DETROIT—It's not a big stretch to put CART's Cleveland race in the context of chickens and eggs. Akron, long the American tire industry's center, is a 40-minute drive down Interstate 77, so for tire manufacturers, Cleveland is a particularly visible race. And these days, the tire battle in CART is like the age-old chicken-egg conundrum.
Is Goodyear struggling because 22 of 27 cars and 17 of the top 18 drivers use Firestones? Or does Firestone equip 22 of 27 cars and 17 of the top 18 drivers because Goodyear's tires are so bad?
You'll find different opinions as to how much of Goodyear's trouble can be attributed to a lack of competitive teams, but there's not much disagreement on this: Goodyear, the tire maker most deeply committed to racing over the last four decades, has had its butt thoroughly kicked the last three seasons.
The argument heats up again when the subject is Portland, Ore., the race before Cleveland, where Goodyear won for the first time in 24 tries. Is a big, powerful ocean liner finally starting to turn?
"I think Goodyear's guys are smelling blood, and after years of people jumping ship like a bunch of rats, that has them fired up," said Derrick Walker, owner of the car Gil de Ferran drove to victory at Portland.
Since it returned to Indy car racing in 1995, Firestone has won every 500-mile race, 80 percent of CART's races the last three seasons, and three consecutive championships.
Racing tires are an extremely specialized business, particularly in CART. Some of the world's most expensive chemists sit in labs tinkering with the racing compounds.
The tires used on ovals are made differently from those that are used on rough street circuits, which are different from the ones used on natural-terrain road courses. At each track, the tire on each corner of a car is different. A tire company can get lost in the maze the same way a race team can get lost with chassis setup.
How did an experienced company like Goodyear get lost? Maybe the question is how Firestone found the right path. It arrived in 1995 with new ideas, new compounds and new tire constructions. Perhaps most important, Firestone was thorough.
"We had no delusions that it was going to be easy," said Al Speyer, Firestone's racing director. "But I'm still surprised we've done as well as we have. Our realistic expectation was to come to a level where we'd be head-to-head, battling on an equal basis."
If you prefer to look at the shift from Goodyear's side, loyalist Mr. Walker has this assessment: "It comes down to one thing. They underestimated the competition."
No one at Goodyear wants to use the word complacency, but it's difficult to avoid. "It's taken us some time to respond, so I guess you'd have to say that's a fair assessment," said Steve Myers, Goodyear's racing sales and marketing director. "But I won't say we were really surprised. Bridgestone/Firestone is a major corporation with a lot of talent and resources, and it's a little different from competing against Hoosier."
For Goodyear, competition created a new game. In most racing, largely because it had beaten all comers, Goodyear had a monopoly by default. In a monopoly, said Tony Shakespeare, former director of Goodyear's F1 program, the primary goals are stability and cost control.
"In that situation, there's certain complacency built in," he said. "Your teams aren't in a hole, and they don't want to test for you. They just want a good tire they don't have to worry about."
Too much tire testing drove the Newman-Haas team from Goodyear, said team engineer Peter Gibbons. Goodyear's most successful team from 1996 through 1998, and its testing workhorse, surprised many, switching to Firestone weeks before this season began. Yet Mr. Gibbons said the decision had as much to do with the team's test contract with Goodyear as with the tires.
"We knew Goodyear was going to make progress, but we didn't have any choice, really," he said. "We simply were not able to develop our own car because of tire testing, and our setups at a lot of tracks were three years old."
In other words, Newman-Haas' performance since it switched is not necessarily a gauge of the relative merits of each brand. Yet tires remain a crucial component in a winning package.
"I believe our biggest edge is consistency," Mr. Speyer said. "Seldom have we had an outright speed advantage, but as our tire wears down it doesn't change its grip. That's so critical, because a team can make changes to the car and know what it just did."
Consistency also is why Portland might signify more than an isolated win for Goodyear. Much was made of Mr. Walker's decision to turn Gil de Ferran loose, while others tried to conserve fuel. Yet Mr. Walker is the first to admit that Mr. de Ferran needed tires fast enough to build a 30-second lead. And those tires had to have enough grip left so they didn't have to be replaced on that final stop.
On the other hand, Cleveland proved that Goodyear still has work to do. For all its troubles, the company has held an edge in rain-tire performance. In the wet, Mr. de Ferran was able to chase down Firestone driver Juan Montoya and take the lead. But when the track dried and the field went back to slicks, Mr. Montoya went back in front.
Rumors have swirled for months that Goodyear is ready to kill its CART program. Bunk, Mr. Myers said. He said Goodyear will have two new teams next year, but he wouldn't name them. He also said there's "a real possibility" Goodyear will return to Formula One in the not-too-distant future.
Goodyear insists it can get back to the front. Maybe the ocean liner is turning. Maybe Newman-Haas bailed at just the wrong time. Al Unser Jr. hopes so.
"In terms of us trying to work our way back to the front, the Goodyears are not an issue as much as they used to be," he said. "Right now I think they're a faster tire when they're new. I think they are very close on the consistency, too."