LAKEVILLE, Ind. — Hoosier Racing Tire Corp. is busier than ever as it celebrates a half century in business.
The company, which started life in 1957 as a retreader of tires for competition, is headed for record sales, output and employment. Hoosier continues to gain business across the country in its core segments, while it branches successfully into new racing venues.
The company, still run 50 years later by founders Robert "Bob" and Joyce Newton, has expanded its factory in Plymouth, Ind., several times in recent years to accommodate the increased demand, and a number of other expansions are planned, according to the Newtons´ son, Don, who serves as vice president of manufacturing.
The company is the only tire manufacturer in the world dedicated purely to racing tires and has been making that product in Plymouth since 1979.
Hoosier´s current plant opened in 1991 to accommodate larger runs of radial tires.
Long a stalwart of the sprint car and modified racing circuits across the country, Hoosier has stepped up its presence in road and drag racing the past several years. It snared the exclusive contract for the Grand American road racing series three years ago and gradually built its product range in drag racing up into the higher echelon classes, according to Dennis Sherman, vice president of marketing.
Hoosier, however, was outbid earlier this year for the Grand A-merican contract by Pirelli Tyre S.p.A., which will take over as exclusive supplier next year through 2010.
The Grand A-merican contract alone has meant demand for as many as 150,000 tires a year, sold to competitors at prices that range from $316 to $456 apiece, depending on class and size.
Hoosier lost the contract to Pirelli despite increasing the amount of prize money it will pay out this year to top teams in the Rolex Series under its "PaceSetter" program. Hoosier created the PaceSetter program in 2004 to reward teams for their professionalism and commitment to the Rolex Series and this year boosted the payout about 60 percent to $810,000.
Hoosier, however, will continue as the supplier to the Grand Am´s Koni Challenge companion series for production-based sedans and sports cars, and more recently was awarded a three-year extension of the spec tire contract it has had since 1995 with Automobile Racing Club of America Inc. for ARCA´s RE/MAX stock car series.
Together these two series represent annual demand of more than 35,000 tires at prices of $300 and up, according to ARCA and Hoosier tire data. The ARCA RE/MAX cars are essentially identical to the NASCAR Nextel Cup cars, a situation that has led this year to a number of NASCAR teams using Hoos- ier tires for testing because NASCAR limits the number of Goodyear tires each team gets during a season.
The company also has gained favor with the amateur racers of the Sports Car Club of America. Last year drivers competing on Hoosier tires claimed 11 wins out of 25 races at the SCCA´s National Championship Runoffs, matching Goodyear for most wins.
"In SCCA, we have to win or we don´t sell," according to John DeSalle, Hoos-ier´s manager of tire engineering.
Other recent additions to the product portfolio include tires for midget racers and go-karts, DOT drag racing slicks and a limited line of street-legal tires for custom rods. The latter became necessary, Sherman said, because customers were using Hoosier race tires on the street.
The company has 15 independent distributors in the U.S. and two in Canada, each of which provides on-site service at tracks in its area. It also has a growing international business handled by distributors in England, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Gua-tamela, Puerto Rico, Singapore, South Africa and United Arab Emirates.
With a few hundred employees, Hoosier Tire is a long way from the industry´s giants, but it is confident its manufacturing complexity rivals any of them.
The company has 1,350 individual tire specifications (stock-keeping units) in its portfolio, including as many as 40 to 45 in production on any given day, according to Newton, and some SKUs might be only 100 units a year.
One example of the complexity: There are a handful of dirt-track series where competitors use a distinct tire for each corner of the car.
The plant operates three shifts a day, five days a week, but the challenge is to even out production throughout the year because the bulk of the business is booked between May and September.
"There are certain SKUs we can build in advance and stockpile," Newton said, "but a lot of the tires are built with exotic compounds that don´t have very long shelf lives."
Job 1 at Hoosier
Hoosier´s No. 1 job, he said, is to make tires that have repeatable performance.
"It´s not necessarily the fastest tire a driver could use," Newton said, "but at least he knows the tire he´s using this week will perform the same as the one he used last week."
Hoosier Tire runs a nonunion plant. The United Steelworkers had an organizing campaign about 10 years ago, Newton said, but the effort never got as far as a vote.
"We probably deserved it (the organizing campaign)," he said. "But we learned from it and became much more effective at communicating with the employees."
The factory itself boasts some features distinct within the industry, including strip winding the tread compound onto the casings, calendering all their fabrics in-house on a multi-million-dollar "Z" calender and having a 300-mph test wheel operating at the plant.
The company originally adapted Orbitread retread strip-winders for the plant 25-plus years ago, Newton said, and continues to use the strip-winding process because many of the tread compounds being used are too sticky for standard extruders.
The most recent addition, opened earlier this year, is a fully equipped physical testing laboratory, where the company tests all incoming raw materials and every batch of rubber mixed.
"This allows us to have complete traceability on every tire back to the lab," DeSalle said. The plant operates one Farrel F80 mixer and has the foundation built for a second one, "when demand calls for it," Newton said.
For Hoosier Tire, there´s competition on and off the track, Sherman said.
Away from the oval, the competition is for contracts. These are negotiated throughout the season and in the off-season with race sanctioning bodies and individual race tracks, many of which have track-specific tire specs.
"It´s a relationship business," he said. "Track owners have to trust us and our distributors, and vice versa."