By Bruce Martin
January 10, 2011

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- With new rides from Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda, an aggressive series sponsor in IZOD, an impressive ladder system that gives grassroots drivers a chance to compete, and bold leadership from CEO Randy Bernard, the future looked like a smooth ride for the IndyCar Series.

But a blowout in the passing lane could force a slowdown in some of the series' progress.

Firestone, a loyal supporter since joining CART in 1995 and the Indy Racing League in 1996, could be on the way out. Bridgestone, the parent company of Firestone, pulled out of Formula One following the 2010 season. With Michelin's departure from F1 after the 2007 season, that leaves Pirelli as the sole tire supplier to the Formula One World Championship beginning this season. Apparently, economic considerations have led Bridgestone to strongly consider leaving IndyCar at a time when it is finally gaining some impressive momentum.

Firestone did not meet its deadline to renew with the series on Dec. 31. Negotiations between Firestone and IndyCar are continuing, according to Bernard.

"We're still negotiating and I'm more optimistic today than I was two weeks ago, so that's about it," Bernard said Saturday night. "We've been sworn to confidentiality and out of respect to them and their 100 years of service we said they make a phenomenal tire and would love to continue a relationship to them so we continue to negotiate."

Firestone has been involved with IndyCar practically from the beginning of the sport. It was the tire on Ray Harroun's winning Marmon Wasp in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 and from 1920-1966 the tire brand won 43-straight Indy 500s. The company has been the sole tire supplier to the series since 2000 and has acted as a major promotional partner of both the IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Series.

It seems like a case of poor timing considering how Firestone stood by the series in the bleak, dark days during the CART-IRL split from 1996-2008 before both sides unified to create today's IndyCar Series. So now that better times are ahead, why would the company leave?

"You have to ask [Bridgestone Americas Motorsports Director] Al Speyer that," Bernard said. "We owe Firestone the respect to continue to negotiate in good faith and move into the next century with them. We're making movement. We're making positive movement in my opinion."

Speyer maintains that the company's decision is to "compare all of our options and motorsports is one of the many options out there."

At some point, though, IndyCar may have to court another tire company if Firestone turns away from the series. Cooper Tire has been involved in Formula Atlantic and the Star Mazda Series. Mazda is IndyCar's sponsor for the Road to Indy developmental ladder and could help bring Cooper Tire up to the top tier.

Michelin is another possibility after its long involvement in Formula One, but is only associated with the American Le Mans Series this season.

While those companies could be possible replacements to Firestone, Bernard would like to stick with the company that has been synonymous with IndyCar racing since the early days of the Indy 500.

"It's not a bump in the road," Bernard said. "Every business is going to change their priorities and objectives. We owe them the utmost respect and honor to do what they need to do to better position their business. It's the same thing with us. We have a fantastic relationship with Firestone and it's my job to make sure we do everything we can to keep them involved with us."

The loss of Firestone would have a dramatic impact on the 2012 season because of the company's engineering expertise combined with the new cars and engines that will be introduced this season. Firestone and Goodyear are the only tire companies that have experience with the tremendous loads tires encounter in IndyCar racing, but Goodyear remains committed to NASCAR.

Trying to convince Firestone to stay or to pursue another tire company to take its place has become Bernard's most important objective in the early days of 2011.

As any motorist knows, an unexpected blowout is the No. 1 cause to be left on the side of the road and that is a position IndyCar cannot allow to happen.

Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh made headlines last week after leaving the Cardinals for a position with the San Francisco 49ers. But what you probably didn't read was that the Niners' new coach has strong ties to one of the most successful teams in the early days of the IndyCar Series.

Harbaugh was one of six original ownership members of Panther Racing. The team's IndyCar entry has always been No. 4 because it was Harbaugh's jersey number in his NFL days. He remains part of Panther Racing, although his coaching career has limited his involvement.

"I've come to the Indianapolis 500 since 1994 and only missed one year," Harbaugh said. "For me it's great to be a part of this with John Barnes, who's the heart and soul of Panther Racing. If anybody can get that car into Victory Lane, it's John and for all of us this is all about that dream of someday seeing Panther Racing win the Indy 500. Hopefully this is the year."

It was during Harbaugh's time playing for the Colts that he developed a passion for IndyCar racing and joined the team's original ownership group of John Barnes, Mike Griffin, Gary Pedigo, Doug Boles and Terry Lingner.

"We couldn't be happier for him," Panther owner John Barnes said. "He was a great NFL player, spent 15 years in the NFL, and ultimately he wanted to get back into that arena and we're happy to see he's joined the 49ers. I've been asked many times how Jim would react to NFL players, but I'm more interested in how they're going to react to him. Jim has an unbelievable amount of integrity, he's a leader, he's a winner, and the San Francisco 49ers just hired the best coach in the country."

Harbaugh already has a fan in the cockpit of the Panther Racing IndyCar this season as rookie J.R. Hildebrand takes over the ride that has included such stars as Sam Hornish, Jr., Scott Goodyear and most recently Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand is from Sausalito, Calif. -- just over the Golden Gate Bridge and is a huge 49ers fan.

"It's awesome, I grew up in the Steve Young and Jerry Rice era and we were all 49ers fans," Hildebrand said. "I always loved the 49ers and now it's great to have that tie-in. The feeling for Bay Area sports fans is that the 49ers are talented enough to be in the playoffs, and if they find a QB, good enough to advance in the playoffs. It was already cool when Jim was at Stanford, but now he's truly the coach of my hometown team."

A long-time team member at Team Penske is on the move as Tom Wurtz joined KV Racing Technology last Wednesday. Wurtz has spent more than three decades in CART and IndyCar as a team manager, operations manager and chief mechanic with Team Penske, Newman Haas Racing and other groups. He has spent the past 15 years at Team Penske, during which the team won 57 races including five Indy 500s and three series championships (Gil de Ferran in CART 2000 and 2001 and Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006.)

At Newman Haas, Wurtz was operations manager and chief mechanic for eight years, contributing to 25 race wins and two series titles (with drivers Michael Andretti and Nigel Mansell).

Wurtz joins KV Racing Technology, which fielded three full-time cars last year with drivers Mario Moraes, Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso. The team has yet to announce its driver lineup for 2011.

"We are thrilled to have a strong operations and technical manager like Tom Wurtz join KV Racing Technology," said team co-owner Jimmy Vasser. "Tom's outstanding management skills and his vast racing experience give our organization one of open-wheel's top executives. Working closely with our general manager, Mark Johnson, the engineering staff and the crew members, Tom will contribute solid coordination within our team that can take KV Racing Technology to a consistent front runner in the highly-competitive IZOD IndyCar Series."

Wurtz has packed up and moved from Mooresville, N.C. -- site of Team Penske's massive racing operation -- to Indianapolis where KV Racing is located.

"I am very excited to come to KV Racing Technology," Wurtz said. "I know their aspiration is to win. This team has a great core of people who have won races in the past and they want to get back to the winner's circle. I know everyone here believes they can be competitive and race for wins. That is my philosophy too. So I am thrilled and blessed to be involved with this group and look forward to preparing for a very strong 2011 season."

The venue for 2011's championship race in IndyCar is expected to be announced this week, according to IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.

"Stay tuned," Bernard said. "We're going to announce the date at the 'State of the Union' address in Indianapolis on Tuesday. Stand by. I don't want to talk too much about this right now out of respect to the announcement."

Bernard would not confirm the location of the season-ending race but speculation has focused on Las Vegas Motor Speedway the second weekend of October. If IndyCar was unable to secure Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., was also in the running.

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