LAKEVILLE, Ind. — So who will take the reigns of 50-year-old Hoosier Racing Tire Corp. when co-founder Bob Newton decides to retire?
Officially, there´s no answer to that question. "I guess I´ll die in my office here," Newton, 80, quipped when asked about retiring.
Newton´s office isn´t far from the spot where he personally did a lot of the retreading during the company´s early days. That converted barn gave way to a larger plant/office/warehouse and eventually to the company´s two-story headquarters on U.S. Highway 31 a few miles south of Lakeville.
Newton, with support of his wife, Joyce, got into the retreading business in 1957 after he had raced for several years. They figured out racing was an activity that meant spending money, whereas selling tires to racers was something that could earn them money.
So Newton taught himself the basics of retreading and set about retreading street tires with softer compounds during the week, hauling them on weekends to local race tracks for sale. The Newtons named the company Hoosier in honor of the state of Indiana´s nickname and made purple the corporate color because that had been the color of Newton´s race cars.
The Mohawk connection
A few years into this business, Newton said, he discovered the retreaded tires he was making started failing more often than they should. He shopped around for a new tread rubber supplier and settled on the then-Mohawk Rubber Co.
That solved the problem, he said, and when he told other retreaders about his experience, a lot of them switched, too.
The resultant spurt in business for Mohawk didn´t go unnoticed. One day in 1961 Newton said he got a phone call from Henry Fawcett, then chairman of Mohawk, who wanted to thank Newton for the added business and invited him to Akron.
"At that meeting I told Mr. Fawcett about my business and about racing, and before long he had his vice presidents and manufacturing and sales people in there with us, telling them Mohawk was going into the racing tire business," Newton said.
That led to a 16-year business relationship and put Hoosier Tire on the map outside of the Midwest, where New- ton was restricted to doing business on his own.
In 1978 Mohawk decided to close its Akron plant, forcing the Newtons to come up with a new plan. The Newtons decided to go into tire manufacturing on their own, mortgaging their house for capital and opening a modest factory in 1979 in nearby Plymouth, Ind., under the name R&J Manufacturing Corp. (after Robert and Joyce Newton).
Business grew, and by 1988 Newton felt confident enough to take on Goodyear in NASCAR Winston Cup competition. Hoosier-equipped drivers won nine races that first season, but Hoosier withdrew a year later to concentrate on radials.
In 1991 the company opened a radial-capable factory in Plymouth, just blocks from the existing plant, and returned to NASCAR, supplying tires to the Busch Grand National Competition. Three years later Hoosier re-entered the Winston Cup Circuit, winning four races before deciding to withdraw because of cost ramifications of NASCAR´s "tire count" rule.
Since then the firm has concentrated on making tires for racing series and tracks that can generate profits.
Next door neighbor
The Newtons live on an 80-acre farm adjacent to the firm´s headquarters and main distribution center.
As he approached 80, Newton cut back on his work hours, according to Dennis Sherman, vice president of marketing. "He´s down to half days now-12-hour half days," he said.
Newton keeps fit working out daily at the company´s gym, and he encourages all who work in the headquarters to follow his example, Sherman said.
The Newtons are a fixture in Indiana´s St. Joseph and Marshall counties, where Lakeville and Plymouth are located.
Seven years ago, the couple donated 35 acres of land a few miles south of the company´s headquarters for a park and also bought a local school slated for demolition and turned it into a business incubator.
Asked about the highs and lows of 50 years operating Hoosier Tire, Newton said competing head to head with Goodyear in NASCAR and winning was a high point, while not being able to make the Hoosier street tire program viable was a disappointment.