Leadership Concerns For The IRL

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In response to an excellent comment and/or concern by a reader, I had a change of heart at the last minute regarding today’s article. I was traveling on Thursday and got home late to find a comment from “Vic in South Bend”. If anyone ever goes back and reads the comments from readers, you know that Vic always leaves well thought-out and poignant comments. I say that mainly because Vic is always complimentary of this site.

His latest comment dealt with the leadership vacuum that now sits atop the IRL. First of all — I don’t know Vic, nor have we ever met. Having said that, I can tell enough from his previous comments to know that he is not a doom & gloom type. However, he has reason to be concerned. The main part of his comment is as follows; With TG out of the Indy power structure, what do you think will happen the next few years? I am really worried. It seems to me, with sponsors likely continuing to fall by the wayside, and no clear-cut leadership in sight, is the IRL a goner? What will that mean for the 500? Please tell me no tin-tops for the 500!

This is a legitimate concern. The only part I can answer for certain is that the Indianapolis 500 will NEVER include tin-tops. The uproar would be too great and they are having enough trouble selling tickets for their own traditional date. I think the Indy 500 would cease to exist before that happened.

However, Vic’s other comments are the million dollar questions. No one really knows what is going to happen. Everyone from fans like you and me, to the professional media and all the way up to teams and sponsors; are sitting in a holding pattern and taking a wait & see approach.

Jeff Belskus is supposedly a racing guy. I base that strictly on what I’ve heard in the media. My understanding is that he is quite capable and will not make wholesale changes for the sake of the almighty dollar. He has worked for the Speedway in some capacity for over twenty years. Some refer to him as a bean counter, and that remains to be seen. My biggest concern is that he is reportedly a “behind the scenes” type and doesn’t have the personality or demeanor to stand up and publicly take charge.

I think we have clear evidence of that by the fact that after seventeen days, I have yet to see or hear from the man. I’ve never heard of any type statement that he has released, and I don’t even know what the man looks like. Tony George was never going to knock anyone over with his laconic personality, but when he had to – he served as an appropriate voice of the league.

In fact, I’m not 100% sure that Jeff Belskus is even the head of the league. According to the June 30 press release, his official role is head of IMS Corp, which I assume has direct responsibility for the IRL. Or could it be Curt Brighton? He is to head up the Hulman-George Companies. Does that mean Brighton has control over the league?

Or will the Indy Racing League continue as the two-headed monster with two Presidents running two distinct aspects of the league? If so, what happens when the line between them is blurred and part of Terry Angstadt’s commercial side crosses over into Brian Barnhart’s competition side? Such a possibility may occur when the engine manufacturers get serious for 2012, and start commanding which direction the league will go. Which side will make the ultimate call? Who will eventually have the upper hand in a disagreement? These are things that none of us have been made aware of.

Teams and drivers are entering a critical time. Not only is silly season upon us, but August is generally the time that sponsorship deals are done for the coming year. The league needs a strong voice at the top, assuring potential sponsors that this will be a viable product for years to come. Right now, that voice is silent. Sponsors were confused and concerned during the years following the CART-IRL split and it ultimately cost BOTH sides. In this uncertain economy, sponsors need to have clear reasons why they should invest in this series. Right now, things seem very unclear.

So, Vic — I think you speak for a lot of us in your concern. I wish I had an inside track to show you that your fears were unfounded, but I don’t. All that I can offer is about as comforting as a having a life jacket on the Titanic, and that is — to keep the faith. I value the opinions of those that know Jeff Belskus. I trust them and they trust him. They are a lot closer to the situation than I am. I’m not a journalist; I’m a fan – just like the rest of us. For now, I’ll assume that the league is in good hands. Until Mr. Belskus gives me reason to think otherwise, I’ll try not to be too concerned.

But Vic…deep down, I’m just as concerned as you are.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “Leadership Concerns For The IRL”

  1. I’m not worried because I don’t believe that the 500 needs a league. If belskus were to announce today that next years race is going to be an open invitational for anyone with an open wheel car of any kind the result would be outstanding. We would see more drivers, teams, fans, and sponsors interested in next years race than any time in the past 10-20 years. I personally do not believe the series is doing anything to make the 500 stronger. It has turned into an exhibition series that bears resemblance to the globetrotters oN wheels.

  2. redd carr Says:

    If you just consider what we know, as compared to supposition, the IRL looks fine to me. The mergification actually was less merge and more dissolve. Several champ teams didn’t make the merge. The recession was a killer for many businesses and certainly hurt sports across the board, especially Nascar. And the TG mutiny was very unexpected but by all public statements, things should remain basically the same.

    But in spite of all that the crowds have been good, the racing is getting better. The new engine and chassis program, while slow, is still set for 2012. Corporate support from Honda and Firestone is strong. The new TV contract with Versus makes everyone happy but it would be important to get Versus into more markets. The personalities and competition in FIL has been great. They’re looking at adding races to next year–Brazil for sure and Barber for maybe. Could things be better–absolutely, but things seem okay for now.

    There seems to be an “I told you so” mentality out there that everyone wants to predict the demise of the IRL. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

  3. redd carr Says:

    The IRL isn’t selling football. They’re selling open-wheel racing in the US and that is a niche sport now and nobody wants to watch it. It’s not 1983 anymore. The IRL isn’t really competing with Nascar–they’re competing with skeet shooting and female college bowling.

    So, considering all that, I think they’re doing pretty well. Good drivers and strong personalities (we could use more, but…), adding a couple of interesting tracks for next year–for sure Brazil and maybe Barber–a good group of young drivers in FIL, Roger Penske, a new engine and chassis deal for 2012, a ten year TV deal with the ever-popular if slightly underaged Versus Network, all the Danica publicity, and the awesome Memorial Day race itself. I think it’s just more fun to predict doom and gloom and that’s why it’s so popular.

  4. redd carr Says:

    Jeez. So sorry to post twice. Apology.

  5. Scott is absolutely right. The Hulman-George family should divest itself of the IRL and re-establish the Sweepstakes, They could take all that wasted subsidy money and add it to the purse. Put up $30 million and “they will come.”

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