Who Is Tony Cotman?
I watched Windtunnel the other night with Robin Miller as a co-host. If you include the additional thirty minutes that is carried over the internet, Robin Miller touted that Tony Cotman should be given carte blanche to shape the direction of the IRL at least three times.
The question is…who IS Tony Cotman? Of course, I know he is assistant director of competition for the IRL and serves as chief steward for the Firestone Indy Lights…but why does Miller tout him as the last gasp savior of open-wheel racing? I normally agree with Robin Miller’s take on things. Like him or not, he is usually dead-on in his reporting as was demonstrated in the recent ousting of Tony George. Miller took a lot of heat as he was blasted from all sides for such “irresponsible reporting”. As usual, he got the last laugh.
But on the constant praise for Tony Cotman, I am a little skeptical. Not that I know something about the man that would contradict Miller’s opinion; I don’t. Tony Cotman may indeed be everything that Robin Miller says…and more. But when I look back just a few years, I find another name that Miller continually threw out with just as much enthusiasm as a person who would save open-wheel racing and CART in particular. That name was Chris Pook.
For years, Robin Miller told us how foolish CART was to overlook Chris Pook while they hired far-less competent CEO’s to try and reverse CART’s sliding fortunes. Finally, CART hired Chris Pook.
Chris Pook had an impressive resume. He is seen as the founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix and made it the “event” that it is today. He seemed to have a genuine understanding what the fans wanted as well as the vision to promote a series in the best interest of the team owners. Pook had been in motor racing for decades and had built up strong relationships all over the world.
But Pook’s two-year tenure as CART CEO was labeled a disaster. Some of that may be unfair, as he inherited quite a mess from his predecessor Joe Heitzler. But Pook made the decision to prop up the remaining teams that did not defect to the IRL for the 2003 season. That decision bled $47 million from the CART coffers. He also chose to rely on his own background as a promoter and had CART directly promote several races rather than accepting sanctioning fees, which led to another loss of $8.5 million. In the end, it was too much, as Pook ultimately became the final CART CEO/Commissioner in a long line of doomed predecessors.
Maybe Pook was seven years too late. Perhaps if he were in place at the time of the split instead of Andrew Craig, things may have been different. However, history will tell us that Chris Pook was a major failure as the leader of CART.
Unfortunately, that now tarnishes the glowing recommendation that Robin Miller gives Cotman. What I do know about Tony Cotman, who served for four years as chief steward at CART/Champ Car, is that he has the reputation of being fair but sometimes harsh. I certainly have no problem with that. There have been too many times lately, when IRL races seemed to be governed by a very inconsistently enforced set of rules.
But the most promising aspect of anointing Tony Cotman as head of competition for the IRL is his supposed vision. Apparently, Cotman agrees with most fans as far as freeing up the rulebook and encouraging innovation. He understands that innovation is at the core of open-wheel racing and that is what will draw manufacturers back to the sport.
No manufacturers have any motivation to jump into another form of motorsports that utilizes outdated technology such as carburetors, such as one series does. Instead, manufacturers want to be perceived as being on the cutting edge of technological breakthroughs that will translate over into passenger cars. Manufacturers are not getting that in the current IRL and according to Miller, Cotman understands that.
Robin Miller did mention something Sunday night that was halfway in jest, but probably partially serious. Miller knows his status within the league and he was afraid that he was hurting Cotman’s chance for a promotion by continuing to champion his name.
The forty-two year old New Zealander seemed to have the clear backing of all the teams as chief steward at Champ Car, before being elevated as Executive Vice President of Operations and Race Director. Prior to that position, he served for fifteen years at Team Green in CART and then Andretti-Green in the IRL; first as a mechanic and then in a management role. It appears he has seen quite a bit through those relatively young eyes. According to Miller, Cotman is the most qualified person to lead a series that he has come across in over ten years.
So where would such a move leave Brian Barnhart? I get frustrated with Barnhart’s inconsistencies as the “iron hand of justice”. He also seems very shortsighted in his vision of open-wheel racing. But I don’t necessarily want to kick Barnhart to the curb. I think he is a decent man and his experience has a lot to offer. But one disturbing thing that Miller mentioned was that while Cotman has great ideas, no one in the league, especially Barnhart, is listening to him. Is the IRL still that smug to think that the select few in top leadership positions are the only ones that can fix their problems?
My thought is that this should be the first offseason task as Jeff Belskus settles into his new role as head of IMS Corp. Barnhart was safe as long as Tony George was calling the shots. I think Belskus should reassign Barnhart to a less visible function within the league. He has come to be more of a polarizing figure than a stabilizing one.
The time to shake things up in the league is now. Joie Chitwood has now left IMS, but that doesn’t indicate the shakeup has already started. He appears to be heading to ISC, which may or may not be a good thing. Assuming Robin Miller is right this time, Tony Cotman may be just the man for the league to put their trust in. They cannot afford to settle for the status quo much longer.