IRL: Firestone accelerates development in 2000

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2000 - One might think that the lack of a competitor in the Indy Racing League would cause some complacency in Firestone, the sole supplier of tires for the 2000 Indy Racing League season. ...

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2000 - One might think that the lack of a competitor in the Indy Racing League would cause some complacency in Firestone, the sole supplier of tires for the 2000 Indy Racing League season. The company's tires will carry the entire Indy Racing League field to the green flag at Saturday's season-opening Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway. However, the first thing that Al Speyer, the motorsports director for Firestone, will tell you is that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Speyer says the "lack of competition" train of thought is a misnomer, because Firestone engineers are pushing the envelope as hard as ever to improve durability, stability and safety in their tires. "I don't think people recognize that the task at hand is a constant challenge, even if we're standing alone," said Speyer. "The tires are constantly under development. The cars are changing, so there is always a new challenge at hand, regardless of the lack of competition from another tire maker. There are always new developments challenging our engineers." The Firestone brand enters its 100th year of corporate existence in 2000 as the sole tire supplier for the Indy Racing League and the Championship Auto Racing Teams series after Goodyear withdrew from both series. Bridgestone Corporation of Japan, the parent company of Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., is the sole supplier of tires for the global Formula One series, plus some teams in the GT Touring car series, and numerous other open-wheel and fender-car series around the world. The company's Dayton Tire brand is supplier for the Dayton Indy Lights series. The focus of Firestone's Indy Racing League development has shifted away from finding speed to gaining stability, but that doesn't mean the company is no longer learning how to pick up a few miles per hour, Speyer said. "Previously we heavily focused on a competitive and fast tire, to win," he said. "The competition was tough, with half the field on Goodyears. We worked hard with teams to get every advantage with speed, durability and consistency. "In 2000, we have a totally different focus. We are changing the tires so they are stable for all, and we're not looking so much for speed. Our engineers are focused on structural integrity, making sure the tires last through an entire fuel cycle, priorities of that nature. For instance, we are willing to give up a little on the grip level to achieve other goals, because if it is reduced a little, each team is equally affected." Optimum performance for an open-wheel racing tire comes when the rubber reaches a temperature of approximately 220 to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, greater than the point at which water boils, according to Speyer. "Our work has to give the driver the confidence he needs to perform on high-speed ovals," he said. Firestone tires have been on the winning car at the Indianapolis 500 for 50 of the 83 May classics. Firestone's first win at Indy 500 came at the inaugural race in 1911 with Ray Harroun and the Marmon Wasp, and the most recent was 1997, with two-time race winner Arie Luyendyk behind the wheel. Firestone competed at every event from the inaugural race through 1974, discontinuing its association with Indy cars after that year. By the early 1990s, the company realized it made good business sense to return to racing, and in 1995, Firestone was back at Indy. And what an impact on business the racing program has been. Speyer says that since Firestone announced in May 1993 that it would return to racing, sales of passenger tires have increased 20 percent from year to year, and major dealers have cited Firestone's return to the Indy 500 for the increase in business. "The technology in winning racing tires is a very translatable asset, because it tells the public that the technology is available to provide a good tire," said Speyer. "And there is an emotional link of being involved with a winning program that is good for dealers and the sales people on the showroom floor." When asked if he could envision back in 1995 the place Bridgestone/Firestone would hold in the world of open-wheel racing, Speyer said simply, "No way. "If someone had told me we would have all of Indy-car racing and Bridgestone in Formula One, well, no one could predict that. People asked us if we were really committed, but I don't think anyone thought to ask Goodyear if they were. "Our plan was very modest: to have three to five cars the first year, six to eight the second, and perhaps half the field in five years. If we had been given the chance to write this story back in '95, we couldn't have written it this successfully, from both a competition and sales standpoint." Speyer said that although Firestone is enjoying these days and is planning several celebrations and promotions to mark its 100th anniversary this year, company officials recognize that the lack of tire competition will not last forever. So its engineers must continue their hard work. "If you look at the history of racing, Goodyear and all the major tire companies, including us, have gotten in and out of racing," he said. "I think Goodyear will someday return, and Michelin has also expressed interest in open-wheel racing. They will provide us great competition in Formula One when they enter in 2001. "Someday along the line we do expect competition, so we are still finding out things in testing that we can use, but just aren't implementing at this point. We want to keep some cards in our hip pocket that will help us down the road."

-IRL/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Arie Luyendyk