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The Way It Is/ Searching for the secrets to Bridgestone Firestone's immaculately successful Champ Car and IRL tire programs

by Gordon Kirby
Over the past dozen years Bridgestone Firestone--the world's largest tire and rubber manufacturer--has also established iself as the globe's best race car tire builder. Bridgestone Firestone first defeated Goodyear in CART and IRL racing at the end of the twentieth century, then beat Michelin in Formula One. Today the company is the spec tire supplier to the world's top three forms of open-wheel racing--F1, Champ Car and IRL.

Bridgestone earned its place at the top of the heap in CART when the Indy Car World Series was at its height by thrashing Goodyear with faster, more consistent tires that were better engineered and better built. The company entered CART in 1995 with three teams--Patrick Racing, Steve Horne's Tasman team and Dale Coyne--and five cars. Four years later, Bridgestone had beaten Goodyear so completely that the longtime CART/USAC tire king pulled out of CART and IRL, leaving Bridgestone Firestone as the de facto spec tire supplier for both series.

"We had five cars in '95, ten in '96, fifteen in '97, twenty in '98 and then it was over," remarked Al Speyer, Bridgestone Firestone's executive director of motorsport.

Bridgestone Firestone has continued to produce a superb product for Champ Car and IRL and the company has also been extremely successful in Formula One, winning seven world championships since entering F1 eleven years ago. Michelin proved a tougher challenger in F1 than Goodyear in CART, but Bridgestone was beaten to the F1 title only once by Michelin in recent years and takes over this year as F1's spec tire suppller.

"Our two racing programs are pretty independently run," Speyer commented. "We are tied together technologically but our Formula One program is run by an entirely separate unit than our unit for both Champ Car and Indy car here in the United States."

Bridgestone's world headquarters are located in Japan, of course. The company bought Firestone in 1988, creating Bridgestone Americas, the largest subsidiary of the parent company.

"The USA and Canada is over forty percent of the world's tire market," Speyer remarked. "So our operations are quite important to the company worldwide. No other single geographic area has as much impact on the success or failure of Bridgestone Japan as our North American operation."

Bridgestone Firestone North America is part of Bridgestone America which is headquartered in Nashville, Tennesse, but most of its Champ Car and IRL tires are built in Akron, Ohio, at a former Firestone factory. Its F1 tires are built in Japan.

"We're to the point now where virtually all the Champ Car and Indy car tires next year will be made in Akron," Speyer reported. "All the Formula One tires are produced at our tech center in Tokyo and the Formula One service group based out of the UK."

Speyer and his top men in the racing division are very secretive about the keys to Bridgestone Firestone's success. "There are a lot of little things we've done that are our own trade secrets that even to this day we protect pretty highly," Speyer remarked. "A lot of the stuff we do, we can't talk about. We don't want to because it might help our competition, even now that we're a spec tire supplier.

"There are processes we go through at the factory and in the field within our service organization and in the way we store and ship our tires. There are a lot of details. An important part I think is the way we interact with the teams on an engineering basis and on a testing basis."

Speyer says Bridgestone Firestone structured its testing very differently than Goodyear's testing method. An important difference was keeping control of the tires by leasing rather than selling them. "From the beginning we leased our tires," Speyer said. "We don't sell them. They're bar-coded and we take them all back. Some of them are analysed in detail back in Akron. But whether they get analysed, or not, they all get burned in a cement kiln because it is the environmentally best way to get rid of them."

Bridgestone Firestone doesn't want its used tires getting thrown in the trash, "to collect water and breed mosquitos," Speyer said. "But we also don't want them to get into the hands of our competitors, again, even to this day when we're a spec tire."

Until pulling out of Indy car and Formula One racing in 1975, the old Firestone company had been a mainstay of the sport from the early days. The modern Bridgestone Firestone combine served its apprenticeship in American open-wheel racing by supplying tires to the Indy Lights series under its Firestone brand, starting in 1992. When the decision was made to move up to CART, Bridgestone Firestone made a testing agreement with Patrick Racing and the company spent all of 1994 testing and developing tires with driver Scott Pruett.

"We probably had an advantage over Goodyear because all our equipment was new," Speyer remarked. "They were working with equipment that was twenty years old and when we started the program we bought a lot of all-new equipment. When we were testing in 1994 we were hoping to get a handful of cars, but we never expected to have more than half the field."

Page Mader is Bridgestone Firestone's general manager of race tire development in the United States. Mader has been with the company for thirty-five years and has worked in the racing division for all but six of those years. Mader recalls the cold shoulder his company received from CART's team owners when they first arrived on the scene. "In 1994, after our test year," Mader grinned. "We made a presentation at Laguna Seca and basically, nobody came!"

"And those who did, didn't understand or listen," Speyer added.

"We showed them our charts from testing at Indy were we basically went faster and faster and faster through each run," Mader recalled. "That never happened with Goodyear! But at the time, nobody was interested."

For the company's Indy 500 debut in 1995 both Scott Pruett and Scott Goodyear were in position to win the race on Bridgestone Firestone rubber. But Pruett brushed the wall while leading and Goodyear passed the pace car on the final restart, allowing Jacques Villeneuve to win the race.

"One lesson we learned is that winning is everything," Speyer observed. "When we went to Indy in '95, we had Scott Goodyear on the front row and a lot of our executives just wanted to make sure we qualified for the race. Remember that Honda, another big Japanese company, had gone there the year before and failed to qualify. But based on our test results we knew it would be no problem to qualify and we had Scott Goodyear on the front row and eight cars in the field in our first attempt, including a couple that were rookies.

"With twenty laps to go we had Goodyear and Scott Pruett running out front and they had 223-224 mph cars. Nobody else could run over 220 at the end of the run and they were three-quarters of a lap ahead of the field. And then Pruett crashed in turn two and Goodyear made his fateful mistake.

"That was out there in public," Speyer added. "Everybody saw it but nobody was interested."

But two months later Pruett won the Michigan 500, beating Al Unser Jr's Goodyear-shod Penske after a late-race duel, and Speyer's phone rang off the hook.

"The tires were as good at Indy as they were at Michigan," Speyer recalled. "But then, all of a sudden, I'll never forget Larry Curry telling us, 'Al Jr. kept pushing Pruett up into the marbles and Pruett just kept his foot in it and drove right around him.' Curry said, 'That was all tires.'."

It wasn't long before Goodyear was fighting a rearguard action and by the end of 1999 the old reliable Indy/Champ car tire goliath was no more, waving the white flag and pulling out of CART and IRL.

"I really believe Goodyear was doing the best job they knew how," Mader commented. "Every year they said they were going to do better, but they never did do better at all. They had the best teams but they couldn't win. They had Rahal's team, Newman/Haas and Penske, and they couldn't win."

Bridgestone Firestone beat Goodyear on all points--performance, durability and consistency from tire set to set. "We had a little bit different philosophy," Speyer noted. "Goodyear seemed to focus on being fast for a short period of time, even in their testing. I remember Michael Andretti, who was still with Newman/Haas and Goodyear at the time, and he told us Goodyear had a much better tire coming along. We asked him if they'd made any long runs and he said, 'Oh yeah, we ran five or six laps.' But a long run for us was all the way to the end of a fuel load.

"There were two levels of consistency we worked on," Speyer continued. "One was set-to-set on the tire production run but the other was consistency during each run on the track. We always felt that if the tire could remain consistent as you burned off fuel you should run faster at the end of the run than at the beginning.

"If you looked at a Goodyear tire which might have run at 102 percent when it was new, but it trailed off to ninety-two percent as it wore down. We believed that if we could maintain a hundred percent level all the time and be consistent throughout the run, that being faster at the end is so important because the end of the run is always the end of the race. I think that was a really significant part of what we did because we were able to run faster at the end than at the beginning of a run."

Mader said Bridgestone Firestone benefitted from taking on new teams at the right time. "In 1996 we added Ganassi's team and Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser, and Forsythe's team with Greg Moore and (engineer) Steve Challis was working with Moore," Mader said. "We had a lot of good people and we had good products and it showed."

Added Speyer: "When we first signed Ganassi he was in a much different light than he's viewed today. He's a powerhouse today, but in those days he was just starting to come on and they started beating teams and drivers that nobody had expected them to beat."

Speyer says Bridgestone Firestone refused to pay teams to run its tires. "We focused our efforts on product performance, not money," Speyer commented. "A lot of teams wanted to be paid money but over time many of them came back to us to say we were right. What they wanted out of a tire manufacturer was the best product. That philosophy was part of our success, I believe, because we were steadfast in that way. We wanted teams to be with us to help us develop the best product."

Mader recalls some hair-raising times in the early days. "It's not like we haven't made mistakes," Mader acknowledged. "We made mistakes when we had to go up and apologize to teams we had worked with for a few years. I remember Greg Moore at Motegi one year saying, 'You guys are so good, whatever's wrong this weekend we'll get through it and we'll go to the next race and the rest of the season and not worry about it. We understand the concerns and that you guys made a mistake, but we're sticking with you.'."

Moore finished that race in spectacular fashion by spinning backwards across the line after a rear tire tread separated going down the backstretch.

A few years later, after Goodyear's departure, Bridgestone Firestone became the sole tire supplier to both CART and IRL. "We found ourselves working with two series, which we hadn't envisioned," Speyer said. "When we started, there was one series, CART, that happened to run at Indy in 1995. Then, all of a sudden, there were two series and a few years later we were the sole supplier to both of them. That ramp-up in terms of volume was a very significant task for our production facility in Akron and service-wise as well."

At the start of the program Bridgestone Japan made half the production run of American racing tires, but as the F1 program got underway, Japan focused more and more on building F1 tires. "Even as we had to supply the IRL as well, Bridgestone Japan started making fewer and fewer tires and we made more and more here in the United States," Mader said. "That process will be complete next year when all the tires will be made here. From Japan's point of view, they've seen their involvement in Formula One grow even more than they expected, much as ours here having to supply two series."

Mader says two keys to Bridgestone Firestone's success have been the quality of the tires and an open, honest relationship with the teams. "The most important things were the consistency of the tires and us doing the right thing with the teams and working closely with them so that they trust what we tell them," Mader said. "They know that we don't blow smoke, almost never! We always tried to do the right thing and treat everybody the same. I don't know that's always done in all the other types of racing series, but that's the way we've always tried to operate."

Added Speyer: "We're very proactive in our relationships with the teams. We don't necessarily wait for them to come to us. We go to them. I know we have prevented a lot of problems before they happened because we actively went to them, particularly on air pressures and camber adjustments they were wanting to make.

"I think we were able to convince them that just going fast doesn't work if you don't make it to the end of the race. You've got to make it to the end. If you have a tire problem--and it's easy for a team or driver to say it's the tire company's fault--but if you have a problem you still haven't won the race. If you're going to try to run too low an inflation pressure or too much camber and abuse the tire, it's really not in your best interest in the end."

Mader says Bridgestone Firestone has made a lot of progress in analysing its tires after they've been used. "We have learned some better analytical methods in the last half of this endeavor, even more to assure that the product, even though it looks fine, may not be fine, and we need to know that ahead of time," Mader observed.

Speyer expanded on this aspect. "I make the analogy that it's like a person with high blood pressure," Speyer remarked. "You look at them from the outside and you can't see anything wrong, but there's something wrong inside the body. Or like doing an autopsy on a body. We know from our analysis of our tires after a race how healthy they are. Even when you see a tire that was fine in the race nobody but us knows how close it might have been."

Speyer says there have been occasions when Bridgestone Firestone has been both lucky and good. "We've had teams run tires near the end of the race at much lower pressures than we were comfortable with and didn't have any problems," he related.

Another important part of Bridgestone Firestone's Stateside operation is its Performance Tire Group service center in Indianapolis run by Steve and Barbara Butz. More than sixty people work for the Butzes at PTSG servicing Champ Car, IRL, Indy Pro Series, motorcycles, karts and drifting.

"We purposely located our Performance Tire Service group right in Indianapolis," Speyer explained. "There, they were close to the large majority of the teams for better service rather than use Goodyear's old system where they had distributors in each region of the country but didn't have a service center in Indy. We made a conscious decision to locate our warehousing and service group right there. It helped us develop our relationships with the teams. We tried to go the extra mile and extra step to service them at any point."

Added Mader: "I think the teams appreciate immensely the service that Steve and Barbara Butz provide. It's first-class. If somebody wants something done, they're going to find a way to get it done for them."

Bridgestone Firestone has put a lot of time and effort into minimizing the moisture content of the air used to inflate their tires. "Air in the tire is not a problem," Speyer commented. "It's the moisture that gets in the tire. If you go over the boiling point of water, which can happen in these tires, that moisture turns to steam and you get an uncharacteristic tire build-up. So a lot of teams used to take the air out and put nitrogen in.

"We worked a lot with air driers so that the air we inflate the tires with is virtually moisture-free. By doing that it eliminated the need for the tire guy to take that extra step and reinflate the tires with nitrogen. It's just another piece that we did. It probably saved the tire guys a lot of time and effort."

Mader emphasized the need for precision and repeatability. "It's making sure you do everything the same all the time," Mader observed. "It's doing your job and each part of it identically, whether it's the mixing of the compound or the materials you use or the process of putting them together and the curing process. You've got to make sure that all of these processes are the same.

"When you make tires like the street course tire we run in Long Beach and six or seven races, we make them primarily in one production group for the whole year. We do everything we can to try to guarantee consistency. But invariably, we might need some more tires, or there are some left over from last year, or maybe the workshop built half of them, then had to build something else."

Tires that are more than two years old are discarded. "We have age limits," Speyer said. "You won't find a tire out here that's three years old. The tires are never more consistent than when they leave the trailer. Even just sitting in the sun can make changes to them. If people use tire heaters in testing, it's the same as running it on the track. It's gone through one heat cycle."

Mader itemized the combination of tires Bridgestone Firestone builds for Champ Car and IRL. "We've got street course, road course, short oval and superspeedway tires," Mader explained. "Basically, for the slower tracks like the street courses you need maximum grip, softer construction and good response. As you progress to the road courses you need more stability because you've got more downforce and faster corners so you also need a more durable compound.

"We have two primary compounds we run at the street courses and we have three primary compounds we run on the ovals. The short ovals require a stiffer tire and the compounds have a lot of grip. For the superspeedways the construction is stiffer yet again and they have the hardest compound. Basically, the more downforce you have the faster you're going and the stiffer the tire."

Despite being a spec tire supplier these days Bridgestone Firestone continues to improve its product. "We're still developing all the time," Speyer said. "That's part of the reason we're here. We're still pushing the envelope, maybe not as quickly as we did before."

Added Mader: "We're still working on making the tires better for driveability."

Speyer and Mader feel their product is a little underestimated by the latest generation. "I think the biggest thing we have now that we didn't have even in say, '99, is that people haven't run another product," Mader noted. "There are so many people who don't really understand how good we are."

Added Speyer: "We're taken for granted some times."

Mader says there's quite a lot of information exchange between his group and the F1 group in Japan. He and his engineers visited Bridgestone Firestone's tech center while they were in Japan for the IRL race at Motegi a few weeks ago.

"There's plenty of back and forth," Mader reported. "We have a meeting every time we go to Motegi. We go to the Tech Center and go over some material and they present some material. We've always had somebody in my department from the motorsports development division in Japan and it's very good feedback."

Finally, I asked Speyer if Bridgestone Firestone might ever show any interest in NASCAR. "The number one question our CEO gets asked is why don't we do stock car racing?" he grinned. "So I'd say, yes, there's interest from our management. But it would be a big step for us because they use a lot of tires. Production considerations would be a major issue for us. But it's one we could address.

"We're aware of a lot of different racing series and we're aware of a lot of interest in NASCAR. It's something we would be interested in for sure, but it's not available right now. They've extended their contract with Goodyear and we respect that."

Speyer added that Bridgestone Firestone is entirely satisfied with the technical challenges and promotional benefits it gets from racing in Champ Car and IRL. "We're quite happy with our Champ Car and Indy car programs," he said. "Both these programs work for us with great exposure. They're quite useful to us for advertising, marketing and entertaining clients and employees. We still very much enjoy what we're doing in Champ Car and IRL."

Quietly, almost beneath the surface, Bridgestone Firestone's unparalleled record of performance, durability and safety where the rubber meets the road is one of American open-wheel racing's biggest strengths. Here's hoping Speyer, Mader and their excellent corps of men and women from Brigestone Firestone will continue to support the sport for many years to come.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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