Who Is Tony Cotman?

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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.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “Who Is Tony Cotman?”

  1. I too have always been a bit puzzled by Miller’s stumping for Cotman. I think Miller is a heck of a reporter. However, there is a difference between reporting (digging up the TG story) and opinion. My feeling is that it is the “opinion” side of things that puts off most of Miller’s detractors. That said, I enjoy his pot stirring. It keeps things lively when the cars aren’t on track.

    Regarding Cotman I just don’t know enough about him. There is a big difference between “managing” (dealing with the personalities, politics, and operational day to day issues) and “leadership” (putting out a vision, and inspiring others to accomplish it). I think Cotman is a proven manager, as he’s had success all the way along the line, but does he have the leadership potential that Miller says he does? The only way to find out is to hand him the reins. Unfortunately, Miller is right. The more he campaigns for Cotman, the more he hurts his chances.

    The bigger question is “Does IndyCar need better leadership, or better management”. Is it the “vision” of the future that is lacking, or the “execution” of that vision. Ultimately the series will need both to survive, but right now, which is in more demand?

  2. Validqs Says:

    By the time Andrew Craig and Randy D (the power behind the throne) got done raping CART by taking it public and walking away with millions in their own pockets, there was little Chris Pook or anyone else could do. So RM may have been right but Pook came too late. – Tony Cotman can do the job for the IRL. He will be an improvement over BB, IF they let him make decisions. If they tie him up in corporate red-tape, the IRL will not only look like CART/CC, it will fail like CART/CC did. Give him the job and let him run the show.

  3. I agree there needs to be some change & I also agree Barnhart should remain in the league. Barnhart is clearly not the best on-the-fly referee; but keep in mind Cotman is not infallible, as he called the disaster of an Indy Lights race in Toronto, single-handedly giving the race to Saavedra & Hildebrand by suddenly asking teams to perform pit stops.

    That said, Cotman’s record as steward in CART etc. was good, and his sterness with both Ana Biatriz & the whole Sean Guthrie incidents this year do exactly what they should, penalize but also show other drivers by example that breaking the rules or codes of conduct/ethics are not going to be taken lightly or tolerated, even if you are the race winner.

    Barnhart’s biggest problem right now is he is too personal with the drivers, and therefore is giving everyone too much leeway, too many warnings without action, so no one expects anything; and then when he finally enforces a rule they flip out (e.g. Helio at Detroit 2008). I’d say move Barnhart to a role of working on the new spec; the aspect of actually getting it done & tested and ready & then serving as a backup to Cotman in Race Control only. He clearly has a vast knowledge of the safety aspects and means well, he just doesn’t have the sternness necessary to be a referee.

  4. Donald McElvain Says:

    If we get TC we will have standing starts instead of these absolutely lame and embarressing rolling starts. Even “the best drivers in the world” (eye roll, here) – NASCAR, can at least lineup for a start. I say let’s go with Cotman, it can’t get worse, can it?

  5. I’d agree that Chris Pook came several years too late to make much difference. The ship was already sinking due to the efforts of Andrew Craig and Joe Heitzler (a man with no previous racing experience whatsoever), so Pook’s idea to throw money at CART’s problems is understandable in that it was one of the only ideas available (plus the fact that they had a huge pile of money on hand, due to going public with their stock). I remember Robin writing about Chris Pook being the only guy capable of saving CART about the time that Craig resigned, which was in 2000 (I even remember precisely where I was when I heard Craig was leaving, I was so excited for him to go). A year and a half of of Indecisive Joe later, plus Penske’s and Ganassi’s departure for the IRL, I’m not sure anybody could have righted the ship by 2002.

    As for Cotman, I seem to remember him being one of the principals in nailing down the specs for the ’07 Panoz ChampCar, and the guy who finally pushed through the mandate of road course standing starts. It’s those sorts of things that Robin’s basing his trumpeting on. I’m willing to let the Toronto Lights Fiasco go, as long as he’s learned from it (I don’t know that anybody else within The League was ready for such an event, either), and I’m more than happy to hear what TC’s got to say about the future of IRL racing as a whole.

  6. Boo Boo Says:

    Tony Cotman said that OWR cars aren’t meant to be raced on ovals. He said that last year in Iowa. I would have fired him for making that remark, not promote him and give him carte blanche. What an ignorant, arrogant, and stupid thing to say in the state of Iowa, at an IRL event.

    Not to mention that he is wrong. OWR cars have been racing on ovals in America for nearly 100 years. His remark was made all the more ridiculous, when, subsequently, the race turned out to be excellent—one of the better ovals on the schedule—and the fans turned out to be among the most knowledgeable OWR fans anywhere.

    OTOH, if there is one thing an OWR car was never designed to do, it’s to be driven on the street. That doesn’t stop the league from racing them there, though, does it? It’s a good show; who cares if the cars aren’t ideally suited for it.

    The IRL’s problem is not the specification of a chassis, and anybody could have come up with the DP01. It broke no new ground whatsoever. The IRL’s problem is thus: The IRL is an economy—it is an economy that has way too little value in it for teams to prosper as businesses.

    In terms of competition, it is interesting to note that the last time Panther Racing saw the winner’s circle, it was at TMS with Tomas Scheckter and a Chevy engine. They need a partner that gives them an edge. They’re never going to get that edge with a single engine supplier, and they will be forever a bridesmaid.

    But, the goal of having multiple manufacturers is really, ultimately, not about competition. It’s about bringing partners into the league, and thereby increasing the value of the Indy Car economy. It’s the same deal with title sponsors, etc.

    I’d bet my teeth we’re going to have a single engine supplier in 2012, and that’s very bad news for the IRL. What is it, exactly, that the “Chief Steward” of Champ Car can do about that? I think the answer is “Nothing.”

  7. Care to share a link to that info, Mr. Boo? I can’t remember any comments like that last year, and my Google search (tony+cotman+iowa+oval) turns up nothing of the sort.

    “Anybody could have come up with the DP01″? I have no clue what to do with that statement. The DP01 required some slightly lateral thinking, trying to maintain the high performance nature of open wheel racing but still attempting to allow cars to get up behind each other in corners and comlpete passes. Novel ideas, no?

    Look, I’m not saying that we need to just re-invent the DP01 to run in IndyCar in 2011 or anything (that would be silly and counterproductive), just that we could use some extra brainpower mulling over the next generation of cars. You know, the generation of cars that every last one of us who cares enough about the sport to read blogs about it hopes is a friggin’ home run: fast, racy, competitive, cost effective. We all hope that there is more than one engine in 2012. What’s needed there is somebody who can build consensus among the manufacturers while not allowing any one maker to dictate rules which drive all the others away. Why precicesly does Honda appear to be insisting on V6s, while all of the other interested parties reportedly want 4 cylinders? Honda sells plenty of 4 cylinders in their street cars, too, and they even sell a turbo-4 in the Acura RDX. Last I checked, they have no production turbo-V6. So, what’s their angle? It sure isn’t “buy what we’re racing!” Even if Honda wants to bring a V6 and the others want vee- or inline-4s, why can’t we brew up an equivalency formula? It’s not 1976 anymore, so you don’t have to make guesses like they used to about boost levels for one type of engine versus another. There’s plenty of engine simulation software on the market (I used to work for a company that made one such program). Buy some and start cranking through the data! Honda wants an answer by Christmas? Great, that gives us five months to figure it out! Get on it! Now!

  8. As we speak, the auto industry is truly going through one of the most revolutionary times in it’s history. Large investments and developments are being pushed forward. We will be getting more hybrid electrics on the road. This is a fact, like it or not.

    Typically, open,wheel has been used as a showcase for technology. Not that any of the technology is applicable or ever really makes it to your road car, (in fact it’s more likely the other way around) but motorsport is there to serve as a marketing tool to “look like a showcase” for the auto manufactures. This showcase hits the “techy” people demographic open wheel racing serves.

    I would consider F1’s recent attempt to integrate KERS as a failure to be a good showcase for technology. I would attribute this to F1’s “critical mass”, and inability to implement change quickly across all teams. The teams and their investments have gotten so massive, they can not change direction quickly enough, nobody can agree, too many lawyers etc..

    Given the IRL essentially has no mass at all, now would seem like an opportune time to grab the attention of the automakers as a means to showcase new technologies. Sorry, I’m not talking about turbo charged V8’s, V6’s or 4’s here, that is not where the auto industry is headed.

    Any thoughts? Would you watch IRL if there were muliple mfg’s competing w/ Hybrids, or KERS etc?

    (don’t get me wrong, I love the old TurboV8 days)

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