INDIANAPOLIS -- Lisa Boggs leaned forward in her satellite office at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and recalled the first IndyCar race she attended in a professional capacity.
It was the mid-1990s. She was working for the Leo Burnett ad agency out of Chicago on the Marlboro cigarettes account. Marlboro was the primary sponsor for powerful Team Penske in the CART Champ Car series, and the Penske cars were running at Michigan International Speedway.
"I was standing on top of our hospitality trailer, and those cars came across the start-finish line and took off into Turn 1," Boggs recalled. "And I said, ohhhh."
Twenty-plus years later, Boggs, 52, has expanded her expertise well beyond public relations and marketing. She's director of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports, a role that makes her one of the most important women in U.S. racing.
She oversees a massive, complex undertaking. Bridgestone, under its Firestone banner, makes all of the tires for the Verizon IndyCar series, just as Goodyear supplies all of the tires for NASCAR. Boggs is part of a strong 1-2 female punch at Firestone, with Cara Adams working on the team as a senior project engineer.
"My world is actually a combination of marketing and communications and working with a tremendous engineering team," Boggs said. "And stakeholders, whether that's the tracks, the speedway (Indianapolis), the IndyCar series. I am very fortunate to work on a lot of different things with a lot of great people. They're smart people with varied backgrounds. The common thread is a passion for racing."
Boggs became so hooked on racing that she left Burnett in 1997 to work directly with Penske as a consultant to Philip Morris, parent company of Marlboro.
"She loved the team aspect," said Susan Bradshaw Crowther, who had a similar role at Penske and is now a longtime friend of Boggs. "She's very friendly, very outgoing. She builds relationships."
From 2006 to 2013, Boggs was vice president for Matter-Edelman Sports and Entertainment, managing accounts in IndyCar and NASCAR. She had faded from IndyCar for a short time when she ran into team owner Bobby Rahal at a function in Chicago in 2013. "She told me she might be back in racing soon,'" Rahal said of a cryptic conversation. "About a month later, they announced she was taking over Al's position."
Al is Al Speyer, an institution in racing for decades until retiring as Firestone's executive director of motorsports in 2013. A mechanical engineer with a natural knack for marketing, Speyer ran all aspects of the program, from operations to promotions. He left, as they say, big shoes to fill.
Boggs came to the role without the engineering background. Bridgestone made that work by elevating longtime engineer Dale Harrigle to chief engineer/manager. He and Boggs work hand in hand, with Harrigle overseeing race tire development and reporting to Boggs in a "dotted-line" relationship and Boggs focusing heavily on marketing and public relations.
She is ultimately responsible for all aspects of the Firestone IndyCar racing program, including marketing, engineering, contractual agreements, budgets, warehousing, services and logistics.
"She definitely has a different style of collaboration and a different style of working with people than Al, but she has shown herself to be very effective," Harrigle said. "She's very hands-on and has done a fantastic job for Firestone. So we're happy to have her on the team."
Firestone produces about 28,000 tires a year at its Akron, Ohio, plant for the IndyCar series, covering races, practice, testing and experimental tires. Because the tires have to be tailored for a wide variety of track surfaces, temperatures and speeds, there are more than 50 specifications. There are rain tires and "reds," an alternate softer, faster tire used on street and road courses.
Teams get a predetermined allotment of tires for each race, based on the miles run, track abrasiveness and other factors. The Indy 500 has by far the biggest allotment because there is extended practice and qualifying and a 500-mile race. Each car gets 36 sets of tires, meaning Firestone has to supply about 5,000 tires for the 500 alone.
Of course, the reason any tire company invests in motorsports is to sell street tires. Bridgestone was the No. 1 tire producer in the world in 2015, with $27.1 billion in sales, according to statistca.com research. A substantial part of the Firestone program involves marketing and engaging retailers, multi-brand dealers and consumers.
"That's everything from the signage to the ads to the media buys to the great fan experience that we've got out here," Boggs said. "And there's the more traditional sort of integrated communications roles."
Based at the company's American headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, Boggs also oversees the contractual agreements between Firestone and the IndyCar series and teams. (Teams lease rather than buy tires, the financial terms for which are not made public.) And Boggs collaborates with Performance Tire Service, a separate company that handles the warehousing, mounting, balancing and trackside support of the tires.
Brian Barnhart, IndyCar's vice president of competition, calls Boggs "the most accommodating, easiest to person to work with you could have" and "very solution-oriented."
"The best example I can give you is, let's say IndyCar is doing an aero test at Iowa or a brake test at Mid-Ohio," Barnhart said. "Obviously, to do those on-track activities, we need tires. We'll contact Lisa and say, 'Hey, we're going to need some tires,' and sometimes it's on fairly short notice. She just finds a solution for us, even if they don't have the exact tire we need at that moment."
Tire companies participate in racing for the exposure. Paradoxically, they're doing their best job when they're invisible during the actual event. In other words, the tires aren't blowing or blistering or otherwise adversely affecting competition.
Bringing the wrong tire specification to a race can be a public relations catastrophe, the most noted example of which is the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis, when only six cars competed because the Michelin tires on the 14 other cars were deemed unsafe for one high-speed turn.
Firestone has set a high standard since returning to IndyCar racing in 1996 after a 20-year hiatus from the top forms of open-wheel racing, and Boggs is charged with maintaining that. It's no easy feat to build race tires that work on a vast array of tracks and street courses for high-downforce cars that hit speeds of 230 mph.
"Firestone just has an unbelievable engineering staff that produces the most consistent tire, the safest tire, the most reliable tire as anybody going," Barnhart said. "They're absolutely the finest race tire in the world."
"Any tire company is going to have good days and bad, but I can't think of many bad days for Firestone," Rahal said.
For Boggs -- "Boggsy" to some of her closest friends -- it's about making sure all parts of the program are making the grade. That's engineering, contracts, marketing, branding, consumer engagement.
"I think some people may have been surprised she took the job in the beginning because it used to be more of a technical and engineering-type position," said Bradshaw Crowther, a consultant to IndyCar's national publicity outreach. "But from a marketing standpoint, it was the right move, and that's clearly her forte. Knowing Lisa, she's learned the rest."
Boggs said she has simply leveraged the relationships she has built over 20-plus years.
"I'm very lucky that I love what I do and I work with a lot of people that love what they do, and we're very passionate about it," she said. "We're passionate about the racing, but also the business of it and making sure it's doing what it's supposed to do for the brand. You work with a lot of stakeholders. It's a terrific bunch of people with a very common goal."