Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Look at Firestone Tires' Racing Program

When a tire company says they're green, the tendency is to think "yeah, yeah, everyone is green these days, even the coal companies."

But Firestone Racing takes it seriously.

I had a chance to sit down with Al Speyer, executive director of Firestone Racing, to get a basic education about racing tires. I learned more in 10 minutes of frantic scribbling than I would have ever learned trying to read the same amount of material. That's to be expected, since Speyer has 35 years at Firestone, 28 of them in racing tires. (For the record, next Friday, May 22 marks his 35th anniversary. He'll be driving the pace car that day during Carburetion Day)

So back to the green tire. Is it really green? How can you dispose of a racing tire cleanly and easily?

"We track all race tires from the cradle to the grave, from the day we make them in the factory, to the day they're used in cement kilns," Speyer said. "Those kilns would normally burn propane, oil, gas, or coal. And grinding tires actually takes a lot of energy, so they just throw them in whole. Burning one tire replaces 30 pounds of coal, and has fewer emissions than coal. It's easily the best way to dispose of these tires."

Security is something else Speyer and the rest of Firestone Racing takes very seriously. He meant it when he said they track all race tires. They actually bar code and follow each individual tire, because they need to protect the technology from their competitors.

"There's not a whole lot a fan could learn from one tire, but the competition could learn quite a bit," said Speyer. "All tires are taken back, and some are analyzed before they're incinerated."

And if you thought replacing your tires on your own car was expensive, you'd choke at the cost of a set of Indy tires: a single set cost $2,060, and the tires are only leased, not bought.

"A typical team running 17 races for the season would spend $225,00 on tires for that season," Speyer said. (And there's no refunds for unused tires either. Believe me, I asked.)

But there are different packages for teams running different season lengths. A team running the entire month at Indianapolis gets 35 sets of tires ($72,100), a short program entry gets 26 sets ($53,560), and rookies get an additional 4 sets ($8,240), so teams treat these things like gold.

"That's why teams use tow tires or rain tires just to go from the garage to the track," said Speyer.

Firestone Racing has been a great boon for Firestone Tires. When Firestone got back into racing in the early 1990s, they saw their consumer sales double from 1993 to 1999. Speyer puts it all down to their forays into racing.

"Racing was the catalyst that doubled our sales," said Speyer. "We spent those six years winning races and winning business."

Firestone is going to stay in racing, said Speyer, for three reasons. "First, we get the brand exposure: decals, white letters on tires, logos on uniforms.

"Second, the technology. We demonstrate the current technology we have, and we develop our new technology.

"Third, the pride of our teammates. (We call our employees teammates.) Just like when the Colts do well, Indianapolis feels a bursting of pride. When our tires do well, the whole company feels proud."

Given the great successes the company is having this year, the entire company is probably floating on Cloud 9 about now.

Tire photo courtesy of Firestone Racing
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