Farewell To Firestone

Several years ago, during race weekend of one of the Nashville IndyCar races, I met Leo Mehl – the retired head of Goodyear’s motorsports division. He was very personable and he seemed flattered that someone in Nashville, TN would even recognize him after his retirement from Goodyear a decade earlier. Keep in mind that when Leo Mehl retired from Goodyear in the mid-nineties, he was one of the most powerful men in racing throughout the entire world. His tire was either the exclusive or most dominant tire in the top three racing series – Formula One, CART and NASCAR, so it wasn’t hard for me to spot him.

Leo Mehl & Oilpressure

After our conversation, it occurred to me that he might represent an avenue for me to pursue my dream – a career in motorsports. I had tried unsuccessfully, for years, to find a way to interview with Nashville based Bridgestone North America – the parent company for Firestone, but to no avail. Once in 2002, I was lucky enough to get Al Speyer, Firestone’s Director of Motorsports, on the phone to plead my case. He was pleasant enough, but things never went past the courtesy chat.

I wrote a letter to Mr. Mehl asking him if he could put me in touch with someone at Firestone. I realize that fans don’t often make the best employees when it comes to the business of sports. They can become awestruck when dealing with people they have followed for years. It becomes especially hard to say “no” to someone you have grown to admire. If I were still in the job market today (which I’m not – I’m now too old), I would probably be better suited working for the Nashville Predators. I know nothing about their sport and it would be strictly a business to me.

But this would have been a perfect match. I knew the sport, I knew Firestone’s long history in the sport and I was already here. I could be with one of the key players in IndyCar and not even have to change my address.

A few months passed and I heard nothing. I had actually forgotten about it when I got a call from Joe Barbieri, the longtime manager of Bridgestone Motorsports. Ironically, the call came on my birthday. He explained that Leo Mehl had forwarded my letter to them and he wanted to follow up. We had a good conversation about my background and my longtime passion for the sport. A few days later, he called back and said he wanted me to come by their offices. As is common in the corporate world, the meeting was pushed back a few times. Finally, a lunch meeting was set. I was to meet with Joe Barbieri and Al Speyer at Ruby Tuesday’s.

We had a great meeting, although I was probably more impressed than they were. Still, I felt like this was more than just a courtesy. We sat and talked for more than two hours. This was before unification, so I offered up my ideas on how to solve things between the two series. I also offered up my naïve ideas on how Firestone could promote themselves as well as the two series.

Obviously, no motorsports career blossomed from that meeting. I had given it my best shot and didn’t walk away wishing I had done something different (other than ordering an expensive entrée, while they both had salads). They explained how surprisingly small their motorsports division was and there was little, if any, turnover. Most of their staff had been there well over twenty years. Since that meeting, I have maintained a friendly relationship with Joe Barbieri. We touch base from time to time and we always say hi to each other at races.

It’s funny how things happen. When Firestone confirmed that they would be leaving the IZOD IndyCar Series at the end of the 2011 season, it had a rippling effect throughout the racing world. It also made me grateful that things had not worked out. Had I been offered the “dream job”, I would find myself facing unemployment at the end of this year.

While there are the obvious questions about who should replace them (Michelin gets my vote, closely followed by Hoosier – I’ll get into my logic at another time); I’m concerned for the futures of the two men who were cordial enough to talk to me that rainy day at Ruby Tuesday’s. This is the second time Al Speyer has been stung by a decision made higher up the corporate ladder. Shortly after he joined Firestone after graduating from Syracuse University, Firestone announced they were pulling the plug on their Indy car program.

Almost twenty years later, after Firestone was acquired by Japanese tire maker Bridgestone – Speyer led Firestone’s entry back into CART. When the IRL began operations in 1996, Firestone and Goodyear supplied tires to both open-wheel series. Firestone eventually chased Goodyear out of CART and the IRL and Bridgestone ran them out of Formula One.

In my opinion, Firestone was the best and most important partner to the IZOD IndyCar Series. They had great ads (the “magic rings” commercial is still one of my favorites) and spent a ton of money promoting the series. But their greatest legacy is their safety record. In all their years since they returned to open-wheel racing, not once did any of their tires suffer a failure. In recent years, we have seen Goodyear and Michelin leave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with egg on their faces. Firestone has always been prepared. Al Speyer and his staff did their homework. Their efforts will be missed.

As much as I’ve read quotes from Speyer that this was a mutual decision throughout the company and that there are better ways to promote the Firestone brand in the future, you’ve got to wonder how he really feels. I wonder if Firestone might go the way of Mercury, Pontiac and Oldsmobile – an iconic name for a brand that no longer seems relevant to today’s hip, younger buyer. Other than what Firestone did with the IZOD IndyCar Series, most of the parent company’s promotional efforts lately, seem to focus on the Bridgestone brand.

Here locally, the downtown arena in Nashville has been re-named Bridgestone arena. Bridgestone is the official tire of the NFL. For the last few years, Bridgestone has presented the Super Bowl halftime show. Other than IndyCar races, where else do you see Firestone advertised?

Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri are both good men who have pretty much devoted their careers to open-wheel racing. Now that that’s going away, I’m wondering what the future holds for these men and their staff. Yes, there may be other opportunities within the company – but what could bring the joy and satisfaction that they got from their involvement in racing? They are putting on their best face for now, but I wonder what they will be feeling in May of 2012.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Farewell To Firestone”

  1. Just curious, what brand of tire does Penske have on his trucks?

  2. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    The fact that we’ve actually gotten bored with watching cars go 225+ at Indianapolis is a testament to how safe the Firestone tires have been, and that’s definitely a compliment. The main difference we’re probably going to see is in May, 2012, when drivers are soiling their uniforms throwing turbo V6’s into Turn 1 on largely unproven tires.

    Great story about your meeting with Speyer and Barbieri, by the way. The only way to get ahead in life is to take some initiative, and you certainly did it there.

  3. I Love the Marlboro shirt. So dated. My opinion on Firestone leaving is actually quite different. On the oval side of things they did great. If you watched the Cup race Saturday, Jeff Gordon and David Gilliland proved how dangerous blown tires can be. As noted above, Firestone made a great oval tire.

    On the road course side of things I couldn’t be happier they are leaving. The tire was too durable. The Red tired were too durable. I want to see a driver that manages his or her tires the best be the strongest at the end of a run. Road course racing has lacked excitement and this along with a more powerful engine will help spice them up. The best F1 race last year was Montreal-as voted by F1Fanatic’s web page. The reason-the tires wore out which led to extra pit stops and lots more passing. Bridgestone left F1 and Parelli was instructed to make a tire less durable so more races fit the Canada mold and not last years Bahrain. Firestone leaving could be a great thing for fans of road courses.

  4. I actually tried to buy Firestones for my car. There were none in my size, but they had plenty of the Bridgestone brand available.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t think that the Firestone brand will be discontinued any time in the near future. While the national advertising emphasis has shifted to Bridgestone, Firestone remains the company’s brand of choice for its retail outlets.
    The brand may fade, but outright disappearance seems unlikely given that Bridgestone/Firestone brands such as LeMans and Dayton continue to be sold despite marketing expenditures that may very well be less than zero dollars.

    While I have never had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri (I’m a tick envious of you George), I always appreciated the commitment and passion they appeared to have for racing in general and open-wheel racing in particular. Back when both guys were regularly appearing on ChampCar broadcasts, a friend and I jokingly took to referring to ourselves as the “Joe Barbieri Fan Club”.

    IndyCar may miss the people of Bridgestone/Firestone as much as they’ll miss the safe, quality tires.

  6. Br!an McKay Says:

    another good blog post & another good photo of George

    I prefer to buy American when I can, and I bought Goodyear (“#1 in racing”) tires several times over the years. I switched ‘allegiance’ to Firestone which was supporting Indy Lights, IndyCar and CART racing. I’m proudly driving on yet another set of Firestone performance tires.
    Too bad that wherever I traveled in the U.S. I only saw a banner or poster picturing an IndyCar in one Firestone store. I always hoped that someone would want to tout Firestone’s top-tier U.S. motorsports involvement in its stores and in Sears, Pep Boys, NTB, etcetera…

  7. The Lapper Says:

    I remember that 10 years ago there were plans drawn up to drop the Firestone brand completely and that is what I think will happen. 5 years from now the Firestone Service Centers will be rebranded as Bridgestone.

  8. I’m disappointed that Firestone is leaving, but not exactly heartbroken. They’ve been a fantastic partner of the IndyCar (and CART before that) series for years, and so for that reason (in addition to their unprecedented, nearly perfect safety record), I’m sad to see them go.

    On the other hand, I wonder if becoming the flagship, centerpiece sponsorship for some other brand could bring dividends for the series. Cooper, for instance, has no other high visibility sponsorship in motorsports (USF2000 is not exaclty high visibility), and the same goes for Kumho, Hankook and Yokohama. If IndyCar, and even better for whatever company comes to play, the Indy 500, can become the #1 piece of some other manufacturer’s marketing scheme, we could even see an increase in signage, billboards and newspaper ads, not to mention things that Firestone/Bridgestone hasn’t even tried yet (I’m not a marketing guy, so I’m not sure what those things might be, but maybe somebody else could enlighten here). I think that the science of making tires has advanced to the point where nearly any manufacturer ought to be able to make a safe tire even to speeds of 230 MPH and beyond, so I’m not too worried about mass failures, but I am far more interested in what another manufacturer can do for the IndyCar series. It’ll be an interesting 5-6 months while we wait to see what happens on this front.

  9. Well, if Nashville ever had a shot at getting IndyCar to come back then that shot has ceased to exist.

  10. sir
    i own the last sprint car that was built by 15 time indy qualifer jim mcelreath.
    could any of you please advise me as to where i could find some
    16″ tires for both the front and rear of this magificent piece of racing history.
    jerry murpgree
    rowlett texas

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