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KAI RYSSDAL: All the talk about the car business and the economy has been of Chrysler and Ford and General Motors. But there’s another part of the industry that’s hurting, too: NASCAR. The CEO of NASCAR made a visit to Detroit not too long ago. He wanted assurances that the Big Three aren’t going to pull their marketing dollars as they try to avoid bankruptcy. The racing season wraps up this weekend in Miami. And there’s still at least one NASCAR sponsor hanging in there. Barely.
From Charlotte, North Carolina, Scott Graf has more on Goodyear’s bad year at the speedway.
SCOTT GRAF: If you’ve ever heard an interview with a NASCAR driver, it sounds a lot like a commercial.
NASCAR DRIVERS MONTAGE: You know, the Zippo Blue car, Toyota Camry, was pretty good. I mean the guys . . . We’re just out here trying to find something that’s going to make our Miller Lite Dodge fast and make all of our sponsors get that warm, fuzzy feeling over the off-season.
And companies almost always are left with those “warm fuzzies.” Keyword: almost.
TONY STEWART: That’s the most pathetic racing tire I’ve ever been on in my professional career. Goodyear can’t build a tire that’s worth a crap.
After a race in Atlanta in March, driver Tony Stewart vented in an interview with Fox Sports.
STEWART: If they can’t do any better than that, they oughta just pull out of the sport and save us all a bunch of headaches.
Stewart and other drivers thought Goodyear’s tire was too hard and made racing difficult. Goodyear has been in the sport 50 years and is the exclusive tire supplier in NASCAR. But this year has been rough. NASCAR has switched to a bigger, heavier car that’s harder on tires.
KERRY THARP: There’s been a learning curve, for all of us, with this new car.
Kerry Tharp is a NASCAR spokesman. He says the so-called “Car of Tomorrow” has made it difficult for Goodyear to develop the perfect combination of safety and performance at each track. Goodyear officials say through 35 races, they’ve used 24 different tires.
THARP: They got a difficult job. It’s not an easy job to put out a tire that’s going to please everybody. There had been some conversations at the first Atlanta that not everybody was pleased with the tire. But it was a safe tire.
But the product Goodyear provided in August for one of the biggest races of the year was dangerous. At Indianapolis, the tires turned out to be too soft. To keep them from blowing out at high speeds, NASCAR threw a yellow caution flag every 10 laps. That forced drivers to pit and take on new tires. Goodyear looked bad.
John Sweeney, an advertising professor at the University of North Carolina sums it up this way.
JOHN SWEENEY: It’s kind of like in the World Series, striking out at the critical moment.
The media teed off on the company. Fans lit up message boards. NASCAR couldn’t have been pleased, but Tharp, the spokesman, says NASCAR and Goodyear quickly focused on moving beyond the issue.
THARP: Let’s get this solved. Let’s find the problem. Let’s analyze why it happened. And let’s come up with some solutions. And I think that’s what we’ve done.
After a series of on-track tests, Goodyear thinks the problem is fixed. The head of Goodyear Racing, Stu Grant, says the average fan will still consider buying his company’s tires.
STU GRANT: Fans are like race drivers in that they’re passionate about the sport, and some of them lose patience, maybe sooner than others. But, over the long haul, the NASCAR fan understands and appreciates our role in the sport.
There’ve been no major tire problems in the three months since Indy. And on Sunday Goodyear, NASCAR and race fans will all be hoping for one more smooth ride.
In Charlotte, I’m Scott Graf for Marketplace.
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