The 33 cars that start in the Indianapolis 500 race this afternoon at the famed Brickyard oval track will hit peak speeds approaching 230 miles per hour.
That controlled high speed exerts severe downforce, g-force and other pressures on the designed-and-made-in-Akron Firestone tires on each open-wheel race car. There’s not much, if any, margin for error in the 200-lap, 500-mile race.
Engineers and technicians from Bridgestone Americas, which owns Firestone, have been at the historic racetrack this past week carefully monitoring how their Firehawk race tires perform. In addition to a goal of making better tires for future races, they seek to “transfer” race tire technology into everyday Bridgestone and Firestone consumer tires.
“We are trying to keep up with the changes in the [race] cars, the changes in the tracks,” said Dale Harrigle, chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports and manager of Race Tire Development at the company’s Akron technical center. “Our company is based on a foundation of continuous improvement.”
(Harrigle and engineering colleague Brett Schilling this past week won the 47th BorgWarner Louis Schwitzer Award for their work on Firestone Firehawk race tires. The award, named for the late former race driver, engineer and founder of Schwitzer Corp., recognizes individuals for innovation and engineering excellence in race car design associated with the annual Indianapolis 500. Schwitzer won the first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909.)
This year’s Indy 500 Firehawk tires were built largely to the same specifications as the ones made for last year’s race, Harrigle said. The Indy race teams, which are carrying over a new car design introduced last year, had zero problems with the 2012 tires, he said.
“We work more on a basis of continuous small improvements,” Harrigle said. “We’re not out making radical changes. ... We’re always trying to give the tires more grip. We work closely with the [race] teams.”
Those teams and drivers want to keep those Firestone tires on their vehicles. Because drivers unanimously opposed switching tire makers, race corporate parent IndyCar late last year extended a contract with Bridgestone Americas through 2018 that keeps Firestone as its sole tire supplier.
“In my opinion it was a fantastic testament to the quality of our products,” Harrigle said. “That was a great pat on the back for us.”
The research done at the newly built Akron technical center at the company’s Firestone Park campus involves such things as designing the polymers that make up the basic building blocks of the tires, he said. Sophisticated computer algorithms and other advanced technology is used simulate the effect of race conditions on tires, among other things.
“The tires are a highly engineered product,” Harrigle said.
All those tires are made by hand months in advance of each race.
Race tire construction continues to be done by a small unionized work force in the site of the old technical center, located at the former Firestone factory and corporate headquarters off Firestone Parkway.
“They do a wonderful job for us, building a world-class tire,” Harrigle said.
The company declined to comment on whether upcoming contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers may impact race tire production in Akron. The tire maker is expected to start talks next month with the USW on a new contract.
“We hope to be able to negotiate a fair and equitable contract,” said Bill Crooks, president of Steelworkers Local 7, which represents about 100 tire builders and support staff at the Firestone plant.
The current contract does not protect the Akron facility against closure, Crooks said.
“Our guys, our members, build a world-class tire that supports the lives of the drivers,” Crooks said. “We hope to continue to build those tires for many years.”
Nashville-based Bridgestone Americas has told the local work force that it expects to continue to build race tires in Akron through the contract extension with IndyCar, Crooks said.
“There’s no guarantee,” he said.
Each hand-built race tire includes a sensor built into the inside to monitor pressure, said Harrigle.
When tires are changed during a pit stop, the discarded tires are quickly jabbed with a needle-like thermometer — the surface temperature can hit 200 degrees. The testing has been going on during the practice runs and also will be done during today’s main event.
“We are looking at things like tire pressure, tire temperature, wear,” Harrigle said. “During the race, we do all of those things.”
The Bridgestone Americas team from Akron doesn’t get much of a break once the Indy 500 ends.
“We will start thinking about what we need [next year] the day after the race,” Harrigle said.
And the team will be traveling to most other IndyCar races as well and performing much of the same monitoring and measuring work.
The Firestone tires for the Indy 500 are designed to last as long as a typical fuel run, usually 70 miles. Some teams may decide to switch tires sooner.
All that tire technology doesn’t come cheap.
In case you were wondering, each Firestone Firehawk race tire costs $650 apiece. Each race team gets 33 sets of four tires for practice and for the main race — seven to 10 sets of tires will be used in the Indy 500.
The total cost per team for tires: $85,800.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org