Historic: Bridgestone move into the karting market

Rowrah Rotax April 2010

“Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Tyre.” Such was the initial reaction of their rivals when Mike Wilson and Alan Gates turned up at Wombwell for a Little Green Man round in April 1977 sporting what we later discovered to be Bridgestone tyres.

They were much wider than Goodyears and looked, as one driver put it, like great black balloons. The joking stopped when it turned out that they were much quicker than anything we’d ever seen beforehand. Within a couple of months just about every karter in Europe was frantically trying to purchase them. However, Martin Hines had struck a deal with the Bridgestone factory and, initially at least, they were only made available to Zip kart owners. Down at the Zip factory in Hoddesdon, they couldn’t make sufficient karts to keep up with the sudden surge in demand.

The British Championships for the 100 National and Britain classes took place at Felton in July. For the first time in karting history, six finals were required for one class as around 150 contenders turned out in 100 National. Having moved up from juniors earlier that year Mike Ballantyne finished 7th in the B Final, thus failing to qualify for the main event. However, he could at least find consolation in being the highest placed runner without Bridgestone tyres. Adam Wright, driving a Barlotti, qualified for the A Final after borrowing some Bridgestones from a helpful friend. All other A Finalists were on Zips, although, as some had only very recently acquired their karts, this fact wasn’t necessarily reflected in the programme,

Local lad Ian Williams won the title in fine style ahead of Roger White. Steve Greensmith in 3rd was unfortunate to get the black flag after losing his chainguard. This promoted Wayne Homer on to the podium after qualifying via the B Final. Peter Elliot claimed 4th spot ahead of another B finalist, Karl Murphy. Lewis Marsden, Martin Phillips, Brian Snelling, Terry Lilley and Bryce Wilson made up the top ten.

There had been a general assumption that Bridgestone tyres wouldn’t be suited to the demands placed upon them by 250cc karts. This theory took a knock two weeks after Felton when the BP European Championships for Superkarts took place at Jyllands Ringen in Denmark. Only three drivers, Martin Hines, Lennart Bohlin and Peter Elgard turned up with Bridgestones, but they dominated Saturday’s timesheets. Elgard had acquired his set from a Class 1 competitor the previous day and they were showing signs of wear by Sunday’s Final. Bohlin’s tyres also went off in this race. Hines, on the other hand, was able to use fresh rubber and he won this event very comfortably.

The British Championships for 100 National and Juniors took place at Rye House in mid August. It was televised by ITV’s World of Sport team and reputedly attracted 10 million viewers. Some weeks earlier, Mickey Allen had persuaded one of his friends to buy a Zip and “loan him” the tyres. Several other non-Zip drivers had also been able to acquire these magical tyres. They weren’t much use during Saturday’s heats which took place in very damp conditions. By this time Bridgestone had produced a wet weather version which Hines made available to Terry Fullerton, Mike Wilson and David Coyne who were streets ahead of everyone else.

To the great relief of just about everyone at Rye House, Sunday’s weather improved dramatically. Fullerton had a non-finish in his last heat and started the Final from grid 11. To accommodate the much greater grip afforded by Bridgestone slicks, Allen’s Sprint chassis had been lengthened and he now felt confident of competing on equal terms with the Zip front runners.

Wilson led early on, closely followed by Allen and Alan Gates. Fullerton had been methodically picking his way through the field and, once up into 4th spot, he started to catch the front three. Right on cue, Allen went past Wilson and almost immediately pulled away. Fullerton soon took 3rd place away from Gates and immediately began to pressurise Wilson as Allen moved further ahead. Without further ado, Fullerton slipped past Wilson and we asked ourselves if he could possibly catch the fleeing Allen.

That question was answered a lap or so later when Wilson tried to go up Fullerton’s inside. Fullerton moved across and both drivers came unstuck. Gates was also caught in the collision but managed to restart. Allen crossed the line a jubilant winner ahead of Gary Culver, Martin Smart, Gates, Paul Knapfield and White. All apart from Allen and Knapfield were Zip mounted. As with the 100 National Championships at Felton, all the A finalists had relied upon Bridgestone rubber.

Paul Deavin was a greatly relieved man following the Rye House meeting. Sales of his Sprint karts had virtually dried up throughout that year, but Allen’s win put the firm back on track. At Rissington several weeks later another Sprint driver, Terry Edgar, tied up the Little Green Man Championships despite having to rely on Goodyear tyres all year and thus failing to win a single round. Deavin later admitted that his firm had come very close to going under and no doubt many other British manufacturers were facing a similar fate.

Six British drivers, Fullerton, Allen, Wilson, Gates, Coyne and Lane went out to Parma for the World Championships that year. By that time, Bridgestone tyres had been made widely available across Europe. Alan Lane though had been quietly testing various Dunlop compounds and he caused panic in the early practice sessions by posting times that were significantly quicker than everyone else.

Ultimately however it was Felice Rovelli who claimed his second consecutive world title ahead of Allen. Lane experienced motor problems that knocked him out of the top 40. Nevertheless, he’d shown sufficient early pace to suggest that Dunlop might be about to replace Bridgestone as the “must have” tyre.

Revolutions rarely occur without serious casualties and the Bridgestone domination in 1977 certainly hurt one or two people. Concerned at the high cost and short life of these tyres, several clubs decided to take unilateral action. My own club, Cumbria KRC, led the way by imposing a ban on Bridgestone and Sirio tyres at all ordinary race meetings effective from August 25th. It took the RAC rather longer to accept that there might be a problem.

Mickey went on to win his 8th British karting title at Felton in 1979. Probably he would agree that the 7th one claimed at Rye House against all odds in August 1977 was his best ever. It was certainly the most significant, having stopped a wholesale takeover of British karting by Zips. Unfortunately it didn’t prevent a full scale tyre war from breaking out in 1978, with Dunlop and Bridgestone the main protagonists. Whereas competitors had previously eked out their tyres for 12 months or more, they were now using one or more sets at every meeting. The cost of racing had suddenly escalated and never returned to “normal” levels again.