RACER #296: Race Proven

RACER #296: Race Proven

Within the ranks of IMSA, Yokohama Tire supplies tires for the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge in both the U.S. and Canada. While its support of these series is key, Yokohama’s participation in IMSA stretches back over 40 years, beginning with the GTO and GTU-class Mazda RX-7s driven by IMSA legends like Roger Mandeville and Amos Johnson.

Around the same time, Yokohama launched its ADVAN brand of ultra-high performance tires, which spawned the memorable liveries on the Akin Racing Porsche 962C of the mid 1980s and the PTG BMW M3 of the early 2000s. Performance car enthusiasts of the 1980s extolled the brilliance of the Yokohama A008 street performance tire that was among ADVAN’s early offerings. In fact, the street A008 was used as an experiment on a GTU Nissan 280Z at Riverside Raceway during the Camel GT six-hour race before slicks were first manufactured for the class.

In 1988, Full Time Racing entered a trio of Dodge Daytonas in the GTU class for which Yokohama took the unusual move of supplying a tire of the same size on all four corners.

“The Dodge Daytona didn’t have much power, but it was super light and responsive, almost like an open-wheel car,” recalls Jeremy Dale, who drove for the team in 1989. “The tires that Yokohama made for it were spectacular.”

Dale’s first year driving on Yokohama proved invaluable for his switch to driving Clayton Cunningham’s factory Nissan 300 ZX.

“Switching to the Nissan 300 ZX, it was a completely different animal to the Dodge, and calling that car an animal is very appropriate,” Dale says. “The first year of the Nissan, they raced with another tire brand, but had already made the decision to switch to Yokohama before I came on board. That was a nice coincidence because I’d gotten to know Cheech (Chikara Yamauchi, current co-owner of TrackSide Performance, which services all Yokohama at-track operations) and the other guys from Yokohama quite well.

“During a time when there was no such thing as a spec tire, Yokohama put an extraordinary amount of time, effort and resources into producing the tires for the Nissan,” he continues. “And the thing that sticks out for me the most was how open the tire rules were, so everyone made ‘qualifying tires.’ Sometimes we would go through two or three sets of new tires in one session. At Road America the tires lasted only one lap in qualifying, but they were four seconds a lap faster. It was incredible, and it showed the commitment that Yokohama brought against other, bigger tire manufacturers.”

Dale scored three wins during his time at Nissan, with the team scoring a total of 21 wins between 1990 and ’95. Yamauchi adds that the rear tire of the 300 ZX was the largest tire ever made for IMSA competition, at almost 29in tall, and the range of compounds produced for the Nissan included up to three wet-weather specs and five dry-weather options, highlighting the level of development needed to handle the powerful Nissan.

A few years later, Yamauchi was out at dinner with his Yokohama colleagues in Corning, New York, during a race weekend at the Watkins Glen track when Giampiero Moretti came over to the table.

“I didn’t know him at the time, but he says to us, ‘I’m not getting any younger, and I want to win at Daytona once. What can I do to convince Yokohama to make a tire for me?’” recalls Yamauchi. “He was driving the Ferrari 333SP, and I think he saw how consistent the lap times were from other cars riding on Yokohama. Consistency was always something that we strived for with our tires.”

The move paid off, as Moretti finally got his long sought-after win in the Rolex 24 in 1998 and the Yokohama-shod MOMO Ferrari became indelibly etched in IMSA lore.

In the tail wind of Moretti’s Daytona win, a new era in IMSA was dawning, and coinciding with it would be one of Yokohama’s most prolific partnerships in terms of wins.

The BMW M3 was already one of the most successful GT cars in Europe, with many of its wins coming on Yokohama tires. When BMW tabbed PTG to race the third-generation M3
in IMSA, Yokohama also got the call. Between 1995 and 2006, the PTG BMW went on to win 53 races – all on Yokohama. Of those, two stand out in the mind of Boris Said who, along with Bill Auberlen and Hans-Joachim Stuck, was a regular driver for the team.

“When we won the (GT3) class at Daytona in 1998, we were able run the R19 compound qualifying tire during the night,” recalls Said. “They lasted for a full stint and still had a few seconds advantage over the race tire that we ran when the sun was up.

“The other win that really stands out for me was when we finally beat the Schnitzer M3 for the first time at the Portland ALMS race in 2001. That was a really sweet win for us, because Schnitzer was the lead factory team and they were running on another brand of tires that everyone seemed to think were the ones to have. We did a lot of development work with Yokohama that year and it finally paid off at that race.”

Over the years of IMSA competition, it would be more than fair to say that Yokohama has always punched above its weight, considering that other brands involved have been much larger companies.
As Yamauchi says, “We always tried to think differently in order to find an advantage.”

Which they did, all the way to the winner’s circle in some of IMSA’s biggest races.