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Goodyear's Bad Year in NASCAR

If you've ever heard an interview with a NASCAR driver, it feels a lot like a commercial. Here's an example from Kurt Busch "We're just out here trying to find something that's gonna make our Miller Lite Dodge fast, make Dodge proud and make all of our sponsors get that warm fuzzy feeling over the offseason." And companies almost always are left with those 'warm fuzzies'. Key word: 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. 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. Because I can guarantee that Hoosier, Firestone or somebody can do a lot better job than what they're doing right now." 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 new, bigger car that causes tires to wear differently - in some cases very differently - than on the old car. Kerry Tharp is a NASCAR spokesman. "There's been a learning curve, for all of us, with this new car." Tharp says what was once called the Car of Tomorrow has meant that Goodyear has had to hit a moving target as the company tries to come up with the perfect combination of safety and performance. This season alone, Goodyear officials say they'll use 25 different tires to get through the 36-race schedule. Again, 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 tire 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 was forced to do the unthinkable. It threw a caution flag every ten laps. That forced teams to pit and take on new tires. The racing was awful and Goodyear looked bad. John Sweeney, an advertising professor at UNC Chapel Hill, sums it up this way. "It's kind of like a performer 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 subsequent conversations between NASCAR and Goodyear focused on moving beyond the issue. "Let's get this solved. Let's find the problem. Let's analyze why it happened. Let's come up with some solutions. And I think that's what we've done." Goodyear and race teams teamed up for a series of on-track tests that have the tire maker thinking the problem is fixed. At a recent race in Charlotte, the head of Goodyear Racing, Stu Grant, said he didn't think the average race fan would hold this year's problems against Goodyear the next time their car needs tires. "Fans are like race drivers in that they're passionate about the sport. That's why they're fans and some of them lose patience sooner than others. Again, over the long haul, the NASCAR fan understands and appreciates our role in the sport." Goodyear tracks daily sales numbers and Grant says there was no fall-off after the debacle at Indy. And Sweeney, the sports marketing professor, isn't surprised. He says NASCAR fans are as loyal as they come, and they appreciate and recognize that Goodyear puts its reputation on the line every weekend. And Sweeney says as long as this year's problems really have been fixed, then all will be forgiven. "It takes a long time to build a reputation. It takes awhile to undo a reputation. And so people don't react that instantaneously. They'll almost go 'I wonder what's going on'. But they still consider it a good brand." But Sweeney adds that if any of the tire maker's troubles resurface next year, then fans will begin to lose faith. The good news for Goodyear is that the three months since Indy have been problem free. And going into the final race of the year this weekend, Goodyear, NASCAR, and race fans will be hoping for one more smooth ride.