AKRON—You might say that, for a time, Bill Eaton was caught with his PJs down. The guiding force behind the marketing of the "Parnelli Jones" private label, he recently faced a predicament: good sales but no company to back up his efforts.
Three years ago Progressive Custom Wheel, a Riverside, Calif., wheel manufacturer, made a big splash with the debut of the tires, named after one of auto racing's legendary drivers. It was the first time a major wheel company was distributing its own private brand tire.
At a 1997 Akron press conference, as he unveiled the tires that bore his name, Mr. Jones said he's "always been considered something of a rebel, especially during my Indy days. This tire brand reflects that same rebel spirit."
Manufactured by Goodyear, the tires debuted with several sport, performance and light truck versions.
However, Mr. Eaton told Tire Business that, due to a number of factors, Progressive recently decided to exit the tire business. And with that, the PJ line was thrown into turmoil.
In the process, passenger, high performance and light truck versions of the line were dropped, the inventory was sold off, and Goodyear stopped making the tires.
"I think Progressive decided it made sense for them to do what they do best, and that's sell wheels and accessories," Mr. Eaton explained.
Calls by Tire Business to Larry Kingsland, a co-founder of Progressive, were not returned.
Scrambling to save what he could of the endeavor, Mr. Eaton and his wife, Bonnie, received licensing rights from Mr. Jones to use his name and took over marketing PJs via the Eaton's Akron-based Dirt Gripz Inc.
The old lines have been replaced by an on/off-road light truck tire, introduced by the Eatons last November at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week shows in Las Vegas. Called the "Parnelli Jones Dirt Grip," it features the letters PJ as an integral part of the tread design, and is set to compete against similar rugged off-road tires.
Despite the "instant success" of the new tire, Mr. Eaton acknowledged "we couldn't do too much with it" once Progressive chose to leave the business. "And I didn't want to get into doing a lot of warehousing and (stay in) the competitive world of the performance market."
Since then, however, Denman Tire Corp. has begun manufacturing the tires in its Leavittsburg, Ohio, plant. On May 16, after meeting with investors, the Eatons finished putting together a new tire program.
Now they're ready to rock climb and roll.
"It's the darndest thing," Mr. Eaton observed. "We've been getting four to five calls a day on this new tire since February."
Though on/off-road tires fill a small niche market, he said "it makes a lot of sense to make this happen. There were a tremendous number of customers out there for the old PJ line." Supplied by Progressive from warehouses throughout the country, it was sold through retailers and specialty shops.
What happens to those customers?
"That part I can't answer," he said. "I think a lot of them were really disappointed...."
There is a small inventory of the new tires available in sizes 36214.50 R15 and 36214.50 R16. Two more sizes—33212.50 R15 and 33212.50 R16—were expected to be in production by the end of May and seven more sizes by year's end.
"The interest level in the new tire is very high," Mr. Eaton said. "Before Progressive got out of it, we sold a lot of these off-road tires really fast. That's why we're continuing to do it—because of that instant success."
Both industry veterans, Mr. Eaton spent 20 years with General Tire and 22 years with Firestone, while his wife was with General for 13 years.
The couple plans to focus on customers who are into rock crawling and climbing and drive in off-road areas such as deserts. But they also hope to reach those who restyle trucks and soup up show and display vehicles.
The Eatons hope to market the Dirt Grip through a small number of large independent distributors throughout the country.
Despite the competition, the off-road segment is not overcrowded, Mr. Eaton believes. "We've done a lot of talking with Denman about that very subject, and we all feel, based on the success of how this has kicked off, that there's definitely room for us."