-less than a car's length ahead.
On his victory lap, Taylor's car also ran out of fuel and had to be pushed into the pits.
The finish for the tire companies: Pirelli first, Yokohama second and Goodyear third.
As pure entertainment, this was a great race. But for the tire makers, it was all business-a way of testing their tires and evaluating different compounds to see what works best.
For those watching, the race also demonstrated the amazing capability of the pneumatic tire to handle the punishment delivered by a grueling road course.
As one dealer said, commenting on racing in general: ``If consumers see tires used under this type of auto racing, they have a better perception of the high quality of performance tires.''
That's true. Unfortunately, few people were on hand to watch the event. The stands were nearly empty, prompting Jack Gerken of Pirelli Armstrong's public relations agency to call the IMSA series ``the greatest racing series that no one sees.''