Monday, March 10, 2008

Compromise Needed Between Goodyear, Racers

The big news out of Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend was obviously Kyle Busch’s first-ever Sprint Cup Series victory for Toyota. But close behind – maybe even neck-and-neck for the lead – was the criticism Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company took from many drivers over the tire compounds they chose to bring to the track this weekend.

Just about every Cup team tested tires at Atlanta last October. But Goodyear wasn’t satisfied with the results of that test, and decided to test a different combination in December. The tires that arrived at AMS late last week were a result of the December test, and they caught the vast majority of teams by surprise. The right-side tires were considerably harder than what the teams tested in October, the left-side tires were softer, and just about everyone is unhappy about it.

Foremost on the list of dissatisfied customers was Tony Stewart, who lit-up Goodyear yet again yesterday. Stewart called it, “the most pathetic racing tire that I've ever been on in my professional career. (Goodyear) exited out of Formula One. They exited out of IRL. They exited out of World of Outlaws and there is a reason for that. Goodyear can't build a tire that is worth a crap. If I were Goodyear, I would be really embarrassed about what they brought here. I guarantee you Hoosier, or Firestone, or somebody can come in and do a lot better job than what they are doing right now."

Jeff Gordon made similar comments, saying, "I felt like I was going to crash every single lap. I'm exhausted right now. I feel like I've run a thousand miles. That was the hardest day I have ever had at Atlanta, especially for a top-five finish. This car, this tire, at this track was just terrible."

Not everybody jumped on board the Goodyear-bashing Bandwagon. Michael Waltrip said he didn’t mind wrestling a less-than-perfect racecar yesterday, saying, “That’s what racing is all about. Before, whatever you could give the car, it could take. But now a driver can give it more than it can take, and you have to finesse it. So, yeah, you’re sideways and slipping all over the place, but it makes for some fun racing.”

If Stewart’s comments were overly harsh, Goodyear Marketing Manager Justin Fantozzi went just as far overboard in the other direction, declaring that Goodyear was "tremendously proud of the wear rates we saw here.” He promised that Goodyear will take the data from yesterday’s race back to Akron, Ohio, sit down with engineers, and come up with a plan for the October Atlanta race. He also promised to gather input from drivers before making that decision.

Goodyear released a statement just a few moments ago, saying, “We had no tire failures and no problems with heat or wear. We supplied the same tires for both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, and received zero complaints about our tires after the Nationwide race on Saturday. We accept that drivers will have their own opinions about our tires. If the drivers are not happy, then Goodyear’s not happy. Now that we know how this tire combination performed, we’ll go back and retest for the fall race.

They also fired back at Stewart, correcting what they called “an erroneous comment” made by the former series champion. The release said, “Goodyear decided to leave other racing series only because of the escalating costs of competition in those series. At least one other tire maker has done the same. For Goodyear, the enormous investment required to compete in those other forms of racing far outweighed the benefits derived from our participation.”

There is no doubt that Goodyear often finds itself between a rock and a hard place on tires. Their number-one concern has to be safety, and in virtually every instance, a hard tire is a safe tire. Nobody – most notably Goodyear – wants a replay of the Lowe’s Motor Speedway debacle of a couple of years ago, when right-front tires blew every 8-10 laps, and a number of drivers limped into the Infield Care Center. However, it’s also unreasonable for Goodyear to ask teams to help them test tires, then throw them a curveball like was thrown this weekend. There has to be a spirit of compromise and cooperation, so teams can leave a tire test secure in the knowledge that the tires they just tested – or at least something very similar to what they just tested – will show up again on race day.

At present, there seems to be certain degree of stubbornness and arrogance at work on both sides. Drivers seem unwilling to accept anythng less than a perfect tire, and when they don’t get it, spend entirely too much of their time blasting a company that has their safety and well-being at heart. For its part, Goodyear seems far too entrenched in the, “we’re the only option you’ve got, so you’ll just have to live with it” mentality.

I have no doubt that if there was a competing tire manufacturer in the Sprint Cup garage, Goodyear would be turning out a much more workable tire than they’re turning out today.

I was around for the tire war between Goodyear and Hoosier, and trust me when I tell you that there were no winners. The pendulum swung FAR too far in the direction of speed over safety, and drivers were hurt as a result. I’m not advocating bringing a second manufacturer into the sport. I am, however, urging Goodyear to put their vast resources to work on finding a safe – but still competitive – tire for this new NASCAR racecar ; something that will keep our drivers safe, while also allowing them to put on a competitive race.

That should not be too much to ask.

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