A Great Driver Doesn’t Make A Great CEO

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Earlier this week, I was reading Curt Cavin’s Q&A and couldn’t help but laugh when I read where someone actually suggested that Mario Andretti should be named the next CEO of the IZOD IndyCar Series. Seriously?

Mario Andretti is one of the greatest drivers in history – in any series. He is a magnificent ambassador for the series, but I have no idea what that person was thinking to write in. It’s popular to suggest that the only stupid question is the question not asked. Well, that particular question just put that tired old saying to rest. That was a stupid question.

As Curt patiently responded, Mario doesn’t need an office job in Indianapolis at this point in his life. At 72, he wouldn’t want the hassle.

But the thing that struck me is that someone thinks being a star driver be it forty years ago or ten years ago, should qualify them to be the CEO of the series. I find that laughable.

Does anyone remember Bart Starr? He led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles in the sixties. He was revered in Titletown. Yet, when the Packers turned to Starr to be their head coach in the mid-seventies – the results were abysmal. His nine seasons as coach of the Packers produced only fifty-two wins against seventy-six losses and three ties for a winning percentage of only.408. His name probably bought him more time than usual, but his superb ability as a player did not translate into wins as a coach.

There are many examples of athletes not making a successful transition into coach or administrator. I consider AJ Foyt to be the greatest driver ever, yet his racing team has spent most of its existence as a second or third tier team. Bobby Rahal has had mixed results as a car owner. As a driver, he won three CART championships – one in his first year as an owner-driver. As an owner, he did win the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice, but his team has been inconsistent and he has made some curious choices as an owner.

Sometimes, it’s the mediocre athletes that make great administrators. Former Titans and current Rams coach Jeff Fisher had a modest playing career, but he is now regarded as one of the better coaches in the game today. The same can be said for many drivers as car owners. Chip Ganassi had a very forgettable driving career, yet I think he’s done OK as an owner. Roger Penske had a more impressive driving resume, but it does not come close to what he has done as an owner. The one exception to all of this may actually be Mario Andretti’s son. Michael Andretti won the 1991 CART title and came close many other times. As an owner, he has won the Indianapolis 500 twice and has collected four IndyCar titles, including this past season.

But being a successful driver does not qualify one to be a successful CEO. And make no mistake, there is no margin of error in this next hire. It has to be a successful CEO. Randy Bernard had never even seen a race until he became IndyCar’s CEO in 2010. He acclimated himself quickly and I always thought did a good job. However, there were some who thought he lacked credibility because of his lack of racing experience either as a driver, car owner, marketer, etc. That’s a justifiable stance. If you need to see a doctor, who puts you more at ease – a physician with twenty years of experience or someone just coming out of their residency?

It’s nice if someone has some experience in every aspect of the sport, like a Doug Boles or a Zak Brown. They at least have the ability to empathize with owners or drivers. But that should not be a requirement for a CEO. Should the CEO of GM know how to tear down an engine or have experience on the assembly line? Probably not, but it sure helps if they can read a balance sheet.

As much as I admire and respect Rick Mears, I don’t think he should be considered for CEO. I also don’t think Curt Cavin’s name should be thrown into the hat as one person suggested. This will be a complicated hire for a person who brings a lot of attributes to the table besides an impressive resume. Let’s leave the stars of yesteryear out of the equation.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “A Great Driver Doesn’t Make A Great CEO”

  1. Carburetor Says:

    IndyCar’s next CEO needs to have exemplary business acumen–especially with business expansion techniques. Racing knowledge and background would add credibility–with the fans, sponsors, teams, and perhaps the board of directors–although their perception seems to be the only opinion that truly counts. Though I realize he once drove race cars, you would have to agree that Roger Penske has been pretty successful at running and growing businesses. Yet, I believe running an enterprise such as IndyCar would require a different approach due to overall lack of control the CEO truly has on the operation.

    As for former stellar athletes becoming quality administrators, I would agree that most would not be considered successful. Two exceptions come to mind–Ozzie Newsome is in the Hall of Fame for his career with the Browns (no easy feat in itself) and is considered one of the better general managers in the game with his long-standing stint with the Ravens. Another is John Elway–who systematically improved his business skills with his Arena League franchise and is resurrecting the moribund Broncos. His deft dealing of ridding the franchise of Tim Tebow–who has an excellent chance of totally washing out of the league, yet has a rather non-objective avid fan base that can present problems for a franchise–was absolutely brilliant. Evidently Elway paid some attention in class when he was at Stanford.

    I was saddened to be reminded of my long-time boyhood hero, Bart Starr’s unsuccessful head coaching stint. I had been able to repress that memory until today. I’ll rededicate myself to watching Bart cross the goal line against the Cowboys in the 1967 Ice Bowl on You-Tube….

  2. I’m not sure the Hulman-George family wants to spend the money to properly promote and market Indycar, no matter who the CEO is. Indycar needs to be defined and introduced to the American public, most of whom have no idea what it is outside of the 500. I live in Austin and for the last year–if I mention Indycar–people always ask if I’m excited about them coming to Austin. I think Indycar needs to be explained as American Open-Wheel Racing and they need to exploit the road, street, oval uniqueness of the series and how that makes it different from either F1 or Nascar.

    Back to George’s original question, I do think Indycar needs a promoter with some racing background, but not necessarily a driver.

  3. George, if the driver had the abilities and skill of a CEO then, yes, it would be a great move. However, I don’t believe that being a driver is something that should be a requirement or part of the job description.

  4. So, you really had to bring up Bart Starr’s coaching record did you? Thanks for sharing that with us:(

  5. How about Diffey and Buxton to NBC Sports? Best IndyCar related news since RHR’s championship.

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