Al Speyer

With retirement as executive director of Firestone Racing on the horizon, Al Speyer is being asked these days to reflect on his 39 years with Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations and Firestone's Indianapolis 500 Mile Race heritage that dates more than a century.

Invariably, the discussion includes recently-retired colleagues Joe Barbieri and Page Mader.

“Joe and Page and I go back a long ways,” Speyer says. “We used to play intramural sports at work, volleyball and basketball. Page decided he didn’t want to play anymore and he became our coach. That didn’t stop us from yelling at him. Some things don’t change. Page started in ’72 and I started in ’74. We’re more than professionally related; we’ve been friends since the beginning.”

In fact, it was Speyer’s wife, Jane, who introduced Mader to Jean during an outing. They’ve been married for more than a quarter century.

“Joe came on board in the mid-70s and he and I have been working directly together more than 25 years and he reads my mind,” Speyer continues. “Overall, it’s been terrific and I count both Page and Joe as someone I could go to. Those relationships are probably unique in today’s business climate.”

Relationship building has been a chief character trait of Speyer, an affable, soft-spoken Long Islander who “got hooked” on racing while in high school. It’s served him well over the years in the multi-faceted leadership role he’s held since 1992 as manager of motorsports and since 2001 as the executive director.

“When I started at Firestone in May 1974, I toured the race tire development department and there was nobody there. ‘Where are they all?’ I asked. ‘They’re at Indy I was told,’ ’’ Speyer says. “I went through an orientation program and I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I was in the motorsports department.

“I was originally put on drag tires and the big lessons there was when people are competitive every little thing counts. In September 1974, it was announced the Firestone was getting out of Indy so I went from being on a big high to being down because that was a large part of what drew me there.

“I then worked on mining and aircraft and farming and motorcycle tires, and I did a lot of technical testing (cornering and traction). In the back of my mind I hoped that someday should the company decide to go back to Indy car racing I wanted to be prepared to be a part of it. So I was lucky enough to be in that position in ’84 when we started the Firehawk (racing series) program. We started Firestone Indy Lights in 1990, which was a steppingstone for us to move up.”

Speyer settles on the mid-90s return of the Firestone brand to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a memory that stands out among thousands, and the most satisfying accomplishment.

“We came back to Indy to rejuvenate the Firestone brand and to spark our direct customers (dealers) and also the consumers,” he says. “The lion’s share of all that development work is still in Akron, Ohio. What they’ve done with the tires you couldn’t ask for anything more. It also was used heavily in our marketing of Firestone.

“When I talk about the return being successful in the ‘90s, not only we were successful on the racetrack but we doubled Firestone’s business consumer market from 1994 to 1999. We were growing Firestone brand sales in North American about 20 percent a year, and that’s a lot when you pick up 1 or 2 percentage points a year. The IndyCar program was the spark that lit the fire. I look at those days from a motorsports position and what I was overseeing as nirvana as far as what we were doing on the racetrack and what we were doing for the brand.

“The company made the announcement in ’93 that we were coming back to Indy and in ’94 we did a ton of testing with Patrick Racing and Scott Pruett as the driver. Back in ’92 I started analyzing figures and budgets of what it would take to get involved. We had five teams and did two races the first year, and then 10 and 15 and 20 (teams). By the time we had 20 it was evident we were ahead of the game.”

An extension of the deal with INDYCAR to be the sole tire supplier through 2018 was announced in December, confirming Firestone’s participation in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. It will be among Speyer’s legacies. Bridgestone Americas recently announced that Lisa Boggs would take over as director of motorsports.

“We enjoy that position as the sole supplier,” Speyer says. “It’s in good hands and it’s very important to the company for the same things – brings excitement and sells tires. I’m confident we’re leaving it in good hands.”

And what will be on his hands in the days ahead?

“I’m not saying I’m totally retiring,” he says. “I’m not sure what it’s going to be like those first few days. I don’t know how that’s going to feel in those days to come when my phone won’t ring as much and I don’t get all those emails. I will be a fan of IndyCar for life if nothing else.”