In one of those way-back, aged creases in my usually addled brain comes trudging a memory that remains fresh, like tar on a hot street in the simmering days of summer.
If I had to venture a guess, I was probably four, maybe five. It was the morning of an early summer day and, as he often liked to do, my dad notified my mom and me on a spur of the moment that we'd be off on a little junket, points south. That meant, from our suburban Cleveland-area home we'd be heading for the Rubber Capital of the Worldaka Akron.
Now, dad was an inveterate educational traveler, meaning whenever he got some vacation time away from his job as a vehicle mechanic for a natural gas utility in Cleveland, we'd head out on a trip that usually involved learning something about something. The battlefield at Gettysburg. Greenfield Village and Henry Ford's museumand first car-assembly plantin Dearborn, Mich. Thomas Edison's workshop. The Badlands. Sifting for red garnet stones in New York's Adirondack Mountains.
It often meant visiting museums or places where, for instance, you'd learn how glass blowers plied their trade. Or how cars were made.
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 LA. Factories belched plumes of smoke and pollutantsafter 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, I recall a dark, dingy, dirty tire factory...noisy, hot, with rubber 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 TB 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 kept describing 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 industrieswith their characters, lawsuits, technologies, high-tech prod-ucts, etc.has been nothing short of 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 fabulousas well as out-in-the-middle-of-nowherevenues 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 proving grounds 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, say, an armadillo in the middle of the sticks.
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 maybe it was a 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 mealoh, those Italians with their four-, five- and six-course mealswould be indulged. I look back now with fondness and a strange yearn for Alka-Seltzer.
Perhaps one of my all-time favorite trips was to Twin Peaks Ranch in Idaho, where then-Bridge-stone/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 tirenot that far from where Evel Knieval attempted his ill-fated rocket cycle ride over the Snake River Canyonwe were saddling up horses and riding for hours at a time through the mountains, led by Rose. She was, to put it politely, a cantankerous, witty, knowledgeableI refuse to call a lady grizzledranch hand and trail boss probably in her 70s. A true horse whisperer, indeed. Add in a 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 connecting flight home at an airport in an Idaho city a couple of hours away.
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 maybe covering the soybean industry.
Anyways...hope y'all enjoyed the special anniversary section in Tire Business' Sept. 16 print issue and the online features we've been posting at www.tirebusiness.com, including a top news story every day from the past 30 years. 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 fascinatingand the air in Akron a whole lot better these days. You can reach him at [email protected] or 330-865-6130.