By Mike Taibbi Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/27/2004 11:40:22 PM ET 2004-04-28T03:40:22

In a warehouse in Boulder City, a couple of 60-something dreamers secretly nurture an idea that, as it turns out, they’d independently shared for nearly three decades — to find the holy grail of the tire industry: a synthetic replacement for rubber that would make cheaper, safer, simpler and wholly recyclable tires.

It was Richard Steinke, an inventor who grew up in a Cincinnati orphanage, who came up with a new urethane compound he says performs better than rubber — though he won’t say what’s in it.  It is his “Coke formula” that’s kept under lock and key.

But Steinke didn’t know how to turn his secret sauce into a real tire until he met Rick Vannan, the retired research and development chief at Goodyear.  “We would change the industry forever,” Vannan said.

“When Rick and I got together, it was like the Wright brothers,” Steinke added.

Does their invention fly?  According to Vannan, “It’s like having my first child!”

NBC was allowed to watch selective parts of the manufacturing process and wondered whether these revolutionary automobile tires — which take only seconds to make and can be made in any color — would work as well as traditional tires.

A performance test
Then NBC went out to the Las Vegas Speedway to try the tires.

As single-compound tires, there’s no possibility of tread separation. And these tires also are designed to run flat for hundreds of miles, if necessary.

They say there are only two types of drivers: Those who’ve had a tire emergency and those who will.

So NBC let all the air out of one tire, and for good measure, drilled the sidewall and tread full of holes.

In a series of hard hairpin turns, there was no problem.  Back at cruising speed, we couldn’t tell the difference.

There are already skeptics, like tire expert Asa Sharpe, former tire designer and marketing manager for Goodyear, “I didn’t grow up in Missouri, but I’d have to say, I’d have to answer it as a Missouri person.”

Show me?  “Absolutely," Sharpe answered.

And even if the new tire is what its inventors say it is, Sharpe says it would be years before they could be fitted to existing tire and vehicle technology. “Decades … I would think so,” he said.

That’s not what Steinke and Vannan say.  They say in a year — two at most — the rubber tire industry, as it has functioned for a century, will come to a stop, with its replacement ready to roll.

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