Don’t Mess With The Firestone Partnership

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you know that I live by the mantra “Change is Bad”. Sometimes, it’s just because I’m set in my ways. Other times; It’s because I’m opposed to change just for the sake of change. Was Windows 8 or 10 really necessary? There are times when I’ve surprised people by embracing change. The iPhone 6 was a big step up from the iPhone 5, so I had no problem upgrading. I saw no reason to get an iPhone 7; same with 8. I would like the iPhone X, but it’s a little pricey for my blood, so I’ll continue to cling to my iPhone 6 a little longer. I say all that to prove that in some cases, I’ll gladly embrace change.

When it comes to the Verizon IndyCar Series, it’s the same thing – I fully embraced the change to the new universal body kit for 2018, which drastically improved the looks of the car and will supposedly improve the racing. I’m not in love with the idea of a windscreen on the cars, but if it saves lives – I can’t really be against the idea. But one change that I’ll never embrace when it comes to racing is a change in the tire supplier. The only thing worse would be a tire war.

This past Wednesday, Marshall Pruett had an article on saying that Continental Tire has expressed interest in becoming the tire supplier for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Apparently, their contract with IMSA expires at the end of this season and they are being replaced by Michelin.

No offense to the fine folks at Continental, but…no thanks. I’m sure they make a wonderful racing tire, but so does Firestone.

It seems that Continental has had discussions with Andretti Autosport about a possible tire development program. Andretti Autosport runs on Continental tires in the Global Rallycross Series and there is at least some interest there.

I’m hoping that’s where this discussion ends. Just last year, Firestone signed a multi-year extension. Do you remember when Firestone almost left the series in 2011? The outcry of angst from the drivers was palpable. It wasn’t because they liked Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri, who were in charge of Firestone’s motorsports division at the time. It was because they knew what a superior product Firestone put on the track and the drivers trusted them. It wasn’t a marketing slogan, it was a fact.

We’ve seen how other racing tires perform in other series. Just this past week at Daytona, we saw Kyle Busch have a tire failure while going down the backstretch in a straight line. Both Goodyear and Michelin have had major issues, in NASCAR and Formula One respectively, with the surface at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Firestone has had no such issues.

Fortunately, IndyCar and Firestone were able to come to an agreement that worked for both sides in 2011. The teams ended up spending more money on tires, but it was considered money well spent to not have to worry about a tire failure heading into Turn One at Indianapolis at 230 mph.

The only thing worse than changing tire suppliers, would have been adding a supplier – thus creating a tire war.

Most of us remember the last tire war in IndyCar. Goodyear had been the sole supplier to CART since the mid-seventies (after competing against Firestone for almost a decade before Firestone left USAC in 1974), when Firestone announced their intentions to return to the series in 1993. They had a testing arrangement with Patrick Racing for the 1994 season, with Scott Pruett doing the driving. They went to every track on the CART schedule and tested every race weekend, along with their own private testing. Firestone began competition in 1995 and came within a passed pace car from winning the Indianapolis 500 that year. By the end of 1999, Firestone ran Goodyear out of both series – CART and the IRL.

As I recall, there were no real disasters in the IndyCar tire war of the nineties. NASCAR cannot say the same.

In 1994, Hoosier Tire challenged Goodyear in the Winston Cup Series for the second time in about five years. The first Hoosier Tire stint began in 1988. For a short while, the softer compound of Hoosier made them the preferred tire over Goodyear for some drivers. Darrell Waltrip even rode Hoosiers into victory lane at the Daytona 500 in 1989. But as both tire companies sought softer and softer tires, several drivers were left with a lot of broken bones after a series of tire related crashes.

As Goodyear performance improved, Hoosier couldn’t keep up and they were gone by May – just a few months after celebrating in Daytona. But they were back by Speedweeks at Daytona in 1994. Popular driver Neil Bonnett was fatally injured in a strange accident during the first practice for the Daytona 500. The next day, Loy Allen, Jr. won the pole on Hoosier tires. Two days after Allen’s pole run, rookie driver Rodney Orr mysteriously flipped in Turn Two. He, too, was fatally injured. The common denominator? Both Bonnett and Orr were on Hoosier tires.

Neither crash could be blamed on Hoosier, but the court of public opinion was against them. Before the race, they released all of their drivers from their contracts and they have not been back.

I’ve never been a fan of spec racing. I like different engines and different chassis. But one thing I’ve always favored was a spec tire. It’s just too easy to compromise safety for speed simply by softening the compound of a tire. That’s why I hope we never see another tire war in IndyCar.

IndyCar has several good long-time partners. Honda, Chevy, Dallara, Holmatro and Verizon are just a few of the key partners that promote IndyCar on and off the track. But in my opinion, Firestone is the one partner they could not do without. They know every single characteristic of the cars and the tracks and build one safe tire that all…and I mean all…of the drivers have faith in.

I’m sure that Continental Tire builds a good racing tire, and I hope they find a new series to support, thereby being able to market their passenger tires. IndyCar can play with the engines and mess with the aero kits all they want; but they need to leave the tires alone. The Verizon IndyCar Series and its predecessors have a long storied history with Firestone. Fortunately, they are locked up for the foreseeable future. It’s been a good marriage between IndyCar and Firestone. Continental needs to court someone else.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Don’t Mess With The Firestone Partnership”

  1. Firestone has earned the trust of the drivers and the entire IndyCar racing community for that matter. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I put Firestone tires on my own car because I trust Firestone to provide tires that will ensure the safety of me and my family.

  2. Continental had several tire issues at the Rolex24. Teams and Continental argued about who was at fault. Never heard any complaints about Firestone tires.

  3. One of my favorite Tony Stewart quotes came years ago when he was asked about the surface at IMS. Nascar was trying to deflect blame on the speedway for the issues they were having with their Goodyears. When asked, Tony replied something to the effect of, ‘I didn’t see Indycar having any problems here back in May with their Firestone tires.’ I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    There is certainly no reason to look beyond Firestone from a performance and safety standpoint (though they aren’t batting 1.000 there, see Texas 2017), but I do not think it is wise from a business standpoint to refuse to entertain the thought of a another tire supplier. Being wanted is good for Indycar, and they ought to listen to Continental for the potential leverage at least. I have no desire to see Firestone replaced, of course, and their track record gives the series a great reason to stick with them even if Continental is offering a great deal. But almost everyone has a price, and the right price could do very good things for Indycar.

    In fairness to Goodyear’s recent issues in NASCAR (not the IMS debacle), the teams often make them look bad by lowering pressures to the very the edge of safety. Firestone doesn’t let Indycar teams do that. Goodyear, for whatever reason (the series’ direction, probably), does not exert the control over their tires in NASCAR that Firestone does in Indycar.

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