After a century of having its tires run in the Indianapolis 500 races, picking up 64 first-place finishes along the way, Firestone will bow out of the IndyCar racing circuit after this season, the parent company, Bridgestone, said Monday.
Nashville-based Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations said its Firestone brand will cease being the exclusive tire sponsor and supplier of the IZOD IndyCar and Firestone Indy Lights racing series, and will end production of the Firestone Indy racing tires at its technical center in Akron, Ohio.
Bridgestone would not say whether the 40 or so hourly workers and 20 salaried employees involved in Indy car tire production would be laid off or assigned to other duties within the company's operations.
Firestone began sponsoring Indy Lights in 1991 and returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 1995. In 2002, it became the exclusive tire of the Indy circuit. Rival Goodyear tires dropped out of Indy racing after the 1999 season and now is the exclusive tire provider for the larger NASCAR stock car racing series.
"We achieved all of our goals and more since we came back, and we have had a great relationship with IndyCar," said Mark Robinson, spokesman for Firestone motorsports. "The relationship (led to) increased tire sales and brand exposure. But we decided it was time to move on."
Firestone also is the official tire of Major League Baseball, while Nashville-based Bridgestone is involved in sponsorships tied to the National Football League, National Hockey League and golf's PGA Tour.
But none of those other sports offers the kind of product tie-ins that come from sponsoring auto racing in which tires are an important component, said Brian Evans, a director of Nashville-based FanLab LLC, a marketing research firm.
"I was initially surprised to hear Firestone was pulling out, because it has been partners with Indy for so long, and it's a great way for the company to show the prowess of its products," Evans said. "There isn't the same opportunity for a tire company to do that with baseball, football or hockey."
There is more expense involved, though, which is probably why Firestone is dropping out, Evans said.
"It takes a lot of company resources to design and produce the special compounds for racing tires," he said. "They probably decided that they could go somewhere else and get a bigger return on their investment."
The move leaves the door open for a smaller tire company to step in and gain recognition and market share with an IndyCar deal, Evans said.
"If Goodyear or Michelin doesn't come in, it could be a great opportunity for a lesser-known brand to (gain) stature."
Recent FanLab research found that when asked to name as many tire brands as they could, 58 percent of consumers surveyed mentioned Goodyear, 42 percent said Michelin and 31 percent named Firestone, Evans said.
Bridgestone was way back, at 14 percent, adding that it still qualifies as a household name.
Bridgestone has no plans to back off its promotion of the Firestone brand, which it acquired in the late 1980s when it took over the Akron-based Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., officials said. The Tennessean