Firestone pullout potential fiasco for IndyCar Series

Just as things were looking up for the IndyCar Series, it could be facing a serious blowout.

Last week, Tennessee-based Firestone Tire Co. announced it is exiting the IndyCar Series after the 2011 season.

That really shouldn’t come as a big surprise on the heels of the tire maker’s departure from Formula One in 2010.

Still, IndyCar boss Randy Bernard is left scrambling at an inopportune time, as the series plans to introduce a new chassis and engine package for the 2012 season.

Bernard spent this week meeting with tire company executives and team officials to get the issue ironed out.

It’s true that life is a lot easier to judge out your rear-view mirror than your windshield, but IndyCar officials who were in place before Bernard should have insisted on a two-year contract termination notification from Firestone, not one year.

Firestone is a badly needed stable element as the series plans to begin testing on its new chassis and engine in July.

It would appear Bernard has nearly four months to get this problem solved. But in reality he has much less time than that.

It takes eight to 10 months to develop a serious race tire, especially one that can handle running the Indianapolis 500. Tire failures at Indianapolis can be fatal.

And it costs about $6 million to develop a tire. Of course, development can be fast-tracked to a degree. But that could add another $2 million to $4 million to the price tag. At any rate, motorsports experts said July testing is in serious jeopardy.

Given all that, Bernard really has less than 30 days to find a new tire supplier. There’s no way a tire maker is going to roll out a new tire for the IndyCar Series without first testing at Indy. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, it gets cold and wet here come October.

Bernard said finding a new tire supplier a “top priority.” I should say so.

The predicament Bernard finds himself in leaves him in a horrible negotiating position. He’s looking for another tire manufacturer to do what Firestone does, but that may be difficult to get given how little time he has to get the deal done.

That’s probably why team owners are screaming to get a one-year renewal with Firestone regardless of the cost.

But Bernard can’t simply ask Firestone to extend its deal another year, or even buy tires from Firestone, because the new engine and chassis package likely will require a re-worked tire, and Firestone isn’t about to invest to develop a tire in a series it is exiting.

To make matters worse, the IndyCar Series is losing more than a tire supplier. It’s losing its biggest booster—morally, and more importantly, financially.

Motorsports business experts said Firestone poured $7 million to $8 million annually into marketing the series. That’s at least as much as Izod pays to market the series as its title sponsor.

Talks between IndyCar and tire makers Goodyear, Hoosier Tire, Cooper, Avon, Continental and Pirelli (which replaced Bridgestone/Firestone in F1 this year) are in high gear. But the question is, how many of those companies can afford to—and are willing to—support the series the way Firestone has?

And there’s another serious issue: Firestone, as part of its deal with the series, provided teams with free tires. That saves teams an estimated $750,000 annually.

It’s not certain that a new tire provider would be willing to do the same, and that’s an expense many IndyCar teams—already worried how they’re going to pay for new engines and chassis—would have difficulty swallowing.

There’s an ugly alternative for Bernard. Push back the new chassis and engine formula until 2013 and buy the current model of IndyCar Firestone race tires next year while a new tire is being developed. Like I said, ugly.

For Bernard, this next 30 days is where the rubber meets the road.

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