BY GARY PERILLOUX
IndyCar racing veteran Johnny Unser toured Tupelo's Cooper Tire plant Wednesday, cementing a year-old relationship that's produced a bold entry into the ultra high-performance tire market.
Unser, 44, carries one of racing's highest-profile pedigrees. A member of the Indianapolis 500's first family, Unser's uncle Al won a record-tying four times at the Brickyard, another uncle Bobby won three times and his cousin Al Unser Jr. won twice, the last time in 1994.
Johnny Unser still races some but devotes much of his time to consulting work, including film and commercial stunt driving for the Unser Driving Team since 1986 and Precision Dynamics Inc. vehicle evaluations for manufacturers ranging from GM and Ford to Volvo, DaimlerChrysler and Rolls Royce.
Last year, he struck a multi-year accord to help develop Cooper Zeon and Mastercraft Avenger ultra high-performance tires - both new lines made by Cooper. In Tupelo, Cooper began making passenger high-performance tires for autos and crossover SUVs this year.
Performance-proving came at Cooper's Tire and Vehicle Testing Center near San Antonio, where the Cooper models were tested against everything from Goodyear to Michelin.
"For me, what I like about it is I don't know when there would ever be another opportunity to get involved with a tire manufacturer on a high-performance level that's starting from ground zero," Unser said. "It was an incredible challenge, because I think this market is so competitive. I've always liked being competitive. And it's a challenge for everybody, from the guys here at the plant to the guys in the office to the executive staff and myself and the guys at the test center. ... I've put my name behind it and Cooper has put its name behind it and I just want to see it succeed."
Carl Casalbore, a Cooper vice president in charge of high-perfomance tire development, said the annual replacement market for SUV tires is 53 million. That's been the industry's growth segment in recent years, but high-performance tires are expected to reach that level within five years.
That explains Cooper's interest in ultra high-performance models, which began with the 2XS this spring and will eventually include more than a half-dozen types, including tuner performance and sport truck touring tires. Prices range from $90 to $200 a tire depending on size and design. The initial tires sport a center grove that stabilizes the vehicle and a network of other grooves that spiral water to the side to enhance road grip.
"It's absolutely phenomenal when it's wet," Unser said. "In a high-performance tire like this, sometimes I feel like the manufacturers make them absolutely as fast as they can. And oftentimes you sacrifice a little bit of ride quality - just due to the nature of the tire. What I think we've done a great job with is making a tire that's very driveable and predictable.
"We're not taking these tires on the race track. But for driving them on the street, they have an extremely good feel."
Unser will headline a Cooper racing team at the Baja 1000 in November and will be a catalyst for the company's move into U.S. motorsports.
"I think Johnny gives Cooper another dimension," Casalbore said. "In the past, Cooper has not been known as a performance tire-type company. It's been known more as a good broad-line, light truck-type tire. Now as the market is shifting ... it's imperative for us to enter that arena and I think Johnny gives us a great venue into that arena."
A Cooper subsidiary, Avon, has been the lead tire in Formula 3000 racing in Europe for years. The best of both companies' technology is being blended into the Avenger and Zeon lines.
"It's critical that Cooper's successful in these racing ventures," Unser said, "because we want to win and be up front so people can see the level of technology and they'll want to go out and buy these tires for the street."
Unser's father, Jerry, was the first in the family to race in the Indianapolis 500 but he met a tragic end when a 1959 practice run claimed his life there. Still, Johnny Unser wants to return to the Brickyard, where he's run as high as seventh in the past.
"I still hope to compete in the IndyCar series and hopefully be running next year in the Indy 500," said the Idaho resident. "It all just depends on how the economy goes and sponsorships. But right now I've very happy being involved with this."