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INDYCAR: a big time series with small town issues

For years, my ring tone was John Mellencamp’s song “Small Town.”  I always felt it painted a picture of something with which I was familiar.  When I was growing up in Shirley, Indiana, neighbors knew each other, doors remained unlocked, and everybody looked out for the kids in town.  The distorted lens of the past allows us to focus on what is remembered as an idyllic childhood; it’s always summer in my memory.  The past is a lie, though.  We only remember the good things that passed by our young eyes.  The problem with the memory of youth is that it’s only youth we remember.  Life was grand.  As kids we were not aware of gossip, poverty, alcoholism, spousal abuse, politics, and other small town problems of adults.  The current issues in INDYCAR are a microcosm of the realities of small town life.

INDYCAR and its parent company Hulman & Co. are like the mom-and-pop store down the street in any small town across America.  The people you deal with are down-to-earth and friendly with a definite small town Midwestern dialect.  I am not being critical.  They sound just like me.  Due to the demolition of some grandstands this year at IMS, a portion of my Indy 500 tickets had to be moved.  I was assigned a ticket representative to call.  She was patient, informative, and friendly – just the kind of clerk you expect to find in any small town business.  When I met her in person to iron out some wrinkles, she was exactly who I imagined her to be.  I can guarantee you she has worked there for most of her adult life.  She knew everything about my situation.  I felt like she was on my side and understood my concerns.  As a patron, I appreciated being a person, not just an account.  IMS truly cared about me.  At the level of dealing with guests, IMS has it covered.  With recent events, that’s not the message being sent regarding the INDYCAR series by the Hulman & Co. board of directors.

Even the much maligned Safety Patrol in their yellow shirts are similar to the folks in a small town.  When a carnival came around in my small town, you could expect to see the local Lions Club members in their yellow vests volunteering to do the grunt work to make the event a success.  Even though I called some of the Safety Patrol “petty tyrants and martinets” in a previous post, they work the month of May for low wages to help stage one of the premier sporting events in the world.  IMS has never hired an outside vendor to provide the service that the local men and women of Indiana provide.  Just like small town law enforcement, you accept that authority sometimes goes to people’s heads.  There’s always a give and take.  A small town takes care of its own.  Again, this is a good thing.

Something as simple as the concessions at the Speedway reflect the ethos of the Midwest.  IMS make a profit on the sandwiches and drinks, but you don’t feel like you are being gouged.  It’s no more expensive to buy a burger or a tenderloin at IMS than it is to buy a sandwich at a local restaurant or bar.  If you have attended a concert or a professional football or baseball game recently, then you know how it feels to pay $9 or more for a beer.  IMS treats its fans better than that.  And do you know what’s really great about buying a sandwich or beer at IMS?  You get to consume it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Think about that for a moment.

But all is not sweetness and light in a small town, though.  There is darkness, too.  The politics of a small town are full of back room deals and backstabbing.  Often, the leaders of these political factions are not, shall we say, the beneficiaries of a worldly perspective.  They are often rather short-sighted, insular, and provincial.  These “qualities” may work in the narrow confines of a small town, but they don’t work as well in the global business of auto racing.  The recent firing of Randy Bernard had all the characteristics of what happens on a small town school board.  The parents of students who have issues demand redress from the principal.  The principal, a professional at what he does, refuses to accede to their demands.  All teachers and principals in small communities know what happens next.  The parents go to their friends on the school board to leverage the principal to get their way.  And it works.  Randy Bernard was the principal, the owners were the parents, and Jeff Belklus and the Hulman & Co. board of directors were the school board.  The owners went around Bernard, and it cost him his job.  It’s ugly in a small town when this happens, but only the people in the small town know about it.  When Hulman & Co. and its board do it, it is still ugly, but because it’s being played out on a world stage, it is also unprofessional and amateurish.  The time has come for IMS and INDYCAR to leave the small town life and start living in the big city if they want to have a series that is respected around the world.

But the true example of the limitations of a small town world view reside with the board of directors for Hulman & Co.  Even though the board has been expanded to include members with a much broader vision of the world, they are still very much on the board in an advisory capacity.  They can offer their perspectives but cannot force any change.  The power resides in the family members on the board who, even with their money and the opportunities that money brings, seem to be no more worldly than the small town school board mentioned above.  On the west side of Indianapolis in the small town enclave that is Speedway, they represent power, authority, and wealth.  They have confused this small town power with the wisdom that comes from engagement with the greater world.  Just because you have the power to affect change does not mean you have the wisdom to affect positive change.  The recent events at 16th and Georgetown bear this out.

Some things do not need to change.  The small town culture that is the guiding philosophy of the Indianapolis 500 and the Speedway itself is perfect as is.  It works for the 500 and the venue.  The pre-race activities with the Gordon Pipers, the Speedway High School marching band, the Boy Scouts, and the motorcycle police are part of what makes the 500 iconic.  The lyrics of “Back Home Again in Indiana” are as small town as you can get.  The Safety Patrol with their yellow shirts and the 500 Festival Parade are part of the fabric of the event and what it means to live in Indianapolis.  All these things reflect all that is good about the small town ethos and must remain.

The issue is not with the Indianapolis 500 or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.  It is with the vision of the board of directors as it relates to the series.  The real question is whether the board can examine the situation and, in a rare moment of self-awareness, see that the real problem with the series is not with the INDYCAR CEO, the owners, or the fans but with themselves.  If they reach this conclusion, then the real change needed in the series can be made.  And what is the most needed change?  The INDYCAR series needs to be divorced from IMS and the Hulman & Co. board of directors as much as possible.  It is clear that board does not plan to sell the series.  To do so would be to put the IMS cash cow in jeopardy of being leveraged by an outside entity.  That happened once, and IMS and the board will not allow it to happen again.  Until the series and its CEO can make their own decisions without the small town interference of the board, INDYCAR will continue in its downward spiral until it finally augers in and leaves nothing but a smoking crater where the series used to be.  What remains will be a diminished Indianapolis 500 and a shell of a series that the racing world, and that means fans and sponsors, only notice in the month of May.

Walt Kelly’s iconic comic strip Pogo had the title character, surveying the detritus of humans in his beloved swamp, state: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Until the Hulman & Co. board of directors has this epiphany regarding their own impact on the INDYCAR series, then nothing will change.  And not changing is about as small town as you can get.

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3 thoughts on “INDYCAR: a big time series with small town issues

  1. Great insight and well presented. One of IndyCar’s issues is that it can’t see beyond the greater Indianapolis metro area. Just look at how many people consider IndyCar and IMS as synonymous. The thinking goes as long as we have the 500, we’re OK. So people come to IMS, much like people make their pilgrimage to the Iowa State Fair here in Iowa — 1 million in ticket sales every year. They they go home and ignore the series until the next Memorial Day. IndyCar has been living on that for decades, and it’s like grains falling through an hour glass and the times pass this business model by. A series is more than one race although you’d never know it by IndyCar’s (and probably the majority of its fans) fixation on the Indy 500. A strength — the grand lore, history, focus and tradition of the Ind 500, threatens to turn into a weakness since it eclipses the need for a strong, 20-ish race series to make the 500 even more special. IndyCar and it’s leaders need to get serious about growing the series beyond the confines of IMS. That’s the challenge, but that’s also the huge opportunity.

  2. I am absolutely Indy-centric. It’s been at the center of my existence forever. But even I realize that the series is the key to the future. If the family wants to make the 500 the center of the universe, that’s fine. Sell the series. If you want to keep the series, then it needs autonomy. The series needs to make its own decisions if it is to grow. And it has to grow…or die.

  3. I agree with that, because independent ownership of IndyCar will see it needs more fans outside of Indy to survive. It’s amazing what a threat to survival does to clarify your focus on customers. We agree that if Sugar Daddy (IMS) keeps propping up IndyCar, it’s going to continue to focus on Sugar Daddy, and that’s just not sustainable.

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