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As the Firestone turns: why this and why now?

It’s an understatement to say that I was surprised when Gordon Kirby of MotorSport quoted  Bridgestone/Firestone Racing’s Al Speyer discussing the rumor that INDYCAR had already reached an agreement with another tire company to supply the racing rubber for INDYCAR when Firestone’s contract expires after the 2014 season (see here).  The silly season always seems to spawn crazy rumors, but to have them voiced by Al Speyer caught me off guard.  Whether it’s real or not is secondary to the fact that Al Speyer thinks it’s real.  That’s news.

Robin Miller at Speed.com got a response (sort of ) from INDYCAR (see here) that did nothing to quell the rumor.  INDYCAR issued a statement from Randy Bernard that was standard business-speak.  Basically, it said the contract is up in 2014, and Firestone is one of the suppliers to whom they will talk.  It should be noted that Randy Bernard is almost always willing to go on the record with Robin Miller and other journalists.  That press release was done to prevent any off-message comment.  It was cold and calculated.  Something’s up.

Al Speyer and Bridgestone/Firestone played a very public game of hardball in 2011.  They wanted more money to keep supplying the series.  I have no problem with that.  The R.O.I. (return on investment) of being the sole supplier of IndyCar had most certainly suffered as IndyCar’s TV ratings lagged.  In other words, Bridgestone/Firestone had leverage and used it.  That’s business.  The fact is that IndyCar as a series is secondary in value to the Indianapolis 500.  Firestone gets more mileage (sorry) from the iconic “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” than they do from all the other races in the series.  And they got a little fat and sassy.  Working leverage can do that to you.  Once you win, you assume you will always win.

And Firestone still has leverage, which Al Speyer has already started to use to bend INDYCAR to its will.  We are going to hear a few things in the near future:

  • Firestone is safe.  That’s true.  They have not had a catastrophic failure at a superspeedway.  NOTHING should trump the safety of the drivers.
  • The teams are happy with the tires.  They are not real happy with IndyCar or Firestone in regards to the cost of the tires, though.  The teams accepted the cost because the tire is great.
  • The drivers are happy with the tires.  They don’t fail at speed.  If you were a driver what tire would you want?
  • Firestone has a 100 year history with the Indy 500.  They are a good corporate partner and a brand that is as iconic as the Indianapolis 500.   The 500 is a very valuable asset.

I can guarantee your that the blogs, forums, and Twitter will absolutely BLOW UP over this.  Randy Bernard will be crucified and excoriated over something that hasn’t happened yet.  In other words, it will be business as usual.  But it does beg the question: why would Randy Bernard and INDYCAR consider dumping Firestone as the tire supplier for the IZOD IndyCar Series?  Randy Bernard reminds me of coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers when the character of Opal Fleener tells him, “Sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass everyday, but mister, you ain’t seen a ray of light since you got here.”  That’s Randy Bernard.  He didn’t have the right pedigree in racing.  He personally promoted a race that ended in tragedy.  He has endured a rebellion of owners that would cause most people to get the hell out of town.  A tweet of his started a firestorm.  His schedule fell apart in mid-season, as did the track in Detroit.  Is this another gaffe?  I think we are going to meet a different Randy Bernard here.  Just like Norman Dale in Hoosiers, nobody is going to “hide-strap (his) ass to a pine rail and send (him) up the Monon Line!”

I can see no benefit to playing hard ball with Firestone to get a better deal, particularly playing hard ball in public.  Firestone, with Al Speyer, knows something is afoot.  Losing the Indy 500 would be losing face for a Japanese company.  They want Indy.  They want iconic.  That’s why they went on the PR offensive.  So what’s up?  It just doesn’t make sense for INDYCAR to dump Firestone to save the owners some money.  The bad PR on that is not worth it, nor is the safety risk.  Here’s my take: Randy Bernard has a BIG ace up his sleeve, just like a cowboy sitting in some Western saloon.  I think Randy Bernard and INDYCAR have a tire supplier who wants to make a big splash.  IZOD wants out of IndyCar and is stuck with a contract to sponsor the IZOD IndyCar Series.  My completely uninformed conjecture is that a tire manufacturer is waiting to not only provide the series with racing tires, but to become the title sponsor of the IndyCar Series.  The ancillary benefit to this manufacturer is that little race at 16th and Georgetown and the history and credibility that comes with it.  Maybe Randy Bernard is preparing to screw the pooch on this.  Maybe he is looking for an exit strategy where the board at IMS has no choice but to fire him.  I don’t think so.  I think he is ready to go all-in on his biggest bet as the CEO of INDYCAR.  Would INDYCAR dump the safety, reliability, and history of Firestone to secure the long-term viability of the series?  Would they be willing to weather the firestorm of criticism that would surely follow such a decision?  In the culture of corporate America, does money trump everything else?  We know the answers, don’t we.

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