He’s been called “the most powerful man in racing”. But Goodyear’s Leo Mehl tells David Phillips the sport will manage fine without him
It may be that nobody is irreplaceable, but Leo Mehl is certainly going to be one tough act to follow. As Goodyear’s director of racing, Mehl served as auto racing’s unofficial czar for more than two decades, the only man with the power of station and the personality to make Jean Marie Balestre, Roger Penske, Bernie Ecclestone, Tony George, Max Mosley and Bill France all sit up and take notice.
But after 33 years in racing, Mehl announced at the Daytona 500 that he would retire with effect from March 1.
“I’ve done this for 30 years now, basically 35 weekends a year,” said Mehl. ‘I talked to a lot of people in racing, the Formula One guys and (Dale) Earnhardt and a few IndyCar guys and they all take care of just their areas and I’ve sort of been watching over everything. So I just ran out of gas, I guess.
“I’ve worked hard and I haven’t stopped to smell the roses. I’ve driven right by the seven wonders of the world every weekend without stoppin’ to see ’em. And instead of watching TV or sitting on the beach every weekend, we’ve been in three or four or five races. I’ll still watch the races, but now I won’t have to worry about ’em.”
Just as he occupied a uniquely powerful position in racing, so Leo Mehl was a singular individual. Performing without a net over shark infested waters he possessed just the right blend of political savvy, candour and media rapport to ensure that Goodyear usually got its way. Quietly. Indeed, with Goodyear the sole supplier of tyres (at times) to Formula One, Indy cars, NASCAR and drag racing, Mehl was frequently dubbed ‘the most powerful man in racing” — a notion he plays down.
”Even if Goodyear was the most powerful sponsor, I knew a whole bunch of people at Goodyear who were more powerful than me,” he says. “So I think that’s kind of a fiction. I could not have given tyres to this guy and not given them to that guy — that would have been a pretty stupid business thing to do — even though I felt like it at times. But that power, that mythical power, you couldn’t really use.
“I think what happened though is that I was really fortunate. A lot of people just concentrate on one area but we love our World of Outlaws (sprint car) programme, we love our drag racing, we love our short tracks. . . I just know a lot of people but I never pushed anybody around.”
A chemical engineer by training, Mehl joined Goodyear as a trainee in 1959 after graduating from the University of West Virginia. After being called to active duty in the Air Force, he returned to Goodyear in 1962 and was immediately thrown into the company’s newly energised racing program. At the time, this consisted of one engineer -Mehl — who spent part of each day developing compounds for Goodyear’s stock car and sports car tyres. The following year, Goodyear expanded its sports car racing effort in concert with Ford’s assault on Le Mans, as well as taking on Firestone at Indianapolis and Dunlop in Formula One — all largely the responsibility of Mehl. The following year Goodyear won Le Mans, (but on the Ferrari 250LM of Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt rather than a Ford GT) and scored its first Formula One triumph as well at Mexico on Richie Ginther’s Honda. The following season Goodyear won the World Championship with Jack Brabham and in 1967 broke Firestone’s 40-year domination of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with A J Foyt’s third Indy 500 win.
With Goodyear’s win at Indianapolis, the first serious tyre war was well and truly joined. For the next seven years Goodyear and Firestone went at it hammer and tongs in IndyCars and Formula One, raising racing budgets to astronomical levels, and with it, racing’s profile.
“Thirty years ago the racing programme was a personal fight between tyre companies,” reflects Mehl. “There wasn’t much to justify it from a business standpoint. There was no television, there was little press coverage and there were very few sponsors. The cars were essentially owned by Goodyear, Firestone and a few rich guys.
“I preached and preached about the value of racing for 30 years. Now I don’t have to preach. Racing is on the television networks almost every weekend, it’s in the papers, and it’s been fun for me to watch racing grow into a major sport with so many other people liking what I like. And yet, we’re at a point in the business where those who’ve made a lot of money out of racing and have become famous through racing, still appreciate what racing has done for them.”
In 1967 Mehl was named European racing manager and spent four years in England, before returning to the United States to oversee the development of Goodyear’s passenger car radial tyres. In 1974 he was named director of racing and in 1979 was given responsibility for Goodyear’s worldwide racing programme.
By 1974, of course, Firestone had dropped out of racing, and while Michelin and Pirelli made sporadic forays into Formula One, Goodyear pretty much enjoyed a monopoly in Formula One, IndyCars and NASCAR for the next 20 years. As a result, Mehl has had a chance to work with virtually every racing driver worthy of the name — and probably a few who weren’t — in that time. Who does he rate the best?
“If you’re looking at Formula One, Jimmy Clark and Senna,” he says. “The fact is that Clark was killed on my birthday, April 7, 1968, so I knew him about three years. But Senna was a wonderful driver and, when you’re a tyre engineer and you’re talking to a guy like Senna, who gave the press and everybody else a hard time, why he could talk for hours about tyres.
“The best ones are the guys who can go fast and still figure out what the car is doing. So you’ve gotta list Clark and Senna in Formula One. And NASCAR, you know them: Cale (Yarborough) and Richard (Petty), David Pearson and Dale (Earnhardt), and Jeff Gordon is just a phenomenon. IndyCars, all-purpose American drivers — you’ve got to put Foyt and Gurney and Andretti right up there.”
Consciously or not, in naming Clark and Senna as his two top Formula One drivers, Mehl touches on one of the most difficult dimensions of his job. “The hardest part was years ago when safety was such a big factor,” he says. “It was very hard for everybody involved after some of those weekends, and we had to go on. What happened is that you went on because you knew what you were doing could make it better, make it safer.
“You’ve got to be totally committed in this business. This is not just another engineering job. You’re dealing with people’s lives and if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got to worry about it ’til it’s fixed.
“You always go to bed on Saturday night knowing it’s a dangerous sport and your product is a factor. Win or lose, you can never lose sight of safety. Even then things happen, of course, but when they do you have to be able to analyse the situation, often under very difficult circumstances.”
Mehl put what may have been the crowning touch on his career with Goodyear in 1994 when he oversaw the restructuring of the company’s racing division, a process which saw the division emerge as an autonomous unit within the corporate hierarchy. Thanks to the reorganisation, a clear line of succession was in place when Mehl announced his retirement, and Stu Grant, Goodyear’s director of racing tyre sales and marketing, will assume the mantle of general manager of worldwide racing.
Just what Mehl plans to do with his retirement is unclear. Several years ago, of course, he was expected to play a central role in Tony George’s first serious bid to wrest control of IndyCar racing from the team owners by serving as commissioner of George’s new league. That came to nothing, apart from a public embarrassment for Mehl, but there are some who jumped to the conclusion that Leo is about to step back into the battle between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and CART.
Nothing doing, says Mehl, who claims all his wounds from the last go-around haven’t healed yet. “I haven’t even spoken to Tony.” said Mehl. “Everybody is absolutely convinced that I’ve got a plan and a plot, that I always knew what I was doing. And I’ve got one now. I’m just walking out the door. I had lunch about three weeks ago with Bernie Ecclestone and he said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said I didn’t have any plans. And he said, ‘Isn’t that fantastic? That’s the way I’m going to do it.’
“That’s the way it is. I don’t have a plan… I’m just pleased to be walking out and not being carried out.”