GREENVILLE, S.C.—Here's a message for race fans; ``The Bib is back.'' And Michelin is going to make sure you know about it. For instance, when Michelin-shod cars took first place at the renowned 24-hour race in LeMans, France, and again at the 12-hour race in Sebring, Fla., earlier this year, Michelin officials decided to crow about it. The company purchased full-page ads in USA Today's Monday editions—a high-circulation day for that paper—after both victories.
"We've been a dominant player in motorsports with the Michelin brand for a number of years," said Herb Johnson, Michelin North America's director of motorsports. Now the company plans to start telling people about it, he said.
In fact, Michelin's involvement in racing goes back more than a century, to an 1895 race in France. More recently, Michelin-equipped race teams dominated the Formula One series, winning 59 Grand Prix races and three driver championships between 1978 and its departure from that circuit in 1985. The winners of five of the last eight 24 Hours of LeMans races crossed the finish line on Michelin tires.
This is the inaugural season for the eight-race American LeMans Series, and Michelin teams have been overall winners of four of the first five races.
Michelin is touting its performance in endurance auto racing through enthusiast publications to emphasize the quality of its Pilot line of performance tires and the company's link with manufacturers of high-end automobiles.
``Major original equipment manufacturer partners, such as Chrysler, Porsche, BMW, Audi, all select Michelin to go racing with, and we're starting to talk about that now,'' Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson noted that endurance races at courses like Sebring and Road Atlanta don't draw the crowds or media exposure of other racing series. Endurance races usually have three or four classes of cars on the track at the same time, and this can be confusing to spectators.
Also, unlike oval tracks, endurance races are held on road-type courses where spectators see just a portion of the race course. Mr. Johnson said that three American LeMans races are being broadcast by NBC-TV this season, and he hopes this will help increase fans for this type of auto racing.
Michelin's ad campaign is geared towards ``extrinsic'' drivers, as the company calls them. ``Michelin is attempting to go after a younger, more sporty audience,'' Mr. Johnson said. ``They don't necessarily have to be race fans, but at least they will pay attention to it.''
One of the ads in AutoWeek (a sister publication of Tire Business) links the Pilot XGT H4 with the Mazda Miata. The ad tells the reader that the Pilot tire, ``Lets you squeeze every drop of adrenaline out of your sports car.''
In endurance racing, Michelin provides its teams with radial racing tires that last longer than the bias-ply tires used in some other open-wheel circuits. Endurance racers typically drive for about an hour between pit stops for refueling. Most drivers don't need to change tires for at least two, or sometimes three of these stints—a total of several hundred miles.
The key to Michelin's success on endurance circuits is the construction of the tires and the tread rubber compounds, Mr. Johnson said. The race teams want ``something that's going to be consistent and still be very fast.''
Michelin leases the tires to the race teams and demands that all tires be returned at the conclusion of each race. Michelin provided 1,600 tires to its 12 teams for the American LeMans race at Sears Point, Calif., Mr. Johnson said.
In addition to tire engineers to mount and balance the tires and consult with the race teams, one Michelin staff member is responsible for keeping track of the tires at each race. ``For a 24-hour race, this guy stays up the entire time,'' Mr. Johnson said. ``He doesn't sleep, he doesn't leave the compound, and he's ultimately responsible for every tire.''
Why the security?
``It protects our technology so our competitors don't get hold of any of these tires,'' Mr. Johnson said. Michelin engineers can study the returned tires and have a significant database about their performance under extreme conditions.
Asked whether Michelin is planning to enter other types of racing, like stock car, or Indy-style racers, Mr. Johnson said, ``There are no plans at this point to enter anything other than the American LeMans series.''
Mr. Johnson acknowledged that Michelin is discussing a possible return to Formula One racing, but said ``there is nothing to report at this time.''
There's an old saying: ``Race on Sunday; sell on Monday.'' Asked about the influence of racing on sales, he said Michelin is developing some tools to measure it. He said the most important aspect of racing is to develop brand equity and consumer perception of the quality of the product.
One of the biggest reasons Michelin is in racing is for the competition, Mr. Johnson said. ``When we go racing, we like to beat someone,'' he said. ``Unlike NASCAR (which uses Goodyear tires exclusively), participating in the American LeMans series, we're up against all of our competitors. That's critical.''