AKRON—New car specifications in the Indy Racing League and Bridgestone Corp.'s debut in Formula 1 racing should keep the competition spirited between the two major auto racing tire suppliers. Goodyear and Bridgestone have been going head to head in auto racing competition since 1995 when Bridgestone's U.S. subsidiary, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., reintroduced Firestone-brand tires to Indianapolis-style racing.
Firestone tires went on to win 13 of the 19 Indianapolis-style car races in 1996.
Both companies believe the competition helps the tire industry as a whole.
``The competition ultimately benefits consumers, who enjoy the technological developments from racing that lead to better tires for highway driving,'' a Bridgestone spokesman said. ``And the competition benefits the entire tire industry, because tires are now mentioned and featured in many reports about racing.''
``Competition is good for the sport, for racing and for Goodyear,'' said Stu Grant, Goodyear's general manager of worldwide racing. ``Nothing drives technology faster than competition.''
Winning races isn't the only way to measure success, according to the companies.
``There are a lot of pieces—marketing, advertising, exposure, technology—that often get overlooked,'' Mr. Grant said. ``You want to win every race, but usually when you have competition, you don't win every race.''
However, expectations are high as the 1997 auto racing season gets under way.
``In some ways, it may be one of the most competitive years ever as far as tire manufacturers go,'' a Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman said.
Bridgestone's entry into Formula 1 likely will receive the most attention.
The company has been preparing for Formula 1 since 1989 and moved up the project's debut a year because testing went so well, the firm said. Bridgestone-brand tires will be used in Formula 1, while Firestone-brand tires are used on Indianapolis cars.
Bridgestone expects to use expertise gained on Indianapolis-style courses to help in its quest for Formula 1 success. The tires for the two styles of racing have some differences—for instance, Formula 1 tire rims are 13 inches in diameter, while Indianapolis-style cars have rims with a 15-inch diameter.
In addition, Formula 1 in 1998 will introduce new rules governing tires. Treadless, or ``slick'' tires, will no longer be used after 25 years on the circuit. Instead, grooved tires—front tires will have three grooves and rear tires will have four—will be pressed into service. That makes the '97 season one in which there will be plenty of testing.
``It will require both Bridgestone and Goodyear to be a little more innovative,'' the Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman said. ``We're both starting from scratch.''
``It will require a significant amount of development work to meet the requirements,'' Mr. Grant said. ``We were informed of the changes in mid-1996, so there's not a lot of time.''
The Indy Racing League—one of two sanctioning bodies offering venues for Indianapolis-style cars—also is giving the tire companies something to think about.
The IRL has introduced some new car specifications, including weight and fuel changes, that will affect tires to some degree, since the cars will be different from those competing in Championship Auto Racing Teams' (CART) events.
``As the season progresses and as people become more in tune to how the cars are reacting, tire development will become more critical,'' Mr. Grant said.
``All of a sudden, you don't have the same vehicles, but they still have essentially the same tires,'' he said. ``Ideally, the race cars will need different tires.''
That means more staff must be devoted to development.
``What it requires is a larger staff,'' the Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman said. ``You have to have a larger commitment to research and development, and we did that twice this year at Akron.''
In 1996 BFS hired 32 additional workers and expanded its operations at the Akron Technical Center.
Goodyear also has tinkered with its research and development team, according to Mr. Grant, splitting its R*&*D department into CART and IRL divisions to meet the demand.
``They are separate series that need separate requirements,'' he said. ``We needed to address that.''
The eight-race IRL season began Jan. 25 in Orlando, Fla., while the 17-event CART campaign was to begin March 2 in Miami. The 17-race Formula 1 season gets under way March 9 in Australia.