When Goodyear and Firestone went to war at the Indianapolis 500

Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt at the 1964 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

[Editor’s Note: We recently asked Art Garner to discuss the Goodyear-Firestone rivalry in racing in the Sixties, and he responded with this excerpt from his book, “Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500,” released last year.]


When Goodyear and Firestone went to war at the Indianapolis 500

 on Apr 9th, 2017 at 8am

Chapter Eight: Tire Wars

Less evident to casual race fans than the changes being caused by rear-engine cars and Ford engines – but every bit as important to competitors – the simmering battle between tire manufacturers was about to break out into a full-scale war.

Next to the engine, the most important part of a race car is the tires, the key to applying power to the track.  For years there’d been little change in tire technology at Indianapolis because they were designed to withstand the pounding of the brick surface. As the track was gradually paved and car suspensions became more sophisticated, tires began to last longer. Engineers discovered they could make a softer tire survive on the smoother surface. The softer the makeup or “compound” of a tire, the better traction or “grip” provided. The better the grip, the higher the speeds.

Firestone, the winning tire in the very first 500 and on every winning car since 1920, was suddenly under attack.  While facing occasional challenges in the past, most recently from the Dunlop-equipped car of Jack Brabham in 1961, no other make had come close to winning the race in more than 40 years.

The first skirmishes in the tire war broke out in 1963, with the Lotus and Thompson teams in the center of the fight.

Dan Gurney in a Lotus-Ford at the 1963 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

When Lotus arrived at the track in May, the lightweight cars wore special 15-inch Firestone tires, lower and wider than the tall and skinny tires long used by the roadsters. Because the sidewalls were shorter, the new tires could be made from a softer compound, providing improved traction in the turns. Firestone provided even smaller and wider tires for Mickey Thompson’s cars, mounted on tiny 12-inch wheels, contributing to a lower center of gravity and improved aerodynamics for the unusual cars. Meanwhile the roadsters were left with the same large 18-inch tires they’d been using for years.

The faster the Lotus cars went in practice, the louder the howls from the roadster teams. They wanted the smaller tires too. Even Parnelli Jones, who did most of the off-season testing for Firestone and enjoyed a close relationship with the company, was surprised to see the small tires. He’d been lobbying for a smaller tire – his idea was a 16-inch design – for some time. But no one at Firestone even hinted such a tire existed.

With all the teams clamoring for the new tire, Firestone found itself in a difficult situation. Only a limited number of the new tires were available and the company couldn’t possibly provide them to all the teams. Firestone also argued the tires weren’t safe for the larger and heavier roadsters. They were designed for the lightweight rear-engine cars.

A sampling of the various tires in contention at the 1963 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

A. J. Foyt, for one, wasn’t buying it. Firestone was “kowtowing to a bunch of foreigners” and favoring the “little shitboxes,” as he called the rear-engine cars. He was certain it was personal. The tire war between Firestone and Goodyear was already raging in NASCAR and when Foyt occasionally drove a stock car, it was on Goodyears.

Adding to the tension were the special tires made for the Thompson cars. The tires performed well in March tests with Formula One champion Graham Hill doing some of the driving. Perhaps too well. Again there were complaints from the roadster drivers, who also charged the cars were so low, they couldn’t see the Thompson cars coming up from behind.

Foyt, unhappy with the response from Firestone, opened a second front in the tire war. He called his stock car contacts at Goodyear and asked the company to ship some of its tires to Indy for him to test. While lower and wider than the Firestones, the Goodyears were designed for the much heavier stock cars and high banks of NASCAR and made with a harder compound. After a few laps Foyt realized the tires wouldn’t work at Indianapolis. But his move, along with complaints from the other teams, created the desired impact.

Firestone at the 1963 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

Firestone decided on a compromise that made no one happy. The manufacturer provided the 15-inch tire to as many teams as possible, including all the front-runners. And while honoring its agreement to provide the 12-inch tire for Thompson, it changed those tires to a harder compound, expressing concern about the added stress on the smaller tires during the race.

Jones was one of the first roadster drivers to practice on the new tires and within a couple of laps turned in the fastest times ever at the Speedway. Foyt quickly switched to the new Firestones. He was mad, but he wasn’t stupid. He did, however, continue to wear a Goodyear hat throughout the month. Lotus, although upset over losing an advantage it developed for the race, had no choice other than to accept the Firestone decision.

The harder compound for the tires on the Thompson cars changed their handling characteristics. Hill went for several long slides. Another driver crashed. Hill left for a race in Europe promising to return the following week. He never did and the cars were never the same.

As a result, there were few teams happy with Firestone at the conclusion of the ’63 race. Lotus was upset. Thompson was frustrated. Foyt was just plain pissed off.

A Goodyear tech at the 1963 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

Immediately after the race, Goodyear started to develop a tire specifically for Indianapolis. The company had last won the 500 in 1919 and hadn’t competed at the Speedway in more than 40 years. While bigger than Firestone, it suffered the same image problems as Ford and saw the 500 as a way to reach young buyers. Foyt put in thousands of laps at Indy and other tracks, driving both a roadster and a rear-engine car, making constant changes to the tire size, tread and compound.

Firestone wasn’t about to surrender its domination of the 500 and launched a massive counterattack, running more than 10,000 test miles. When Goodyear wasn’t testing at the Speedway, Firestone was. Jones was firmly entrenched as the leader of the Firestone camp and after trying the Goodyears, Bobby Marshman and the Ford development team decided to stick with Firestone too.

The tire war included plenty of cloak and dagger moments. Both sides accused the other of bribery, buying their opponent’s latest tires and secrets. At one point Foyt provided Goodyear engineers with photos of the latest Firestone design. “Don’t ask,” Foyt replied when asked where he got the photos.

It wasn’t just Goodyear threatening Firestone’s reign. Lotus and Thompson, the two teams helping to touch off the war, were ready to desert the company.

Lotus guru Colin Chapman approached Firestone and then Goodyear early in ’64 about building a special Indy tire for his cars. Mindful of the problems this caused the year before, both companies declined. So Lotus reluctantly began the month on the same Firestones as the other teams.

Meanwhile, Dunlop was returning to the Speedway, providing tires for the 4WD Novi built by Ferguson, another English company. A key supplier to Ferguson in Europe, Dunlop had agreed to support the company’s Indianapolis effort. Once at the track, Dunlop also provided tires for Lotus to test. After all, Dunlop supplied Lotus with tires in Formula One. In fact, every grand prix winner since 1959 had worn Dunlop tires. Chapman wanted to run the English company’s tires, but first he’d have to convince the Ford executives.

Mickey Thompson with the Harvey Aluminum Special at the 1963 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

There was no doubt about which tires Mickey Thompson’s cars would be running when they arrived at the Speedway. After USAC outlawed the 12-inch design used by Thompson in ’63, he began to make his own tire.  Working with a couple ex-Goodyear race engineers who previously developed tires for his drag racing and land speed efforts, he sold the idea to Sears and Roebuck to sponsor his cars through its Allstate tire brand. The tires, built by the Armstrong Tire Company in Indianapolis, were wider than those used on other cars, made of a softer compound and with much less tread. They looked more like the slicks Thompson used on his drag racers than the tires traditionally used at the Speedway.

So instead of Firestone tires on every car in the garage area, suddenly there were four different brands contending for victory at Indianapolis. The tire war was on.

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