The Pursuit Of Absolute Power

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The US government is set up with three basic divisions or branches; the Executive Branch (the President), the Legislative Branch (Congress) and the Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court). In simplest terms, it was set up this way to prevent any one person or persons from becoming too powerful and abusing such power.

This post is not about politics, so please refrain from a political discussion. I mention these three branches however, to illustrate that someone acquiring too much power is a bad thing in any government, company or organization. In this case, I’m referring to IndyCar.

First of all, we need a little history lesson. No, not US history; but a look at some of the recent goings-on with IndyCar and the board at Hulman Motorsports, which oversees IndyCar. Jeff Belskus was Chairman of the Board when IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was fired in late October of 2012. Shortly after that, Belskus “stepped aside” and board member Mark Miles was named Chairman in the midst of the search for Randy Bernard’s replacement.

It wasn’t long afterwards that Miles put himself in charge of IndyCar, instead of hiring a replacement for Randy Bernard. I thought at the time that it made for an uncomfortable arrangement since the CEO of IndyCar was now reporting to himself. Since then, Miles has taken it upon himself to make some rather curious decisions, such as ending the IndyCar season prior to Labor Day, designate some races as double-points races and awarding a point for leading a race, and completely revamping the qualifying format for Indianapolis 500 qualifying, which included moving Pole Day to Sunday.

Miles has also let races at Fontana, Edmonton, Baltimore and Houston drop off the schedule; while allowing financial debacles at Brasilia and NOLA to take place.

All the while, Miles buries himself into his bunker and is heard from only when he sees it appropriate. Unlike Randy Bernard or IMS President Doug Boles, Miles is rarely seen at race tracks where fans have access to him. When he is spotted, he usually has an entourage around him and appears very unapproachable.

Is it necessary for a corporate CEO or head of a sports entity to be visible to customers or to mingle with fans? Not always, but when your company is perceived to be on life-support, it certainly helps. Steve Jobs was very visible to those that bought iPhones, iPads and Macs; but I couldn’t tell you who the CEO for Coca-Cola is. That doesn’t stop me from drinking Coke. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t get out and yuk it up with tailgating fans before football games, but his sport seems to grow no matter what kind of bad press it endures.

Would it hurt for Mark Miles to get out and talk to IndyCar fans and listen to their desires and concerns? No, but that doesn’t seem to be in his comfort zone so you can probably forget about that ever happening.

Once we found out that Derrick Walker, former President of Competition and Operations, was leaving IndyCar at the end of this past season, there has been speculation as to who might take his place. Some point to current Hulman Motorsports Chief Revenue Officer Jay Frye, who was hired by Miles, as a possible replacement. Others have been campaigning for Al Unser, Jr. among others.

In an article last week on Racer.com, Robin Miller reports many of Walker’s former duties will now be handled by – Mark Miles.

A few months ago, I wrote a post wondering why we rarely see or hear anything from the two “super-hires” that were hired by Miles that were so heralded at the time; Frye and Chief Marketing Officer C.J. O’Donnell. Both were touted as the Mark Miles “dream team” as experts in their field and were both interviewed on Trackside, shortly after they came on board in November of 2013. We’ve hardly heard anything from them since. I surmised then that Miles must not confident in turning the keys over to those he had hired. I wondered then if Miles was one of those that preferred to do everything himself, rather than delegate responsibilities to others that he had already hired.

In that same post, I suggested Miles should drop the double-duty of Chairman of the Board and IndyCar CEO. It seemed to almost create a conflict of interest. While IMS has Doug Boles to serve as a buffer between IMS and the board, there is no such buffer for IndyCar. Instead, it now looks like Mark Miles is opting for triple-duty by taking on many of Walker’s duties as well.

To use a famous movie quote, “What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here?” Is Mark Miles trying to save money on salaries by filling all the roles with himself; or is his ego so big that he thinks that he, and he alone, is the only one capable of saving IndyCar? Either way, it’s not good.

In my professional career, I’ve had excellent supervisors and some that were, well…not so excellent. The good ones delegated duties to their subordinates, freeing themselves up to focus on the bigger picture items. Even if the subordinates screwed up, that was how they learned.

The not-so-good ones did not seem to trust the very people they had hired and chose to do all the work themselves. In the process, they complained about how overworked they were and how inept their staff was. I currently manage a staff of nine people. I am committed to adhering to the management style I described first and it has been very effective. The best managers allow their employees grow into their roles. They are given enough autonomy to make mistakes and learn from them.

If Miles thinks he’s doing IndyCar a favor by filling several of the roles and saving salaries, he’s not. Good leaders delegate. The best football coaches are those that don’t have their hand in everything. They hire good assistants and stand back and let them do their job. Standing over employees does nothing but make employees feel inadequate. Miles could be stunting the growth of his own team by insisting on doing everyone’s work for them. I don’t know that he is doing this, but from what we’ve seen – all indications are that he is trying to do too much himself.

Of course, I’m just theorizing here. That’s what we do in the offseason, we kick topics around and speculate. But I’ll bet I’m not too far from the truth.

My personal opinion is that Miles is making a big mistake by putting himself into Derrick Walker’s former position – even if it is only temporary. He says he intends to hire someone to replace Walker, at some point. If memory serves me correctly, he said the same thing when he inserted himself into Randy Bernard’s job. That was before it became permanent.

There are no checks and balances in place. Unless I’m wrong, Mark Miles reports to no one other than himself and ultimately, the Hulman-George family. As Miles assumes more duties for himself, he is also accumulating more power. There are fewer decision makers for him to deal with. He can make all the decisions himself and not be questioned along the way.

The problem is, who is going to say no to Mark Miles? Is the board? That’s doubtful since he’s chairman of the board. Can IndyCar? Hardly, since he is now in the two most powerful positions in IndyCar. The way I understand it, the only one(s) who can oppose Miles on this is the Hulman-George family. For a number of reasons, Mari Hulman George is somewhat disengaged lately. That leaves Tony George and his sisters, who couldn’t agree on anything if they had to.

Right now it appears that IndyCar, as an organization, is in the grasp of an unchecked power-hungry dictator who insists in having his hand in every minute decision. It was this scenario that had the US Founding Fathers set up a system where no one had absolute and unchecked power. They realized such a situation is far too dangerous when someone with the potential to abuse power is in there. It’s too bad that the board of Hulman and Company didn’t have such safeguards.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “The Pursuit Of Absolute Power”

  1. Jim Peabody, Colorado Springs Says:

    Great article George. You are spot on! Miles has to go for our sport to survive. Doug Boles should be the choice. He is passionate and knowledgeable about Indycar.

  2. I can understand Miles taking Walker’s place while finding a capable full time candidate. However, are there any capable candidates wanting the position?

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    Great piece, George. Miles has no racing expertise which is essential to this job. He needs someone in this position who knows racing. I don’t know who would want the job, but it needs to be somebody from the racing community.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I guess I did not realize how many pies Miles had thrust his fingers into. The question that comes to me is why? Is this apparent control freakishness simply Miles’ leadership style or is he assembling power for some ulterior reason?

    Is he expecting a tussle with the owners or other Indycar constituents?
    Does he think he’s emulating NASCAR’s “benevolent dictatorship” despite the Frances and Mike Helton having decades of motorsports experience?

    I can ask this all day, of course, but I doubt we’ll find out unless/until something hits the fan.

  5. My understanding is that IndyCar’s financials have improved under Miles. That is all that matters to the board. The improved TV ratings, which I believe are 100% due to NASCAR landing on NBCSN (and maybe a tiny bit of the Graham Rahal effect), would tend to tell the board things are going in the right direction as well. He has done zero to improve the on-track product, the schedule, or the fan experience. But these things don’t matter to the board. They let him outsource all knowledge and experience about those things to Boston Consulting, which knew about as much about such things as he did. Anyway, things are going to keep going in this direction as long as the financials are heading in the right direction.

  6. I guess my reaction to this revelation by Robin Miller is: “OK. And?” I’m not really sure how Miles “amassing more power” could really have much of an ill effect on much of anything. He’s not about to start insisting that all the races be run down his street so that he can watch them from his house, or that weekend schedules include two hours of track time so that he alone can run a car around the track by himself. At the end of the day, he’s being paid to make decisions that will make IndyCar and Hulman & Company money. If he stops doing that, or if the current level of profitability turns around, then he’ll be asked to leave. Remember, Hulman Motorsports made money in 2014, and with most measurable KPIs up this year (TV ratings, in-person attendance [with a couple notable exceptions], sponsorships, car counts, etc.), then I’m guessing that they probably were in the black for the second straight year. Those profits are what allows the sport to continue to run.

    In the meantime, Miles says that they want to find a replacement for Derrick Walker. I’ll take him at his word for that. And my guess is that if that search either continues into the 2016 season or if he’s lying, then he’s going to see really, really quickly how much Derrick was doing on a day-to-day basis, and the efforts to find a suitable replacement will be redoubled. This is one of those things that will eventually work itself out.

    • Agree. Lamenting Miles’ moves is intlectual wheel spinning. As the Geek says, market will sort it out. Miles has to please the majority of The Family, period. Black ink does that, red doesn’t.

  7. hey George. all I can say is this

    THEY WANTED CART BACK AND NOW THEY HAVE IT. so be careful wat you ask for.

    the same front office buffanary you had at cart has now moved over to this seris. say wat you want about nascar but you know who rules and who makes them.

    as long as certain well off car owners continue to have so much say it will continue as is and was. thank god for a great on track product and good drivers or the seris would have died long ago!

    bring back tony George at least he gave a dam about the 500 and the seris.

  8. I am not sure what to think and I try not too spend too much time thinking and worrying about things I have no control over. Mark Miles has been criticised for seemingly not being very involved in the series and now is being criticised for getting more involved. I would like to see him be more visible and forthcoming.

    I am looking forward to watching IndyCars back at Road America next Tuesday. Twenty bucks gets you in with free paddock access and half goes to JW’s family. Perhaps I will see you there.

  9. Not a whole lot to add George….great article and insight. I think we could use a big name that has a racing background. Rick Mears? Al Jr?? Heck many may laugh but I bet Robin Miller would do a commendable job.

  10. The racing is great on track. I am not going to worry myself with boardroom stuff.

  11. 2 things I hate to bring up here but they are true.

    1- You notice NASCAR never has these problems with the upper management, like him or not and most don’t, Brian France is in charge. Nascar is a nepotism nightmare but last I heard, Indycar was also with IMS!

    2- You also notice, that the best teams in the NFL, they have a quarterback who is the leader. Teams doomed to be horrible each year (Oakland, Cleveland, etc) go through the same struggles year after year with no defined leader.

    Indycar is the Cleveland Browns of motorsports, no direction, no unity and no clue what the fans want! Back in the CART days there were at least some owners out there who could keep Penske in check, no one has power now though other than he and Ganassi, so it’s not even like you could have a board of owners making decisions that are best for the league.

  12. Mark Miles reminds me of a certain President of the United States. If he thinks he will be able to handle Derrek Walkers responsibilities in addition to what he already has on his plate, he is delusional. Derrek walker was irreplaceable.

  13. I voted “other” because Derrick Walker’s shoes are hard to fill. It needs a racer to fill them. Mark Miles hasn’t found anybody in time so he now has to do the job by himself. Here’s hoping he finds a successor for himself in that post before the next season begins so he has got more time for his other jobs.

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