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The end of the IndyCar Mom and Pop

I grew up in a small Indiana town.  Not only did I know all the business people and citizens of the place, I knew every dog in town by name.  If you were a quarter short on your bill, the local grocery, drugstore, and gas station would let you have it on the cuff.  They knew where you lived.  It was a good way to grow up.  Sadly, the small town experience has fallen victim to Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Amazon.  Personal service is a thing of the past.  I miss it.

Sometimes, though, the loss of the small town Mom and Pop store needs to happen.  Wal-Mart, for all its heavy-handed insistence on driving competition out of business, saves consumers money, and Amazon allows people the convenience of shopping for everything from home.  Hulman & Company, the corporation that owns both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series, has finally moved away from its Terre Haute roots and is searching for success in the 21st century.  They understand that they have to grow or atrophy.  There is no in-between.

Exit Jeff Belskus.  The Hulman & Company president and CEO announced his (cough) retirement from the business last week.  Mark Miles has systematically  cleaned house reorganized the business to consolidate his power.  If he, and IndyCar fans, want the series to succeed, this had to happen.  Poor Randy Bernard, brought in by the board to affect change, was hamstrung and marginalized from the beginning of his tenure by the tentacles of the Terre Haute mafia that allowed anyone with a grievance to do an end-around to the offices of his superiors.  Additionally, Bernard was never given the budget to hire the pros in marketing, sales, event management, and finance that Miles has brought on board.  Whether fans like it or not, the face of IndyCar racing is changing forever.

Recently, Miles added Allison Melangton, former president of the Indiana Sports Corporation,  as VP of events, and Cindy Lucchese as chief financial officer and chief administrative officer.  In fact, Belskus was out on Thursday and Lucchese was in on Monday.  Different positions, yes, but both are financial people.  The years of IMS and the IndyCar Series being a sinecure for family and friends, no matter how well-connected and nice, are over.   Well, kind of over.  Just because you are connected doesn’t mean you are incompetent.  IMS and the series still employ family and friends, who, from all indications, are capable.  They just may no longer have as much access to the inner sanctum.  And that is important.

The Yellow Shirts and ticket and credentials offices at IMS continue to retain their folksy ways.  If you call or stop by for a visit, you will absolutely be introduced to true Hoosier hospitality.  That’s the veneer.  If you venture to where the new bosses reside, I am sure the vibe would be much more professional.  President Lyndon Johnson famously said, “I don’t want loyalty.  I want loyalty.  I want him to kiss my a– in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.”  Miles has his loyal team and has gathered the power to him.  Now it’s time to take care of business.

 

 

 

 

Where’s the noise? – the silence of IndyCar management.

Listen.  Can you hear anything?  I know, Robin Miller is still rattling some cages in “Miller’s Mailbag,” and Track Forum is always Track Forum: someone is always saying something over there.  But other than the recent test at Barber Motorsports Park, what is there to talk about?

And yes, I see the irony in my managing to write about the fact that there really isn’t anything about which to write.  The question is whether that is a good thing or not.  I believe there are two schools of thought on the subject.

The first school of thought is the drone of the dour doubters on “Miller’s Mailbag” and at Track Forum.¹  From their point of view, the silence of the post Randy Bernard regime is borderline criminal.  How can the series grow if the leaders of the series are not constantly out promoting the product?  My god, we are up the creek in a barbed-wire canoe!  We are going straight to a hell where we will be forced to watch NASCAR and listen to Darrell Waltrip tell us how that series invented the breaded tenderloin and steering wheels!  This school of thought sees a Hindenburg of a series just tossing the mooring lines out at Lakehurst, New JerseyOh, the humanity!

The other perspective is a little more restrained.  They see the silence of the management team as a sign that a deliberate and thoughtful plan is in place to move the series forward that does not include the bosses being the story.  Randy Bernard’s popularity with the fans (which was much deserved) stuck in the craw of some of the drivers who believed (and rightly so) that they were the stars of the series.  This new low-key style was played out at Barber this week when a decidedly unpublicized meeting took place with Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, IndyCar CEO Jeff Belklus, and IndyCar COO Robby Greene meeting with IndyCar drivers and team principals.  This would have been press conference material in the recent past.  The agenda would have been leaked and dissected before the event.  Interviews and comments about the meeting would have found their way into Curt Cavin’s “Pit Pass” as well as a snarky column from Robin Miller.  This year?  Crickets.  No press release, no leaks, no videos, no snarky comments.  What in the world is going on here? This may be a sign that IndyCar is becoming  a serious business.  The focus was on the product.

In any case, it appears that a new management model is in place.  That may be good news for IndyCar, but it is absolute hell on bloggers who need the series dysfunction that had become the norm so we have something about which to write.  A successful IndyCar series would silence the snark.  So come on, IndyCar people, do something stupid.  I cannot keep writing about nothing.  This is not Seinfeld, you know.

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1.  I love “Miller’s Mailbag” and Track Forum.  And I’m not just saying that so the maniacs there don’t feel the need to verbally attack me here, although that would make a lot of sense.  The fact is we need the maniacal and the fanatical.  Every sports entertainment property needs the hard-core fans.  They are the sourdough needed to make new bread.  You have to have yeast, and I am sure there are very doughy body types single finger typing behind those 10-year-old HP computers.  I appreciate the passion.  We need more of it.

The Big Kahuna at IndyCar

I like sobriquets like the big kahuna or the kingpin.  They personalize and soften the people in power.  They humanize them.  After the purges and pogroms in IndyCar lately, some softening seems to be in order.

The big boss man Mark Miles has made his presence felt in the offices of IMS and IndyCar.  After the releases of Randy Bernard, Steve Shunck, and Liza Markle, it seemed that Hulman & Co. was consolidating power and cutting ties with anyone who seemed to be connected to the previous regime.  Or maybe the bean counter in charge was just saving money.  Twitter was aflame with angst.  Robin Miller was apoplectic. The general consensus of those who had dealt with any of these people was that they were friendly, helpful, and relentlessly geared to customer satisfaction.  After years of perceived mismanagement, the few hard-core fans left felt loved and appreciated.  Someone was finally listening to them.  And then the roof caved in.  Bernard was released in a clumsily organized power play, and then Jeff Belklus took over in a scene reminiscent of  Alexander Haig’s “I’m in control here” verbal gaffe, deep diving the IndyCar offices to put the house back in order.  And then Mark Miles arrived.

It is clear that the new big cheese was in charge.  As Hulman & Co. CEO, Miles rearranged the remaining management team, putting Doug Boles in as COO of IMS and Robby Greene in as COO of IndyCar.  Belklus is their immediate boss as CEO of IMS and interim CEO of IndyCar.  Mark Miles is still the potentate of all.  What Miles did is called consolidating power, and it is always the prerogative of a new boss to do so.  He needs people loyal to him, or afraid of him, in his key management positions.  He now has that.

The hard-core fans are wondering the same things.  They all have the same questions:

  • Does Miles understand racing?
  • Does he appreciate the Indianapolis 500 and the Speedway?
  • Is he a tool of the Hulman-George family?
  • Is he one more in a long line of compromised leaders?
  • Can he deal with the multiple constituencies of IndyCar?
  • Does he care about the fans?
  • Will he show the fans that he cares?
  • Will he communicate a vision for the series?
  • Will he be an ivory tower leader?

Are these all the questions?  Consider what the list looks like for other constituencies.  What questions do the owners have?  The drivers?  The sponsors?  The vendors?  You can assume a list of questions just as long or longer for each of them.  The basic question is who is this guy and can he do the job?

After listening to Miles on Trackside with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee, I have high hopes for the reign of King Mark.  Listen to the podcast.  He was smooth, articulate, knowledgeable, and sharp.  He gave his views on the current state of IndyCar and where the series needed to go.  He did not shoot from the hip.  In many ways he was the antithesis of Randy Bernard.  He only committed to things that he was already committed too.  If he did not know the answer, he did not vamp, stutter, or make things up.  He said he didn’t know.  Refreshing.

It is clear that Miles is decisive.  He jumped on board with the IMS Tax District concept and explained it in cogent terms on the radio.  He put people in the positions he needed them.  He has released people from their employment.  He has clearly stated that IMS and IndyCar are on the same team and need to work more closely together.  Translation: you all report to me.  And don’t forget it.  The family may have found their guy: Mark Miles can make them money, bring them good PR, and finally herd all those damn cats into the corral.  And that is something Hulman & Co. desperately needs.  The family wants to have the goodwill of the community and millions of dollars in their pockets.  And they need a man like Miles to give it to them.  History has shown they have trouble doing it themselves.

We all know time will tell, but a Henry Ford quote I’ve used before seems most apropos: ““Asking ‘who ought to be the boss’ is like asking ‘who ought to be the tenor in the quartet?’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor.”  Warm up those vocal chords, Mr. Miles, you’re on.

IndyCar Fan Dilemma: Fever Pitch Edition

I’m a sap.  There, I’ve admitted it.  Everyone thinks I only care about sports, action movies, and sophomoric comedy for entertainment, and to some degree, they are right.  I like all those things.  But in the deep, dark corners of my heart lurks that bane of manliness, that enemy of all things male: the hopeless romantic.  Please don’t judge me harshly.  It is my belief that some form of romanticism plays hide-and-seek in the souls of all men.  It is what keeps us from really being the miserable bastards that most people assume we are.  My guilty romantic pleasure is the genre of movies called romantic comedy.  Show me someone making a life-altering decision or suffering from the injustices of the world around them, and a salty tear will roll down my cheek to the amusement of my family.  Of course, I fake coughs, yawns, and eyeglass adjustments to cover the tears, but I fool no one.  If the movie includes an animal, then audible sobs ensue.  This is my deep secret and my shame.  The question is how this baloney relates to IndyCar.  The answer can be found in the romantic comedy Fever Pitch.

In the movie, Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore star as Ben and Lindsey, two mismatched lovers with entirely different perspectives about life.  Ben is a Boston Red Sox fan who has given his complete devotion to a franchise that continues to break his heart with epic collapses and mismanagement.¹  The movie examines the humor, absurdity, and pathos of giving your heart and soul to something that cannot love you back.  All hard-core IndyCar fans can see the connection of this to the IZOD IndyCar Series.  One of my go-to conceits in this blog is to connect movie lines to the doings in IndyCar.  Let me show you how IndyCar and Fever Pitch dovetail.

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Ben: We scout the players.  We say which players they should keep.

Lindsey:  Which players they should get rid of?  And the Red Sox ask your opinion?

Ben: Well, not yet.  But if they ever do…

Ben attends Spring Training in Florida every year and tries to explain to Lindsey why this is a completely rational obsession.  Ben is channeling the hard-core IndyCar fans and bloggers.  These individuals (and I am a card-carrying member) are heavily invested in IndyCar, quite likely in a way that seems unhealthy to the uninitiated but in a way that seems normal to us.  Like Ben, the hard-core fans on Twitter, Track Forum, and on the various blogs just know what the answer is if only someone would listen to us.  IndyCar fans are like the long-suffering Red Sox or Cubs fans.  We show up every year only to have management, owners, promoters, and/or drivers break our hearts, but unlike the devoted fans of those star-crossed baseball franchises, many of us are coming out of our self-induced hypnosis.  We realize that our love is not being reciprocated by that entity to which we give ourselves.  Bill Zahren (@pressdog) asks for level-headedness about this topic here, and Tony Johns (@TonyJWriter) questions the value of the emotional investment required to be an IndyCar fan here.  Both writers opine often about the emotional and financial investment needed to be a hard-core fan and reference, in one way or another, the business concept of return on investment (ROI).  The basic question is this:  is the time and money put into following IndyCar worth what IndyCar gives us?  And that’s really the question facing IndyCar fans right now.  Of course, there are always the Kool-Aid drinkers who may see problems, but never lose their hope and emotional connection.  For better or worse, that’s me.

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Ryan: You love the Red Sox, but have they ever loved you back?

Ben: Who do you think you are, Dr. Phil? Go on, get outta here!

A character in the movie asks Ben this existential question: how can you love something that is incapable of loving you back.  Most of us deal with this issue by simply ignoring it.  Like Ben in the movie, we put our hands over our ears and pretend that the question was never asked.  The reason IndyCar fans are coming out of their “Yes, sir.  May I have another?” dysfunctional relationship with IndyCar is because they honestly felt that someone in charge, Randy Bernard, was actually loving them back.  This novel approach to marketing, paying attention to and acknowledging the concerns of your customers, made the fans feel like shareholders.  And the fans liked it.  But unlike the baseball fans in Boston shelling out their money to pack the stands, this reaching out to fans in IndyCar did not immediately pay the dividends of packed houses at racing venues around the country.  So like dysfunctional sports franchises across the country, the owners of IndyCar sacked their leader because he did not change the culture that they created.  What he did do was show the fans a little love back, which goes a long way with any fan.  It is nice to know you are appreciated.  Do you feel me?  But the owners and the drivers wanted to feel a little love, too.  When they didn’t, they were no longer fans.

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Troy: Why do we inflict this on ourselves?

Ben: Why? I’ll tell you why, ’cause the Red Sox never let you down.

Troy: Huh?

Ben: That’s right. I mean – why? Because they haven’t won a World Series in a century or so? So what? They’re here. Every April, they’re here. At 1:05 or at 7:05, there is a game. And if it gets rained out, guess what? They make it up to you. Does anyone else in your life do that? The Red Sox don’t get divorced. This is a real family. This is the family that’s here for you.

Ben and his friend are talking about why they put themselves through the rigors and heartbreak of being Sox fans.  Even though the Sox never won (until the movie was made in 2004), they still showed up and that act gave you hope.  A common thread of current INDYCAR fans seems to be exactly that.  Why do we do it?  Is it worth it?  The payoff is simply the renewal of the thing you love without reservation.  Every year it’s still there.  The fans of IndyCar mark the calendar by the month of May.  Regardless of the sanctioning body, the car, the drivers, or the owners, the Indianapolis 500 lets us all know that one thing will never let us down.  We truly know what it’s like to be a fan, to love something that is bigger than us, to know that the total really can be more than the sum of its parts.  But as much as this seems to complete many of us, it is not enough.

With all the justifiable jerking of knees and gnashing of teeth by American open-wheel fans about the series, the owners, the drivers, and the management, the big picture is still simple.  INDYCAR needs to grow new fans at the risk of alienating the hard-core fans who do not exist in enough numbers to drive the series forwards.  It’s a dilemma.  And the true hard-core lovers of open-wheel, with all of our opinions and solutions, really do not have the answers.  The answers that Mark Miles of Hulman & Co., Jeff Belklus of IMS and INDYCAR, and whoever is eventually hired to run the series have to focus on how to create new fans who will eventually become the hard-core fans of the future.  Those new fans may not reflect the car/driver/track ethos that current long-time fans have.  The series may need concerts, carnivals, support series, feature-length animated movies, and other draws to get and keep fans.  IndyCar fans are starting to ask why they “inflict this on ourselves.”  American open-wheel racing need new fans.  But just like baking bread or brewing beer, it needs the yeast of the hard-core fan to get them started.  How will INDYCAR chose to keep the old and grow the new?  That’s the real question.

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Uncle Carl: [after seeing little Ben is liking the Red Sox after his first game] Careful, kid. They’ll break your heart.

Ben’s Uncle Carl is the man who initiated Ben into the nuances of worshiping at the Church of the Red Sox.  His admonition to his nephew is a powerful warning to all fans of IndyCar, new or old.  I guess the possibility of having our hearts broken is the risk we all take in loving open-wheel racing.  The problem is IndyCar is running out of hearts to break.

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1.  The movie was filmed in 2004 and was expected to end with the Red Sox once again disappointing their fans and with Ben and Lindsey coming together to show that love is more important and enduring than sports, but the Red Sox won the World Series and forced a new ending to be written.  Fact and fiction once again freaks us out.

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