To the casual race fan, there are four premier events a year: the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, Grand Prix of Monte Carlo and the 24 Hours of LeMans.
Soon only one of these-the LeMans endurance classic-will be a venue where tire companies will be able to compete head to head. The Daytona and Indy 500s already are parts of racing series that have single tire suppliers, and the international Formula 1 Grand Prix World Championship is going that way starting next season.
By default, then, the world of endurance sports car racing will become the field of battle where tire companies still can compete against one another.
While the LeMans 24-hour enduro-held this year June 17-18-is road racing's stellar event, competitors on both sides of the Atlantic also compete in season-long championships. In North America, that's the American LeMans Series (ALMS).
The ALMS and its European counterpart LeMans Series offer car makers venues where they can showcase their latest and greatest-whether it's in the all-out prototype classes (Audi, etc.) or in the production-car-based GT classes (Chevrolet Corvette, Aston Martin, Porsche, Panoz, etc.).
The ALMS, despite not having a single ``signature'' event with the cachet of the aforementioned races, offers car and tire makers surprisingly good bang for their buck, according to Peter Tyson, motorsports manager for Pirelli Tire North America Inc.
According to data from the motorsports market research firm Joyce Julius & Associates Inc., the ALMS offers the second-best television exposure rating in the U.S. behind only NASCAR, Mr. Tyson said.
``When it comes to measuring the value of our motorsports activity,'' Mr. Tyson told Tire Business, ``we look solely at TV coverage. We're not so interested in track attendance, which usually is in the tens of thousands. Instead, we track TV where viewership is measured in millions.''
Joyce Julius valued Pirelli's exposure from CBS-TV's broadcast of the ALMS event in Houston earlier this year at $700,000, Mr. Tyson said. The research firm measures a brand's exposure in terms of time on screen and how often the announcers mention the brand name.
For both Pirelli and Michelin North America Inc., supplying teams in the ALMS is largely a function of original equipment (OE) support, representatives for both firms said recently. Once the decision has been made to compete, then it's up to the marketing/promotion arms to find out ways to take advantage of their firms' presence at racing venues in either consumer exposure or dealer relations.
Pirelli's support of the Aston Martin and Panoz teams in the ALMS' GT1 and GT2 categories reflects a fundamental aspect of Pirelli's motorsports strategy-association with performance and luxury, said Mr. Tyson, who has done a few turns himself behind the wheels of race cars.
``The GT-type cars are the perfect cars for us,'' he said. ``These are well-known performance brands and we have OE links to them as well.''
Pirelli is OE on Aston Martin and the share is growing, Mr. Tyson said. In addition, Aston Martin is part of Ford Motor Co., where Pirelli has a key OE presence.
In the U.S., Aston Martin sold only 492 cars in 2005, but at an average price tag of upwards of $170,0000. Aston Martin is looking to increase sales with the recent launch of its smaller, more affordable Vantage V8, at a $100,000 price tag.
Pirelli's approach ties in perfectly with the ALMS strategy, which is to provide a platform for the world's prestigious marques to compete, said Bob Dickinson, vice president, media and communications for ALMS.
Evidence that this approach is working is the commitment of Lexus and Acura-the luxury car divisions of Toyota and Honda, respectively-to join the series. Lexus this year is in the GT2 category and Acura next year will be in LMP2, Mr. Dickinson said.
Michelin thrives on competition-it has stated repeatedly it does not consider ``spec'' tire series real competition (although it does have a handful of such contracts)-but it may be its own worst competitor in ALMS and elsewhere.
Michelin's tires have proved sufficiently effective over the past few years so that most major competitors have switched to Bibendum's rubber, creating a de facto spec tire in the key categories. Michelin-shod racers have taken the majority of race and championship wins the past several seasons.
The highest profile switch was the Corvette Racing team, which went with Michelin two seasons ago and has claimed two championships and two wins at the LeMans 24 since.
In addition to serving OE customers, Michelin sees motorsports as a way to develop people. Engineers and support staff have to be able to think on their feet and be able to relay information gleaned on the fly back to the labs and factories for evaluation, according to Matthieu Bonardel, who is responsible for Michelin's endurance racing tires and support worldwide.
At each ALMS race, Michelin has an engineer assigned to each car who acts as a liaison between Michelin and the team. Each of these race weekend engineers volunteers his time, working out a time-off schedule with his supervisor, a company spokesman said.
``That individual's job is to be objective,'' Mr. Bonardel said. ``That team engineer has to understand the car and automotive engineering in order to be valuable both to us and the team.''
To make this aspect of racing more accessible to its dealers, Michelin is arranging to have an individual from a Michelin dealership near to selected ALMS races come to the race and ``shadow'' the Michelin technician throughout the weekend.
Besides Pirelli and Michelin, four other tire companies are active in ALMS: Dunlop (the motorsports arm of Goodyear-Dunlop Europe); Goodyear; Kumho Tire USA Inc.; and Yokohama Tire Corp.