Bill Robinson: The GoodYear Man

1975 profile of one of the most important men in Kenny Roberts’ career

(originally published in 1975)

Bill Robinson. Without Bill, Kenny Roberts would have never went to Europe, would have never won the first world title.
Bill Robinson. Without Bill, Kenny Roberts would have never went to Europe, would have never won the first world title. Image protected by copyright

There are many people in the realm of motorcycle racing that are largely unknown yet have made enormous contributions to the sport; Bill Robinson is one of them. Unless you are a rider, sponsor, or member of the press, chances are you’ve never heard of Bill Robinson. He is almost always found, when not physically involved with the tasks of his job, chatting with riders, giving them advice (even if they run a competitive brand) or checking on how the riders are doing on the track. It is this quality —- that of total dedication to the sport — that has earned Bill Robinson the respect of almost every rider on the circuit. He is not just a Goodyear tire rep to the riders: he is The Goodyear man.

To say that one lives, eats and breathes the sport is a trite comment in most cases but in applying that to Bill Robinson it somehow falls short. Bill, when not attending either a motorcycle or auto race, is usually involved in testing and refining the present product to create a new and better one. And, during his spare moments there is always his business of over twenty years, the Lauderdale Auto and Marine Service, Inc. to take up his time. It’s fair to say that Bill is constantly on the go; a condition he refers to as being married to the sport.

“It starts at home with a family that’s willing to sacrifice you to do these things. If you’re willing to marry any occupation you’re going to be successful but when you say the word marry that’s exactly what it is. Whatever it takes to get the job done is exactly what you must be prepared to do.”

The marriage began in 1960 with auto racing and then in 1963 enlarged itself to motorcycles, as Bill puts it,” Because I could see that there wasn’t anybody else helping them.”

The dictum by which Bill Robinson lives and conducts his work is simple, ”I feel that if I can win a race with my product (Goodyear tires) then it’s almost the same as my being in the saddle.” That, simply, is why Bill Robinson is successful. “I think you have to feel that way in order to put up with all the things that go on in racing.”

Many years ago as a child in his home town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bill got his first taste of auto racing as a “go-fer” at a half-mile track near his house. Later he drove sprint cars and quarter midgets successfully but abandoned the circuit for business although never really pulling out of racing one hundred percent. In l951, he founded his present business which deals in auto and marine carburetor and ignition maintenance as well as Goodyear tire sales.

“I can’t be satisfied just to work and sit in my store selling tires and answering questions. I’ve got to become a part of racing because I’m a racer, and my way of doing that is learning not what they (racers) need today but what they’ll need tomorrow.”

It was this curiosity, this thoroughness that led to the evolution of both Goodyear road racing and dirt track tires.

Harley-Davidson, in 1963, found themselves in a relative bind. Avon was pulling out of the production of road racing tires leaving only Dunlop as a Supplier. Unfortunately, for Harley, the American distributor for Dunlop, at the time, was Triumph: a staunch competitor on the National Circuit. The thought of buying their tires from their competition put Harley in a bind and they approached Goodyear. Goodyear, as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) supplier of tires to H-D agreed to do something and contacted Bill to combine his knowledge with that of the racing department to build their first motorcycle road racing tire.

“Since I probably had more automotive road racing experience than anybody with the company at that time the head of Racing and Development at Goodyear asked me if I would work with Harley – they would supply two machines and riders – and try to help develop a racing tire because of their need. This didn’t mean that we weren’t going to build tires for anybody else. What you have to remember is that we didn’t have much choice as Harley-Davidson was the only machine manufactured here that we knew had the right type of personnel, mechanics, equipment and everything else. You can’t go testing to build anything unless you have the best equipment and riders. If you don’t you won’t learn anything.”

Racing at this time was in its infancy and, as such, budgets were not large; certainly not large enough to rent a track to conduct the tests. Cooperation between individuals, the fact that all sheriff’s departments in Florida were Harley mounted and the feeling that where there’s a will there’s a way, all contributed to the initial testing. The story, according to Bill, if known at the time would probably have landed a few people in jail. It amounted to the running of straight speed tests over a five mile strip of public road with sheriff’s stopping traffic whenever the runs were to be made. Roger Reiman and George Roeder were the riders. It was a learning process for Bill and he admits that at the time all he knew about motorcycles was “that they had a front and rear tire.” Fairings, at the time were also new and innovative and with some set-ups the bikes would run faster without a fairing than one with.

The tests progressed to an abandoned airport that Harley racing chief Dick O’Brien had obtained for their use. It was set-up with pylons to create a simulated road racing course and had a very rough concrete surface that wore tires very quickly. After each session, a call to an engineer in Akron was made and the data from that days testing was incorporated into the final design. One of the items to be determined from the testing was the placement of the “tiebars.” A tie bar is used in tread design and particularly in road racing tires to keep the tread stable so that it doesn’t move under the strain of high speed or braking. Bill opted for recessed tie bars but upon receipt of the finished product, found that they were exposed causing the tire to be almost like a slick; a problem that could not be remedied in the time remaining before the race.

“I knew we had a problem the minute I saw the exposed tie bars on the tire. It was pretty important to me since this was the first time that the tire had even been seen or raced professionally. I convinced Roger Reiman that with a lot of sweat we could make the tire work. I had to take a hand file and groove the tires to get rid of the glaze down to where the rubber could start working. I put a lot of hours into those tires.”

On race day there were only two bikes in the Daytona starting field with Goodyear tires front and rear; Roger Reiman and Ralph White. Reiman won the 200 and Ralph White, the previous year’s winner, finished fourth.

“I felt real proud that in the first experience l had with motorcycling I was fortunate enough to win the biggest race they had in this country.”

Bill’s successes have continued since that day in March 1964. In fact, he returned the next year and won the 200 again: not a bad record considering that it was the only event that Goodyear went to. Since then, Bill has been the first person to run a tubeless motorcycle racing tire and the first to use stick on weights for tire balance. He also introduced the Goodyear D/T and was instrumental in its development.

The introduction of the D/T is another story with a basis in cooperation and mutual help. Bill actually introduced the tire at the Terre Haute half mile National in l97l although the tire was not approved for use until almost a year later.

The AMA’s rejection of approval did not however, say that the tire could not be run in practice; only that it couldn’t be used in National competition. Bill, relying on his relationships with the riders, got six riders of different styles to test the tire and give him their comments. It was not an easy thing to do since each rider uses the practice periods to set up his machine for the National and here Bill was asking them to practice with a tire that they couldn’t use in the race.

A little less than a year later the Goodyear D/T made its debut at the Louisville half mile National and was an instant success powering both the Expert and Junior winner to victory. By the Columbus National a few weeks later the D/T was acknowledged to be the tire to use.

It may come as a small shock but the estimated cost of producing a tire from the original idea to the finished product is a minimum of $l00, 000. What is more surprising is that the manufacturer does not make anything on the sale of racing tires: in fact almost all of the racing tires are sold way below what it actually costs to produce them. Goodyear x-rays each racing tire before it leaves the factory: another costly but impressive feature. One other interesting fact probably unknown to most people is that the Racing Division comes under the advertising end of the business because of the cost factor. It was this cost factor and budgeting that caused the Eagle series dirt tire to be built in the Production tire section hence Robinson’s dual contractual obligation.

So you’d like to build a tire but you don’t know where to start? Well first you have to know what wheels are available and what ones are intended for use. You have to decide what the width of the rim is because it determines the width of the cross section. There’s no use building a tire unless it will fit under the fender or between the fork tubes. Thirdly you must consider the center line since you will be running on the top of the bead while you’re going straight and on the sidewall in cornering. This determines how much rubber you need on the sidewall. Add to that the weight factor-the heavier the tire the slower it is going to go-and you have a sketchy idea of how Bill Robinson goes about the process of determining what a tire will be. Easy isn’t it? Sure.

“It takes a lot of common sense and knowledgeable factors plus you’ve got to talk to a lot of people to find out who to believe. The most important thing is to find out what their exact needs are and then design the tire around the particular application that it is to be used for.”

The design and introduction of the Goodyear slick was one such problem.

“Our problem with the slick was simple: I couldn’t get the AMA to tell me if they would race in the rain or not. Now that’s an easy question to answer if you ask any other racing organization but with the AMA the answer was ‘maybe so.’ Now it’s pretty hard to build a ‘maybe so‘ tire. “Yet at Daytona the slick is or will be the tire to be using.

‘There are certain fixed items in racing but tires aren’t one of them. An engine it limited to how many rpm‘s it can turn and it will last only so long before it will blow up. We don’t know what our limit is on a tire and we’re always searching for something else because we have no limits; of course there are limits above us that cause us problems to where we can’t go as far as we’d like to. This has happened in bikes. I don’t think that they have improved suspensions enough. We need better shocks because we’re getting more horsepower all the time. It’s a horsepower race anywhere you go. As you get more horses you have to have to have a better suspension because when you start sticking a tire better there are a lot of things that can happen. If we make a better product and a tire that will stick real good then the wheel better be damn good because it will be taking more strain. The shocks will then have to be stronger which leads to the need for a stronger frame and a stronger transmission and on and on. What I‘m trying to explain is that just because we may be able to produce a tire that has all the traction in the world we are liable to break something else. We’ve done it in many forms of racing.”

Six years ago, at Daytona, Bill unveiled the “Robinson Trick” when he mounted two front tires on Ralph White’s independent Yamaha for qualifying (around the oval) – at Daytona. Bill told him he could do it if he had “faith in me and the product.” White qualified faster than the Yamaha factory bikes.

The next year Gene Romero approached Bill for help in securing the pole position: however doing the same with Romero’s Triumph as he did the year before with a Yamaha called for quite a lot of calculation. The main fact being that to decrease the rolling resistance you increase the tire pressure and, in doing so, create the situation where it takes less power to go faster. The dual front tire set-up would work because a bike is not fast enough or heavy enough to get sideways off the banking creating the need for a lot of ribs like the rear traction tire. There was an unreal wear factor because of the weight of the Triumph.

‘’I told Gene he could make one warm-up lap and one flying lap to the flag but then he had better roll off the throttle as fast as he could because I didn’t know how much tread would be left. We had the nylon cord showing on the tire when Gene came in – he did win the pole position by a wide margin – but that’s a lot closer than I like to project.” Gene was running 70 pounds of air pressure for his run: the normal race tire carries between 26 and 32 pounds.

On the more practical side of things and relating to street tires as well as racing ones is the use of directional markings on tires. You know-those little arrows that follow the tread design. They do mean something.

“When a tire is made you have to splice it; you never butt the pieces together but rather always overlap them so that you hate one piece of rubber coming over top of another. On a rear tire the splice or the manufacturers mark (arrow or other) should always be on the right side while on the front it should be to the left. The reason being that it’s a safety factor. Under a traction pull you wouldn’t want to mount the tire so that it tried to pull the splice apart but if you mounted it correctly to move against the closed part then the pressure is not pulling on it. It’s just the opposite on the front tire because of the braking factor causing opposite forces from the rear tire.”

“It doesn’t really make any difference to me if your name is Kenny Roberts or Joe Doe. If you’re a dedicated racer and I’m there, then I’m more than willing to help you win that race. But you’ve got to ask me. I can’t go around and seek you out and answer questions that weren’t asked in the first place. I’ve helped a lot of people win races when they were on Pirelli, Dunlop and other brands of tires and that’s how I got them on Goodyear.”

The importance of a Bill Robinson to the sport cannot be over-emphasized. One of our favorite Robinson-isms sums it up: “The reason a tire is important to start with is because it’s the last thing between your ass and the pavement.”

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