CANTON, Ohio (July 26, 2004) — Mario Andretti remembers well his decades as a test driver, helping to develop the modern racing tire with the old Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.
“Those were great times in my opinion, challenging times when everything was on the line, reputations, everything,” he said this month during the 85th anniversary celebration at Ziegler Tire & Supply Co. in Canton. “I was able to gain a tremendous amount of experience by being able to spend so much time in the race car.”
No less challenging was the onset of the Firestone tire recalls of 2000 and 2001. Mr. Andretti—a racing legend who won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, three Champ Car National Championships and other races on Firestone tires—faced a tough decision: whether to stay with the tire maker as spokesman. Mr. Andretti decided to step up his appearances on behalf of Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS), despite the potential risk to his reputation.
“The only people who had those concerns (about his reputation) were the people that were trying to advise me,” he told Tire Business. “We had some saying, 'Mario, you don't need that, the downside is something that could be very damaging for you.'
“And I went in there with my eyes wide open,” he explained. “I appreciated that kind of advice, but I knew what I was doing.”
A BFS spokesman said Mr. Andretti was a powerful spokesman during the recall. “He's just a legend and such a wonderful person and great goodwill ambassador,” he said. “When he says it, people are going to listen.”
The spokesman said Mr. Andretti is paid under a contract outlining his appearances at events and in advertising. The spokesman declined to disclose the value of the contract, calling it an “important investment” for BFS.
Accompanying other company executives such as John Gamauf, now president of the consumer replacement tire division, Mr. Andretti visited a majority of Bridgestone/Firestone dealers to reassure them and answer questions in the face of constant national news coverage during the recall.
Mr. Andretti said he looked into several cases of tread separations to judge the cause for himself. He also asked dealers if they saw similar problems with competing tires on the Ford Explorer.
“It was pure negligence in every case,” Mr. Andretti said. “Tires were unreasonably punished.”
Still, that's a hard point to get across when news stories have featured photos of mangled tires on overturned sport-utility vehicles. Asked if a negative public perception—regardless of the cause—could do just as much damage to his name, Mr. Andretti said that was basically out of his control.
“You never know how the reaction is going to be,” he said. “You also know a lot of things are taken out of context. The visual, a shredded tire, speaks volumes, and people don't care why it's damaged. The fact that it did (matters).”
He said the case reminded him of Audi's so-called “unintended acceleration” problem in the 1980s. That problem had more to do with a brake pedal too close to the accelerator than a serious mechanical flaw, he said.
“Everybody said, 'Oh, Audi, you get in it and all of a sudden the car just takes off,'” he said. “Well, that's a lot of bull crap.”
With the recall moving further into the past each year, Mr. Andretti continues to be a prime spokesman for BFS, traveling to countless dealerships each year for various events and autograph sessions. BFS said he signs about 10,000 autographs a year.
“I welcome the opportunity (to travel to dealers) because that's what makes the company, the strength of the dealers,” Mr. Andretti said.
Bill Ziegler, owner of the retail and commercial dealership, said Mr. Andretti's presence was a positive draw for his event. People started lining up for autographs about an hour before Mr. Andretti was scheduled to appear.
“I think he has a tremendous following,” Mr. Ziegler said. “I think he has everybody's respect, and everybody can relate to Mario.”
Steve Pollock, 33, of Magnolia, Ohio, who got in the autograph line ahead of time, said he is a big fan of Mr. Andretti. Though he knew of Ziegler Tire, he hadn't shopped there much. Asked about his impressions of the dealership, he said, “I'd have no problem buying tires here.”