Every small business owner can relate to the need to devote resources to R & D, even if those resources don't involve money. (It's impossible to dream up new products and services if you aren't actively thinking and planning and strategizing.)

It's a lot harder to imagine investing $1 billion in research and development over the last five years -- yet that's exactly what Firestone has done, most of that work taking place in the Americas Technical Center in Akron, Ohio. (Firestone is part of Bridgestone.)

Since Sunday marks the 100th running of the Indy 500 (with a sellout crowd of 350,000 people), and Firestone is the official tire of the Verizon IndyCar series, I talked with Dale Harrigle, chief engineer and manager of race tire development for Bridgestone Motorsports.

Firestone's involvement in IndyCar is partly an advertising play, but the R & D opportunities are also a significant factor.

Definitely. We take advantage of the opportunity in two basic ways.

Racing helps us improve the fundamental materials in the tire: polymers, building heat resistance, wear resistance, etc.

Racing also helps develop our people. The atmosphere at the racetrack is chaotic and hectic and that's a great environment for our team to learn and grow because it forces us to turn things around very quickly.

We can go from a conceptual design to a tire specification to putting a tire on the racetrack in half a year; it takes years for the same process with passenger tires. (Some of that is because passenger tires require legally-mandated safety testing, of course.)

You're in charge of race tire development... do you stay strictly race-focused and let street tire innovations discover themselves, or do you always have an eye towards the street?

We're heavily focused on the tires we put on the racetrack. We have a team of seven that are 100% devoted to IndyCar tires. But we do work side-by-side with the passenger folks. We're in the same building at the Technical Center, so we're with the road teams, the truck team, the mining equipment tireteams... there is a lot of collaboration and opportunities to work together.

How much input do the teams give you? There has to be a balance you're trying to strike in terms of acting on feedback.

We work closely with everyone involved in the Verizon IndyCar series. We have our vision, the teams have their opinions, and the series gives us their perspective on whether the tires had good grip, good wear, and whether the event was entertaining for the fans.

Since different teams might have different opinions, in a way we use the series as an impartial third party. We have a lot of respect for them, they have a lot for us... they know what feedback we need to make the tires better.

Bottom line, though, the tires say "Firestone" on the side. They're ours, and we're ultimately responsible for their performance.

Your tires don't operate in a vacuum, though. What you do affects suspensions, brakes...

Aside from rain tires we provide two different types of tires on race day: Primary and alternates. Alternates have better grip but also wear out more quickly; a driver that can get the most out of a softer tire really has a chance to shine on alternates.

We always keep in mind that every driver in the series has to be able to drive the tires, and the tires have to work with different setups across the series. So it is a challenge, but that's part of the fun of racing.

Tell me about the tires you're taking to Indy.

Each tire type is unique to a particular track. The series runs on street courses, road courses, short tracks, and long tracks like Indy.

At Long Beach we use the softest tire in terms of construction and tread compound; they're designed for relatively slow speeds. At road courses the tires a bit harder since speeds are higher: 185, 190 mph, something in that range. On a short oval, like Phoenix, we see slower lap speeds so those tires are different...

At Indy the lap speeds are approximately 228 and top speed is around 235 mph. That kind of load requires a stiffer tire construction and a harder compound.

All told we use 68 different types of tires across all the tracks. And each tire on the car is unique; even though they might look the same they have different compounds because they're optimized to the position on the car. For example, the right front may be different from the left rear.

For Indy, between practice and qualifying and the race, we'll use just over 5,000 tires.

After the race we take advantage of all the data we've collected and perform further analysis on selected sets of race-used tires. Since we believe our technology is in the tires, we don't sell them to teams. We lease them.

That means we get every tire back, so once we're done with them we recycle them for fuel.

Based on all you know about R & D... what advice would you give the average small business owner that doesn't have tons of resources.

Pick one thing to focus on. Firestone has been successful in IndyCar because we focus on being a good partner and truly understanding what it takes to develop tires for the series.

That's why you don't see us spread across various motor sports; we do one thing and we do it very well.

Thinking more broadly, in order to have a culture of innovation you need to be relentless about building one. We were the tires used at the first Indianapolis 500 and here we are today.

No matter what you've accomplished, never stop looking for that next step forward.

Published on: May 27, 2016
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.