This time, we were making a "one tank trip" to the Rubber City for a tour of a tire plant.
So on this bright 1950s day, the three of us hopped into the '40 Chevy and made the hour or so drive to Akron. And in those days, you could tell you were approaching the city miles before even venturing into its boundaries: The sweet/acrid smell of rubber hung in the air like the proverbial smog of L.A. Factories belched plumes of smoke and pollutants — after all, these were the days before the Environmental Protection Agency and clean air and water standards.
As I re-scan in my mind's eye that day so long ago, I recall a dark, dingy, dirty rubber plant…noisy, hot, with workers scurrying about in their task of producing tires for the days' vehicles.
To a little boy, such surroundings were fascinating and scary, a mix of big smells, big machinery and danger lurking in every aisle, nook and cranny.
But the best part was at the end of the tour, when a worker gave each person a small hunk of rubber as a souvenir. It smelled like…well, Akron…and tires.
And I have to admit, being a professed packrat, I probably still have that little piece of my past bouncing around in a drawer somewhere. A memory of an interesting, educational day that in a weird way would portend my future endeavor as a reporter and editor for a newspaper that covers the tire industry? Perhaps. (cue Twilight Zone theme music.)
Actually, ending up here in Akron as managing editor of Tire Business was either fate or something perhaps more sinister (just kidding, boss). In 1991, already with 17+ years of being a journalist, I ventured back to the former Rubber Capital for an interview at Tire Business to fill an opening for a reporter's job.
As I sat in Editor Dave Zielasko's office, we chatted about business, trade publications, my experience as a reporter/photojournalist, and what he described as a "fascinating" industry.
Tires fascinating? Really? Isn't that putting lipstick on a…oh, never mind.
Somewhere around that point, in a respectful but incredulous tone, I blurted out the possible job-interview killer: "You mean to tell me you really fill a newspaper every two weeks with news about tires? I can't believe it."
Hey, going on 23 years later, believe it. Despite my impertinence, he hired me anyway.
And I have to confess, covering the tire and automotive industries —with their characters, lawsuits, technologies, high-tech products, etc. — has been a fascinating ride.
In my travels as a tire trade journalist, I have met some of the most down-to-earth, friendly, helpful and interesting people, and I count many of them not just as business acquaintances but truly as friends.
I've had the opportunity to travel to some fabulous, as well as out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, venues while tracking the intrepid tire. Believe me, you haven't lived 'til you've visited Bridgestone Americas' humongous test site in Fort Stockton, Texas, not that far from the Mexico border. Or Goodyear's in San Angelo, Texas. They do tremendous work at those tire-testing facilities while at the same time providing a visitor with the opportunity to get up close and personal with an armadillo in the middle of nowhere.
About a dozen or so years ago I got to visit Milan, Italy, on a Pirelli Tyre trip, with the added bonus that we traveled a couple of hours by bus to Maranello, Italy, to see Ferraris hand-built in the auto maker's historic plant.
It didn't help, however, that I had some kind of stomach virus or pre-ulcer condition that caused me to experience stomach cramps the entire time. Alas, much of the trip seemed to involve determining where the next meal — oh, those Italians with their four-, five- and six-course meals — would be indulged. I look back now with fondness and a strange yearn for Alka-Seltzer.
Perhaps my all-time favorite trip was to Twin Peaks Ranch in Idaho, where then-Bridgestone/Firestone unveiled a light truck tire. We got to drive pickup trucks for hours over the surrounding trails and plow through a special type of highly sticky mud the region is home to, as tire maker reps boasted about the new tire's grip and traction.
When we weren't testing the new tire, we were saddling up horses and riding for hours at a time through the mountains, led by "Rose," a cantankerous, witty, knowledgeable ranch hand and trail boss probably in her 70s. Add in the whitewater rafting trip that was part of the activities, and it was in my eyes the perfect tire trip, crowned by the small-plane pilot allowing me to sit in the co-pilot's seat as he flew me over mountains and rivers to my big-jet connecting flight home at an airport in a big Idaho city.
Yes, it's been an interesting, challenging and rewarding time covering the "fascinating" tire industry. Who woulda thunk that my first trip to a tire plant so many years ago would have set some grand plan in motion. Then again, maybe I'm just overthinking this whole thing. After all, I needed a new job and reporting on tires seemed more appealing than covering the soybean industry.
Anyways…hope y'all enjoy the upcoming special anniversary section in Tire Business Sept. 16 print issue and the online features leading up to it. Have a lasting memory about the tire industry? Let me know about it.
Sig Mikolajczyk has been managing editor of Tire Business for about a dozen years, and still finds the industry fascinating — and the air in Akron a whole lot better these days. You can reach him at [email protected]