SAN DIEGO—Trying to stay up to speed on the rapidly changing high-performance tire segment is a lot like patching an old inner tube: Just when you think you've found all the leaks, another pinhole rears its ugly head. With the industry's rapidfire technological advancements continuing to push the envelope of ultra-high-performance tires—can ultra-ultra's be far behind?
All that nomenclature, sizing data and speed ratings can add up to a dizzying array of information tire dealers must keep track of.
Dan King, Yokohama Tire Corp.'s director of marketing, consumer products, admitted as much—even as the firm debuted yet another performance tire.
``Dealers are beginning to be more knowledgeable about selling this segment,'' he said, referring to the Fullerton, Calif.-based firm's bread-and-butter high-performance lines. ``But right when they feel they're getting up to speed, the market (splits) again. Then they have to become experts, for example, on the import-car segment.''
What's a dealer to do?
``Become better educated,'' seems to be the simple answer to a complex question.
Yokohama, which likes to look at itself as a David in a land of tire-manufacturing Goliaths, has attempted to set itself apart by saying it takes a more personal approach with its dealers.
Like some of its competitors, Yokohama conducts regional ride-and-drives and educational forums for dealers. But in some cases, Mr. King told Tire Business, it will work with a dealer one-on-one, ``bond with him and talk about the future. Given the advantage of our size, I think we can do that. It gives us the opportunity to be different.
``The bigger companies tend to get more impersonal.''
Not that Yokohama is necessarily a flyweight by industry standards. Its parent, Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd., is the world's sixth-largest tire maker. It has five tire factories worldwide, including a passenger-tire plant in Salem, Va., and a joint venture with Continental General Tire and Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. in Mt. Vernon, Ill., that produces heavy commercial truck tires.
But its forte is in ultra-high-performance tires, built on the backbone of motorsports competition.
In a presentation to automotive and tire trade press journalists April 13-15 in San Diego, executives promoted the company's ``enthusiasts-focused product development'' during the unveiling of what Yokohama billed as its latest technological breakthrough: the AVS Sport ultra-HP tire.
In tune with the new tire's advertising tagline, ``Because stick is everything,'' the company sent out capsules of fly paper with the active ingredient ``100-percent pure adrenaline.'' They bore the warning: ``Handle with care... Causes irritation among other tire manufacturers due to loss of competitive edge. Call your Yokohama representative for immediate relief.''
The company, which claims it introduced the concept of asymmetrical tread patterns to the U.S. in 1982, said the AVS Sport has a tread pattern like no other—a Y-shaped design that coincidentally looks a lot like Yokohama's logo. It said the tire's continuous center block provides ``unbroken rubber-to-road contact'' for ``monster grip on dry and wet surfaces.''
``Not everyone wants to sacrifice for more performance,'' said Mark Richter, manager of performance marketing. Thus, the AVS Sport's construction uses silica in its tread compound to maximize dry grip, help optimize wet traction and resist wear.
The tire also features a new multiple-radius casing design Yokohama said reduces twisting of the tread when cornering, offering rigidity while improving damping power for greater comfort.
Shoulder sub-grooves improve water drainage during the tire's cornering, remove heat and allow for a softer rubber compound with more grip.
A new ``Sof-Tech'' steel belt design increases the center rib's rigidity, improving steering response and high-speed stability, the company added.
Designed for high-end sports cars and sedans, the AVS Sport comes in Y and W speed ratings. Manufactured in Japan, it became available to U.S. dealers this month in 30- to 55-series sizes in 16- to 20-inch rim diameters. A racing version has begun appearing on Yokohama-sponsored cars in the American Le Mans Series.
During the Yokohama ride-and-drive in San Diego, set up in a stadium parking lot, journalists maneuvered a slalom course that certainly didn't push the tire to the limits of its 186-mph speed rating.
But they got to compare its ``stickiness'' on dry and wet pavements against original-equipment tires on a Corvette, Porsche Boxster, Lexus GS400 and the new BMW M Coupe.
In coming months, similar AVS Sport ride-and-drives for dealers will be offered in Phoenix, Houston and New York, as well as several events in Florida in cooperation with Tire Kingdom.
``Those kinds of events help give us the opportunity to educate dealers,'' Mr. King said, ``even though there are a handful who, on their own, know how to market this type of tire.''
As competition in the marketplace increases, ``a lot of times it's the service that will determine the winner, and dealers know service,'' he added.
Since Yokohama's American operation underwent a major restructuring several years ago, Mr. King said it has concentrated on its dealer base and, consequently, on ``products and relationships.''
Not including Sears, Roebuck and Co.-owned tire operations, he estimated Yokohama has about 1,500 U.S. retail points of sale.
Yokohama's more consistent, polished marketing approach has helped its dealers, he contended, along with a production plan that provides ``flexibility in fill rates, prices and control over what we've produced.''
Last year, the firm boosted its Salem plant's high-performance tire capacity by 10 percent, allowing it to rely less on the factories of its parent.
In the process, Yokohama Tire has become more of a U.S. tire maker, Mr. King said, with greater control over its own destiny. ``And dealers seem to be responding to that approach.''
Coming from a family that has operated a tire dealership in Southern California for many years, Mr. King began changing tires when practically knee-high to a wheel barrow, and was working the sales counter by the time he was 16.
``A lot of times in a particular situation, I'll ask myself, `What would my family want?''' he said.
That's helped him ascertain what he thinks dealers want and need.