COLUMBIANA, Ohio—If it weren't for the small red and white sign out front, you wouldn't know the Firestone Test Center even exists. The clean, white barn and out buildings, located next to an old Victorian-style house that needs a coat of paint, look like many of the farms that dot the rural countryside of Columbiana County, Ohio.
But down a sleepy two-lane side road off Ohio Route 7 lies the world's only tire testing facility dedicated to agricultural tires.
The 350-acre site stands as a monument to Firestone founder Harvey Firestone, whose family farm lies about a mile and a half away, and who is credited with putting the farm on pneumatic tires back in the 1930s.
Ken Medvec has worked at the center for 22 years and manages the four-person staff which operates the facility year round.
He's seen the center grow from a ``back-woodsy farm to a premier facility.''
Today, he proudly likes to say: ``It isn't a Firestone tire 'til I'm done testing it.''
Originally, Harvey Firestone used his family farm to try out his new agricultural tires, Mr. Medvec said during a recent tour. ``He would retrofit equipment and make his farm help use the tires,'' he said. In 1936, he brought the first pneumatic farm tire to the public.
For the next two decades, Mr. Firestone used the farm to test his ag tires, before the center was moved to its current home in 1952.
At first glance, the test center, now owned by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., seems quiet. But a close look reveals a lot of action.
The center has five circular tracks—two concrete, two asphalt and one made of slag, an abrasive and sharp surface similar to the tar-and-chip road surfaces found on many back farm roads.
These circles are used for testing tire wear, durability and new tire compounds. Tractors run without drivers, day and night, around the 250-ft.-wide ovals, tethered with a chain to a post in the middle.
Occasionally, they've broken free, ending up in nearby Pine Lake at the northern end of the test center, Mr. Medvec said.
Bridgestone/Firestone's parent, Bridgestone Corp., bought the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1989 and operates the Firestone Agricultural Tire Co. as a separate business unit out of Des Moines, Iowa, where the firm also has its only farm tire plant.
The test center came along as part of the deal.
Today, BFS' Firestone brand ranks No. 1 in the U.S. for replacement farm tires and stands No. 2 behind Goodyear in original equipment radial rears and small farm tires, according to company-provided statistics.
Though BFS also tests forestry and skid steer tires at the Columbiana facility, most of the work focuses on farm tires.
Technicians use indoor test wheels to analyze tires for durability and heat buildup. To mimic aging, workers sometimes bombard the moving tires with ozone. ``This has helped Firestone develop better-wearing compounds,'' Mr. Medvec said.
To test for traction, fuel economy and bar tear, techs unleash ``The Mean Machine,'' a huge vehicle in use since the early 1970s that acts like ``a giant brake,'' he said.
Like the grimacing muscle man pictured on its sides, The Mean Machine provides drag when attached to the back of a tractor.
Inside, a technician can adjust the amount of drag up to 35,000 pounds to simulate the draw bar pull a tractor might experience in the field. Then BFS can test traction and tire slippage on the rim. Slippage can lead to air leaks and a corresponding reduction in the tire's ability to support weight, Mr. Medvec said.
Overloading is another area the company wants to study further.
``We're finding our tires are tremendously overloaded'' on vehicles such as combines and logging trucks, said A.D. (Al) Clark, manager, Ag & Forestry Tire Engineering & Testing for Firestone Agricultural Tire Co. The company has bought a set of portable scales so it can determine actual load in the field.
As farming has changed, testing ag tires has become more technical and complex over the years.
Today, farmers drive bigger tractors powered by engines with higher horsepower.
They also travel longer distances between fields, creating a need for higher-speed tractors which, in turn, calls for better handling tires.
``The time from field to field is important,'' Mr. Clark said.
Understanding these trends, company engineers are developing farm tires with an eye toward their highway handling as well as performance in the fields. Higher-speed tractors need tires that are more uniform, quieter and better handling, he said, particularly when changing lanes and making turns.
In England, he said, a company is manufacturing a tractor that can travel 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour. Future tractors also will have suspensions, unlike today where the tire alone absorbs the shocks.
To test such tires, Bridgestone/Firestone has been upgrading the Firestone test center.
Last year, the company added a powerful saw for dissecting giant farm tires on site rather than having to send them out to be sectioned. It also bought a laser system for testing radial runout.
Upgrades planned for 1999 include the purchase of a tractor—with a suspension system—that's capable of traveling at 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour.
BFS also hopes to acquire for the center a glassplate footprint analyzer and a footprint scan analyzer as well as two all-terrain test vehicles. It also wants to upgrade indoor test machines and link the center on the company-wide local computer network.
And, yes, it also plans to paint the farm house.