This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Firestone brand's return to open-wheel racing in North America, but the motorsports program is about more than a little exposure and something to do on the weekends. At least twice it helped save the Firestone brand from an uncertain future.
Al Speyer, manager of motorsports for Bridgestone/Firestone since 1992, knows the ups and downs of BFS' racing program.
He joined the former Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in May 1974 and was ``devastated'' only five months later when the company abandoned open-wheel racing-both the Indy-car variety in the U.S. and the more internationally minded Formula 1-citing financial concerns.
For the next 18 years, Mr. Speyer worked in various positions, including senior project engineer in technical testing and manager of race tire development. In 1992, he was named manager of motorsports for the Firestone brand. He oversaw the brand's return in 1995 to open-wheel racing in North America and its subsequent rapid rise to competitiveness and eventually domination over Goodyear in this arena.
Firestone Tire-which had been involved in racing soon after its founding in 1900-outfitted 43 consecutive Indy 500 winners from 1920 to 1966 in addition to many wins earlier.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many drivers didn't have sponsors; instead, they were typically wealthy racing enthusiasts who raced on their own dime with their favored products. Mr. Speyer said Goodyear had been one of the first companies in the 1960s to start paying drivers to use its products, and the tactic quickly spiraled into a price war.
``They got into bidding wars for drivers, and it all drove the costs up,'' he added.
Firestone Tire managers, who thought it was ``distasteful'' to have to pay drivers to use their products, also were concerned about sinking money into motorsports in the 1970s when radialization was eating cash, he said.
``A combination of those two factors, the cost and the nature of the contracts, led to the decision to get out in 1974,'' Mr. Speyer said.
He and his colleagues in the racing department kept themselves busy with more under-the-radar racing, such as drag racing and sports car series.
The Japanese company, founded in 1931, dabbled in motorsports later in its life. Bridgestone bought Firestone Tire in 1988.
Immediately tire dealers as well as employees were worried that the Firestone brand would be eliminated, despite then-CEO Yoichiro Kaizaki's best arguments. ``Not many people believed him,'' Mr. Speyer said. ``So he was searching for a way to make a statement that Firestone was important.''
That statement came in 1993, when Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) announced the Firestone brand would return to open-wheel racing in North America. The decision had come after company officials got feedback from dealers, who called for a return to the racing legacy and tradition started by the Firestone company.
BFS tested its tires in 1994 and made its debut in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Indycar Series in 1995 with five cars to Goodyear's 22, taking one win. In 1996-the first year under the Indy Racing League (IRL) banner-Firestone ran 10 cars, winning the majority of races, including the Indy 500. In 1997 it was 15 cars, then 20 in 1998. After 1999, Goodyear left the series.
``The real thing I think really lit the company on fire was the fact that we were not only successful on the race track, but these same dealers that had said, `Return to Indy,' were rewarding the company by helping us get 20-percent increases in Firestone business year after year on average,'' Mr. Speyer said. ``It really hit a strong note for the company and employees as well.''
That, of course, isn't the end of the story.
The second battle for the Firestone brand came in 2000 just after the close of the late 1990s, which Mr. Speyer described as the ``nirvana'' of racing. Though Firestone was the sole supplier to the Indy Racing League starting in the 2000 season, the Firestone ATX/Wilderness recall led to concerns both by dealers and the public as well as the racing organizers about the future of the brand.
After the 2001 season, BFS announced that it would replace the Firestone brand with Bridgestone in the CART series, which had broken off from IRL in 1996 and was running several races outside of North America. Mr. Speyer said the move was part of BFS' multibrand strategy, though it raised some concerns over Firestone initially.
``It just made sense for us to use Bridgestone in the more international series and continue promoting Firestone in the all-American oval series,'' he said.
Over at IRL, Mr. Speyer said, Goodyear made an effort to become that series' sole supplier.
``(The IRL was) extremely confident in our tires and our product,'' he said. ``They had one concern, and that was whether we would financially be healthy.''
BFS secured the contract, and Mr. Speyer said the company may have seen a different fate by now if it hadn't.
``If we had lost that Indy contract to Goodyear, it would have sent a pretty negative message to the industry about Firestone,'' he said.
Mr. Speyer said he remembers doing an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and he was bring grilled about the Firestone brand being yanked from racing.
``I said, `No, we're going to use this to rebuild once again,''' he said. ``If we had turned away from that, there's no question we wouldn't be where we are today.''
Ironically, winning the sole supplier contract undoubtedly was a significant factor in the Firestone brand's comeback, but actually being the sole supplier is Mr. Speyer's biggest regret of these past 10 years.
``If I could do it all over again, I think I wouldn't have signed as many teams as we did and tried to keep the competition even more so that Goodyear would have stayed,'' he said.
At the time, Firestone officials were ecstatic to sign drivers that only a couple years before had doubted the brand's abilities. Now however, Mr. Speyer said, the most high-profile racing series are tied up in single-supplier arrangements that aren't likely to change.
``Maybe the ultimate victory is when the competition drops out as was the case here,'' he said. ``But that is just such a short victory because then when you're left without somebody to compete against, it takes away a lot of the competitive drive but it also takes away the media interest. Quite frankly nobody covers tires much anymore unless you have a problem.''
Just ask Group Michelin.
The French tire maker endured weeks of negative publicity after the tire problems at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis this summer. Michelin had advised all of its seven teams not to participate because of a safety concern, leaving only vehicles shod with Bridgestone tires in the race.
Fans were outraged, and Michelin last month began a refund process to those fans and also has pledged to buy up to 20,000 tickets to next year's Formula 1 event-if one is held.
Mr. Speyer said the risk of such an event has loomed for a long time.
``Motorsports can do a lot of positive things and send good messages to a number of different audiences-if done right,'' he said. ``It can also have a devastating impact if you mess up, and it's a risk. There's business risk with everything.''
That risk is mitigated by the benefits, which include valuable brand exposure, relationships with popular drivers like Mario Andretti and opportunities to test and develop new technology. Even with a sole-supplier arrangement, Mr. Speyer said tire brands get noticed as a major sponsor that has a direct effect on the car, as opposed to sponsors like UPS, FedEx or McDonald's.
``They don't have a component on the car that influences the outcome of the race,'' he said. ``Tires do.''
In the end, over these 10 years, Mr. Speyer still thinks fondly of the heyday of the '90s.
``I don't think we're ever going to forget the late '90s and the success we had and the impact it had on the company, business-wise,'' he said.
* * *
10 years of Firestone racing by the numbers*
* 1,337,352-Number of miles Firestone Racing's transporters have logged to attend race events
* 957,028-Miles Firestone tires have run in race competition
* 190-Number of different drivers who have competed on Firestone Firehawk tires
* 197-Wins on Firestone tires (109 as `spec' tire)
* 54-Number of different race winners on Firestone tires
*All statistics are through July 3, 2005; includes CART series wins through 2001