IMS must also remember its roots

IndyCar commentary — By on November 13, 2009 11:01 am
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

My colleague Steph recently wrote a wonderful post about how IndyCar, as the Series, needs to remember its roots and not forget the working men and women that bought tickets, became devoted followers, and formed the bedrock of open-wheel racing’s success here in America.

My only qualm with what Steph wrote is that I don’t think she took it far enough. It’s not only the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indy Racing League that must remember its roots. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation needs to remember how it become the world’s greatest race course.

In 1945, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was in shambles. Five years of neglect had taken its toll on the grounds, and many of the facilities at 16th and Georgetown were literally falling apart. It was 64 years ago tomorrow, November 14th, 1945, that Tony Hulman purchased the Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker and began one of the most amazing six-month restorations in the history of sports. It was also on that day that Tony began to establish relationships with the people that worked for and with him at IMS. Many of those relationships he forged then continued right until the day he passed away in 1977.

Though I tried to join the staff of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few years ago, I’ve never had the honor of being an IMS employee and seeing how things actually work on the inside. My perspectives are solely from an outsider’s standpoint, and I admit that to this day I hold the Speedway in unparalleled esteem. From the time I first saw the Speedway as a six-year-old tyke, it has always seemed bigger than life — but there was never any doubt in my mind that it was a family-run business. Even as the torch was passed from Tony Hulman to Joe Cloutier and eventually to Tony George, it always seemed that whether the person worked the front desk at the motel, cut the grass on the golf course, parked cars in the IRL office parking lot, sold tickets in the ticket office, or drove the tour bus for the museum, everyone knew the man in charge and the man in charge knew them. It seemed like the type of place were when Tony George walked down the halls, people were not afraid to stop him and chat for a few moments — that is, if Tony himself didn’t first initiate the conversation. It was the type of place where you got a Christmas card and felt like the words were sincere, even if the signatures on it were just copies. It was the type of place where you were loyal to the company and the company was loyal to you.

Sadly, those days seem to be gone.

I fully understand that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation is, at the end of the day, a business. They are in business to make money. I’m not one of those people who will turn my nose up at any company that thinks making a dollar is a good thing. Businesses are around to make money for their employees and their shareholders. IMSC is a business, and I get that.

What gravely concerns me is that IMSC seems to have lost the guiding light that started with Tony Hulman so many years ago. The company that held the world’s greatest race course has lost its mom-’n-pop feel and is very quickly becoming Big Business USA.

When Tony George sent his parting shot across the bow in July, he closed with this statement: “My question for the board has been not one of who is going to manage the company, but rather, who is going to lead it? There is a distinction.” (The full text of Tony’s July 26th statement can be found here.) At the time, I had no idea how true that statement would turn out to be. Joie Chitwood was still the President of the Speedway, and I felt that the Speedway itself was still in good hands. I felt that Terry Angstadt and Brian Barnhart, Presidents of the Indy Racing League, were capable leaders and, even though I’ve knocked them in the past, I figured they would at least continue to steer the ship in the direction it needed to go. Jeff Belskus was promoted to CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, the body that oversees IMS and the IRL, but I figured that most of the heavy lifting was actually going to be done by the three presidents. If only that had been the case…

Shortly after Tony George was shown the door and refused to play the BoD’s games, Joie Chitwood left to seek greener pastures at the International Speedway Corporation and the Speedway was without a figurehead. Soon after, it was announced that the position would not be filled by a new hire but that Jeff Belskus would assume those duties as part of his role as IMSC CEO. It seemed like a lot for one person to be taking on (to me, anyway), but I figured I’d give him a chance. It has become painfully obvious to this outsider that Belskus is not the one that should be the face of the IMSC. Never was that more clear than at the IZOD sponsorship announcement at IMS last Thursday. Jeff looked almost unbearably uncomfortable in the spotlight during the presentation and exuded not a persona of confidence but one of sheer and utter terror. This man, this position, that is equal to that of Eddie Gossage, Humpy Wheeler, and Bruton Smith, needs to be engaging and comfortable with the public. Watching Chitwood fulfill this role for the past several years, it seemed to come naturally to him, and it was a role in which he thrived. Listening to and watching Jeff during the press conference, it was obvious that while he may be great for the accounting aspects of the company, the public relations side has taken a great hit.

What hurts even more than watching Jeff Belskus be the face of the Speedway is what is happening to so many of the great employees at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League. Again, I completely understand that IMSC is a business and needs to make money. However, in these turbulent economic times, the companies that thrive after the pendulum swings the other way are the ones that worked the hardest when the chips were down. When the public clings to their pocketbooks a little harder, the successful companies work a little harder to reach those people. Businesses that are tied to people’s discretionary money in particular need to come up with new ways of reaching out and getting their message to the people. I am deeply afraid that Belskus’s fiscal conservatism is running counter to the forward-thinking, aggressive approach that IMS should be taking in these times. I’m sure the folks at Texas Motor Speedway are hurting, too, and they’ve probably had to let go of some very fine employees over the past year.  But at the same time, I can guarantee you that Eddie Gossage probably eats, drinks, and sleeps thinking of new ways to bring fans to his facility.

I don’t see that kind of forward vision coming from the head of IMS right now. All I seem to see are cuts. I see cuts like Ron Green, who so often was the one that broke stories from the Speedway. I see cuts like Chase Eaton, who worked tirelessly as the liaison between the Indy Racing League and the Downforce Fan Club. I see cuts like Gloria Novotony, who had been with the Speedway since the days of Tony Hulman in the 1970s. Maybe it’s just a metaphor for the auto racing industry as a whole, but what used to be the very large family-run mom-’n-pop Speedway has now turned very suit and tie-ish.

As Lauren George has said on many occasions, there is a lot that we on the outside don’t know, and I fully admit that I know very little more of the inner workings of IMS than the average Joe on the streets would. Like I said before, these are just observations from someone on the outside looking in. Indy Star writer Curt Cavin, who is significantly more on the inside than me, will be joining us next week on the Planet-IRL podcast, and I look forward to picking his brain on the subject. I’d also like to talk with Lauren George about the topic because, unlike her dad, I’m pretty sure we could get a far less filtered version of the story from her — though that isn’t to say she’d tell us much.

One final word: I have floated the idea around Twitter (that’s @Fieldof33, by the way) that perhaps Jeff Belskus has been brought to the top of the chain simply to be the hatchet man, clean house, and then split town. If that’s the case, I really think that would be unfortunate. Jeff himself has been an IMSC employee since the mid-1980s and by all accounts is an excellent bean counter. My rants above should not be construed to say that I think Jeff is not capable in an executive position. However, I feel he would be far better served as the CFO or in some position that does not put him in front of the public where he does not seem to want to be, and I certainly don’t think he’s the best qualified person to be the President (and face) of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

However, finding that person is crucial to both the short- and long-term future of the world’s greatest race course.

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