Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s involvement in motorsports has been a boon to the company and its dealers alike, according to both.
``The increase in business is hard to measure, but it's been a win-win situation for us,'' said Chris Pantani, Cooper product manager for ultra-high performance tires. ``It allows us the opportunity to test new materials and compounds, so it's been a very valuable tool for us, in passenger tires as well as racing.''
Cooper announced in August 2003 that it had signed a five-year agreement with Formula Motorsports Inc. to create the Cooper Tire Championship Series, which became the home of the Formula Ford Zetec 2000 racing program.
In the past two years, the Championship Series not only has benefited the firm technologically but also brought a younger, trendier breed of motorists to the Cooper brand, according to Mr. Pantani. Having the Cooper name so closely associated with some of the hottest young drivers on the racing circuit also hasn't hurt, he said.
``We draw all the young drivers who have an edge,'' Mr. Pantani said, adding that many have risen quickly through the ranks of professional racing drivers. ``I have a signed poster of (2005 Indy 500 winner) Dan Wheldon on my wall. He's one of our alumni, and I can't begin to guess how much it's worth now.''
The Championship Series consists of events held over seven different weekends at tracks throughout the East, Southeast and Midwest. This year's first event, the Grand Prix of Atlanta, was held April 15-16 in Braselton, Ga., and the last, the Cooper Festival, is scheduled for Oct. 22-23 in Sebring, Fla.
Cooper's distributors recommend dealers in the race localities as partners for each event, according to Mr. Pantani. For Andy Runion, store manager of Glotfelty Tire Center Co. in Parkersburg, W.Va., helping to host the Championship Series in 2004 was a godsend.
``We were a new store, looking for ways to get people through the door,'' Mr. Runion told Tire Business. ``It was great to have that publicity and to have the drivers come to the store to pitch Cooper tires.''
The event boosted the store's sales a good 20 percent, he said. Glotfelty Tire followed up later that year with a classic and tuner car show and is catering to the tuner driver's market by stocking a full line of Cooper Zeon tires, the official tires of the Championship Series.
Roger Gurganis, president of Big T Tire in Avon Park, Fla., also said he was happy with his dealership's involvement in the Championship Series. ``We had cars coming in on display, drivers coming in to meet the customers,'' Mr. Gurganis said. ``It gives you a lot of exposure, especially with younger people.''
Big T Tire's sales easily rose 25 to 30 percent during the race weekend, according to Mr. Gurganis. ``We would have liked to have them back this year, but that didn't happen.''
Cooper, meanwhile, has been extending its involvement in motorsports steadily. Last September, the company's Avon Tyres Racing division signed a three-year contract to supply tires to the A1 Grand Prix circuit. Based in Dubai, the A1 Grand Prix is a new World Cup of motorsports, according to Mr. Pantani. The series will run from September to March, so it doesn't interfere with the more established Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit.
``The national teams for the A1 Grand Prix are really national teams,'' Mr. Pantani said. ``All drivers must come from the countries they represent.''
In May 2004, Cooper also announced its partnership with the Formula Drift Championship Series. Bearing roughly the same relationship to traditional racing as ``hotdog'' skiing does to a downhill or slalom race, Formula Drift requires drivers to allow their vehicles to slide-or drift-around a racetrack, maneuvering their cars through a marked course. The drivers, who are judged on speed, style and execution, must exhibit a mastery of power, braking and steering.
``Formula Drift is taking the young tuner market by storm,'' Mr. Pantani said. ``The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving has even initiated a `Drift 101' course.''
On the Championship Series front, Cooper is considering the addition of some extra race weekends to its current series, as well as the start of a similar series on the West Coast, Mr. Pantani said.