The IRL Should Look For What, In A CEO?

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Word came last week that Jeff Belskus is passively seeking a CEO for the Indy Racing League. The current setup is confusing and sets up a leadership vacuum in the IRL. There are currently two presidents of the league. Terry Angstadt is president of the commercial division, which handles anything regarding marketing, scheduling, TV packages, etc; while Brian Barnhart is president of the competition division which involves more of the on-track product – with apologies to those that have e-mailed me complaining when I use the term “product” to describe racing. Sorry, it’s my marketing background coming out.

I should give overdue credit to longtime reader Mike Clossin. He has suggested more than one topic I have written about in the past, and he has suggested this one as well. The question is…what type of leader should Jeff Belskus be looking for?

Since Belskus was first introduced to the racing public last summer, I have been saying that he does not need to be the public face of the league. After the Tony George ouster, Belskus assumed the role of CEO of IMS Corp. His introductory press conference was grueling to watch as he stuttered and stammered through the entire proceedings. Most people who excel at looking at numbers all day and deciding how to enhance the bottom line, do not shine when it comes to public speaking. Add Jeff Belskus to this category. Top leaders recognize their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and Belskus knows he is not at his best behind a microphone and in front of a camera.

So after seven months on the job, has Jeff Belskus identified those skills that are needed to successfully run the IRL and work with the two presidents? Time will tell. In Curt Cavin’s article in Friday’s Indianapolis Star, he identified three candidates that Belskus reportedly has under consideration: Randy Bernard, the CEO of the Professional Bull-Riders; Mark Miles who is the President and CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnerships and the chairman of the 2012 Super Bowl Committee to be played in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis; and Zak Brown of Just Marketing, Inc.

So you have someone who has landed rodeo clowns on Versus, a mover and shaker on a local level and a part-time racer who founded a company that specializes in motorsports marketing. While all three probably have excellent credentials and solid resumes, none will stand out to anyone who is a fan of this sport as THE GUY. Based on my limited knowledge (with emphasis on the word “limited”), if I had to pick one of those three – I’d have to go with Brown, strictly because he has actually done some racing himself and knows most facets of the sport first-hand.

This gets us back to the question of what skill set is needed to be the CEO of the struggling league? Is it someone with a racing background? What type of marketing background is needed? Is a sports background necessary or just entertainment in general? Will the leader in question have more of a bean-counter mentality or be more of a slick PR person for the league?

There are currently more questions than answers. To me, someone with hands-on experience with racing in some capacity is necessary. Whether it be a former driver, team owner or team manager – it seems that the person would need that background in order to be able to work with Brian Barnhart on the competition side.

Then again, you would need someone that has worked on the business, financial and marketing side as well, in order to work with Terry Angstadt on the commercial side. That would eliminate most drivers.

You only need to go back and look at the revolving door of CEO’s and Commissioners at CART to realize that racing needs to be at least part of the candidate’s background. Among all of the failed leaders of that series, only Chris Pook had any racing background at all (except for interim CEO Bobby Rahal). Bill Stokkan, Andrew Craig and Joe Heitzler were all supposed to have the business acumen to lead that series from obscurity and none were successful. Of course, the business model that gave control to the owners probably had a lot to do with their failures. In all fairness, Andrew Craig should be given a pass as he held on to the job for six years and happened to come along at a time that happened to be the most tumultuous time in recent open-wheel history.

Some have suggested John Andretti to become the public face for the league. I think he would be a very good choice for several positions within the league, once he hangs up his helmet for good. However, CEO of the league is not one of them. This person needs to be a veteran of boardroom wars and John Andretti simply does not have the experience necessary for that role.

There aren’t many people who have the multiple faceted backgrounds to make them an ideal choice. To have someone that has succeeded in business and on the track narrows down the field considerably. The few people that come to mind that have the background, either don’t have the desire or have another factor preventing them from becoming a viable candidate. That small list includes Roger Penske, Gerry Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and possibly Kim or Barry Green. I don’t expect any of these to be a candidate

So if you’re reading this expecting some great name to emerge at the end, you’re going to be disappointed. The only conclusion that I can come up with is that the candidate should have experience in the racing industry somewhere in their recent past. As I said, there are more questions than answers. But I agree that someone needs to be chosen to lead this series. Having two separate but equal presidents left to operate with no accountability is not a good situation. Jeff Belskus has way too much to do with his other duties with Hulman and Company, to be saddled with the full-time demands of running the Indy Racing League. Let’s hope that one of his strengths as a top executive includes identifying and securing talent.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “The IRL Should Look For What, In A CEO?”

  1. If I hear Just Marketing one more time I’m going to vomit. How has Just Marketing been able to maintain the partnership with the league after they have done almost nothing to come up with new exciting ways to promote the sport. I think I smell something fishy with that one.

  2. I hesitate to say Bruton Smith (or PT Barnum) but someone with that kind of shameless energy. Someone who believes in the product and is ready to push it.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I agree that a new leader ought to be PASSIONATE — crazy — about reivigorating top-tier open-wheel racing in North America and competing for fans’ attention and dollars. The sport and business won’t survive another Bill Stokkan-type who doesn’t understand and love the sport and its fans.

  3. Drayton Sawyer Says:

    I agree with ya’ O.P. dude, Zak Brown is a former SCCA, Atlantics racer and he works with race teams and race sponsors from Grand Am to F1 and everthing in between. Zak is invloved with the financial side of racing and knows the actual value of IICS teams and he probably knows the equipment prices are higher than sponsorship dollars. Randy Bernard is used to working in a demographic that’s already watching NASCAR and I don’t think that’s going to help IICS’s cause. Mark Miles seems like the second coming of Leo Mehl and we know how that worked last time.

  4. How about someone with all of the above traits? I’m not sure someone like that exists, though.

    If I had to choose someone with only one of the above traits, I would probably choose someone with a racing background and hire someone with a strong marketing background to play Robin to their Batman. Who exactly would that be? I don’t know the answer to that.

  5. Andy Bernstein Says:

    I submitted Howdy Holmes’ name into nomination on TrackForum today. Join the discussion there if you have a pro or con reaction and wish to share it.

  6. tim nothhelfer Says:

    No Gene Simmons, Sham-Wow sales guy, and if Donald Trump tries to sell me on anything (I could afford) I’m not buying…..
    Roger has too many distractions (I wouldn’t buy one of those “smart” cars either….).
    How about Eddie Gossage…..
    Give him a piece of the pie, adopt him, marry him into the family….at all costs! (almost)
    Who better?

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