NASCAR doesnít have a track on its circuit within 200 miles of Akron, but itís not going anywhere without the Rubber City.
NASCAR, Americaís second most popular sport, trailing only the National Football League, attracts about $3 billion annually in sponsorship money alone, according to Forbes. The average team is worth about $143 million and will profit, on average, $100 million more in a season calendar that stretches from February to November.
To run it all, NASCAR uses well over 100,000 tires each year. And every one of those 100,000-plus tires is designed, manufactured and tested at Goodyearís Innovation Center, Test Center and Engineering Lab, all located within about two miles of each other off Interstate 76.
The second most popular sport in America runs exclusively on Akronís rubber.
Itís a big reason why Goodyear ó the exclusive tire provider to NASCAR since 1997 ó will make 750 racing tires every day (at $474 a piece). Itís a big reason why Goodyear in May officially opened a $160 million, 639,000-square-foot, seven-story world headquarters, a state-of-the-art extension to the companyís manufacturing plant. It includes the three floors of manufacturing and two floors of offices of the older red-brick building with seven floors of new offices gleaming with the winged foot logo and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. And itís a big reason why so much care and exhaustive testing goes into every tire sent out to the track.
Itís not simply black rubber poured into a mold.
The rubber is first mixed into whatever specifications that particular tire requires. An individual tire could have up to seven different natural rubbers and synthetic rubbers; a mixture of oils, fabric and steel wire; and a cocktail of dozens of different materials.
Aside from the 30-some different compounds that can be made, there are 94 NASCAR races that take place on 28 different tracks. Rick Campbell, NASCAR tire development project manager, says there isnít as much overlapping in the designs from track to track as one might expect.
Each tire has different specifications, and each track requires a different modification based on things such as the average speed, the banking of the turns and the actual conditions of the asphalt itself.
ďJust because you use one setup for a certain track, doesnít mean you can use the same setup for another track, even if theyíre similar,Ē Campbell said. ďAnd when they repave a track, you have to start from scratch.Ē
Once the rubber is mixed, itís then sent to the plant at the Innovation Center. There, itíll change its shape, consistency and feel over three floors and a dozen different steps. And itís there that a personal touch is added that goes beyond simply pouring rubber into a tire mold and letting it sit. Itís almost personal.
First, the all-rubber components are heated and sent through the extruder ó think of it like pushing Play-Doh through a stencil. The other components, namely the fabric needed to meet the tireís specifications, are given a rubber coating.
Those two components are then joined on whatís cleverly called a ďtire building machine.Ē A plant employee must splice the two sections and the tread perfectly. The tire base and its tread are aligned and extruded, the inner-part of the tire that helps keep it inflated is applied and the tire gets its shape with the help of an air bag. The perfect alignment and splicing is the most crucial part of the process, and Goodyear insists it be done by hand. The tireís tread is then added, only an eighth of an inch in depth because NASCAR tires donít need to last long. Most tires are designed to last for several years and are usually about half an inch.
The tire is then cured or ďvulcanized,Ē meaning a giant curling press applies heat, time and pressure to give the rubber its final harder touch and shape. Then the tests start.
Every tire is hand-inspected and later sent through an X-ray machine to further inspect what the naked eye canít see. If it passes and the decals are applied, at least one out of every 100 tires is sent to the Test Center, an 88,625-square-foot facility that tests 30,000 tires on 25 different types of machines each year. In that center, Goodyear beats down racing, passenger and even aircraft tires and simulates normal driving or track conditions.
After that, the tire is sent to Shelby, Ohio, organized and then shipped to North Carolina, where each race team picks up the 10 to 15 sets that theyíll use in a weekend.
About 3,000 Goodyear employees work in Akron, 325 of them in the three floors that make up its plant. As a tire makes its way through the plant floor, six to seven people will personally handle it, test it, examine it, put it together. Each tire builder will put a sticker with his or her name on the inside of every tire, and an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag is embedded in the side to track where it goes.
Goodyear, a company that made $21 billion last year, still knows where every individual tire ends up and who made it. That company still relies on the handiwork of its plant floor employees, and it still all happens in Akron.
Because itís more than pouring rubber into a mold and waiting.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at https://ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.