A Racetrack Like No Other, Part III

Dec 2, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series marking the Centennial Era of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This installment looks at the leaders behind the track’s longevity, and its mix of glamour and business.

Part I | Part II

As the home of the largest single sporting event in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is more than deserving of its Centennial Era celebration.

While flexing its muscles as it moves into the second of three years of festivities, however, the Speedway is also facing challenges associated with a variety of internal and external obstacles. Clustered within a somewhat unfriendly economy and the passing of the administrative torch, the rank and file of the IMS is charged with a variety of tasks, some of which will shape its very future.

What an impact property. With a history as deep and broadbased, arguably, as a wonder of the world, IMS is the must-see destination in all of motorsports. As I travel to my teaching post at Indiana/Purdue University (IUPUI) Indianapolis campus, the magnetic force of the hallowed ground pulls and tugs me while driving south on Georgetown alongside the front straightaway.

Feeling the sounds of yesteryear and knowing the history, the people, the highs of life and the lows of loss all leaves an impression.

At times you’ll find racing heroes hanging out at the Brickyard Crossing restaurant musing about old times, or catch Speedway personnel having lunch at the buffet. Where else can you see Al Unser Jr., A. J. Foyt, Mari Hulman George and Alice Hanks, the wife of 1957 winner Sam Hanks, eating a Brickyard Midwestern lunch at the same time?

The Business of Motorsports

But aside from the glamour, there is the business of motorsports as it relates to running the day-to-day activities of IMS. A Centennial Era would never be celebrated if the business operations weren’t rooted in success.

It was a gentleman from Terre Haute, Ind., named Anton Hulman Jr., who was enticed by racing legend Wilbur Shaw to purchase the track that was barely recognizable after four years of total neglect during World War II. Meeting the challenge of whipping IMS back into shape for the first post-war Indianapolis 500 was no small feat.

Hulman had the right chemistry and served as chairman of the board from 1946-’54 and acted as chairman and president from 1954-’77. Shaw was bannered as the first post-war IMS president from 1946-’54 and was instrumental in having the race heard globally on radio in 1953.

Hulman helped IMS gain speed and recognition with a number of accomplishments, such as underwriting the formation of the U.S. Auto Club (USAC) in 1955 that acted as the sanctioning body until the formation of CART in the ’90s. Additional credits include the opening of the IMS Museum in 1956 as the first such facility at any racetrack and a must-see for any race fan, and construction of an 18-hole golf course on the beautiful grounds nestled on the inside of the track and adjacent to the Speedway’s back straightaway in 1960. (The 500 Open was held for the first time in 1960, drawing the sport’s leading players and paying the largest purse of any PGA Tour event at the time.)

Other notable and lofty milestones under Hulman were the first $1 million purse in 1970, and in 1971, the signing of an ABC television deal offering the world primetime, same-day viewing of the race. The IMS Hall of Fame Museum saw an expansion in 1976 as it moved to the current infield location between turns 1 and 2, and offered fans guided tours around the Speedway on specially prepared IMS buses.

Joe Cloutier became the third president in 1977, overseeing the Hulman Terrace on the front straightaway as well as signing the deal with ABC to air the 500 live. The construction of a new garage area was completed in 1986. And there was nothing like the winner’s share when Emerson Fittipaldi topped $1 million in 1989 and also took home the 20th Anniversary Pontiac Trans Am.

John Cooper served as president from 1979-’82 under chairman Cloutier, and was instrumental in a variety of growth tasks.

A New Face

And then along came the vision of Tony George, who changed the face of Indy car racing. George served as the president and CEO from 1990 until earlier this year, when he recently stepped down to operate Vision Racing with stepson Ed Carpenter as Vision’s lead driver.

George opened eyes, raised eyebrows and didn’t back down under pressure from a variety of factions within the racing world. Among his accomplishments was developing a strong and positive relationship with NASCAR and instituting the launch of the Brickyard 400 in 1994. It was perhaps one of the boldest leadership moves in racing management and negotiation ever.

Not to gear down, George impacted the Indy racing world with the formation of the Indy Racing League, signifying a split in open-wheel racing with Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). As a young man of 34, he championed the benefits of keeping open-wheel racing more affordable and stimulated new drivers, new teams and new venues.

Among his key improvements to the Speedway itself was the replacement of the Master Control Tower with a 10-story glass, concrete and steel pagoda, construction of an infield road course and the formative bond with Formula One, all within a two-year period from 1998 to 2000.

The year 2008 was a major negotiation year with the announcement and merger of the IRL and Champ Car that unified open-wheel racing after a 13-year split. Also, MotoGP international motorcycle racing came to IMS, all of which helps make the Speedway the premier motorsports destination on the planet.

As 2009 kicked off the centennial celebration of the track and the Indy 500, a change in IMS personnel shocked the racing world as well as sponsors and fans, and clustered discussions worldwide as to the future of the IMS, its properties and venues.

In July and August, the scenes of the IMS were changing with George stepping down, as well as Joie Chitwood III, who served with high praise on all fronts as president and chief operating officer from 2004 to Aug. 6, 2009.

Some rightfully asked, “What’s a business the magnitude of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to do with two of its high-level administration moving on?”

Well, along comes Jeff Belskus, a name unknown to many within motorsports, but highly acclaimed within the inner circles of the IMS and its properties. Belskus became CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League on July 1, replacing Tony George.

Moving Forward

Belskus is no stranger to the Hulman-George family, as he has been a key financial expert in-house for 22 years and a former classmate and personal friend of Tony George during their high school and college days.

Bestowed with an honors degree in accounting from Indiana State University, Belskus earned his CPA designation in 1985. He joined IMS in 1987 and was elevated to treasurer in 1989. Already functioning as the company’s chief financial officer, he was promoted to vice president in 1991 and named the company’s executive vice president in January 1994.

It leads to the question, “What does the change do for motorsports, business and the property itself?” How does CEO Belskus stride in at a moment’s notice, and what is likely to happen in the short term?

There is a plan of action in place, and I, personally, believe that Belskus is right for the job. It’s not an easy task to be the financial guy and step into that role. But there are seasoned and accomplished leadership personnel in place, functioning at a high level and capable of moving IMS and the IRL forward.

In a recent Q&A with the Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 10-16 edition; www.ibj.com), a battery of questions were presented to the new CEO. No soft pitches here—questions ranged from his initial reaction to George leaving and what in his background prepared him for the position, to how would he answer people who say he is an accountant and a chief financial officer who might not be cut-out for the marketing and sales roles required of a CEO.

Belskus evaluated each question and in summation stated, “I certainly wouldn’t have scripted things the way this has been done. But this is a family-owned business. I worked for Tony for 22 years and expect to work for him for another 22.”

He went on to note, “having been with the organization for 22 years and part of the executive leadership team, I feel I’m very knowledgeable of the issues we face and very comfortable with the organization.”

His take on the question of being an accountant/CFO and his not being prepared for marketing and sales was with candor and on target: “We all bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table, and that’s why we have an executive leadership team.”

The IMS Effect

You might ask what’s the takeaway from understanding what makes the Indianapolis Motor Speedway seem seamless in business organization strategies or how it pulls off such great racing spectacles year after year. How does it affect the greater motorsports and performance community, of which we all are a part?

It’s a business like no other, yet a business like most, with key decision makers and cycles of strain from the economy and a history of dealing with challenges. The IMS is a lesson in management, marketing, sales, vendors and supply. It is a masterpiece and an icon that had to recreate itself a number of times over the years.

Indy was a vision of Hulman and Shaw as a post-war mass of acreage that was almost set for a housing development. It’s since spawned personalities like nowhere else on the planet. It is business, engineering, technology, people and more people who believe in the opportunity to be unique, robust, better. It’s a culture to celebrate.

On a personal note, it was my playground, a place for soulful recollection, a place my Dad took me when I was 12, and a place where I’ve fostered a heart full of thanks for being involved with the mystique of it all.

The place never gets old; it just gets better. Thanks to the many drivers such as Parnelli Jones, Pancho Carter, Unser, Davey Hamilton, Billy Boat and thousands more; plus key team people such as the Agajanian family, John Lopes with VP Andretti-Green Racing; the many team members, sponsors, and IMS personnel such as Bob Beasley and Chitwood, who I call my friends and have done so for half a century. The names are many, the memories are forever.

May the Indianapolis Motor Speedway find a place in your heart as well, as its Centennial Era festivities mark a unique piece of American history we all can celebrate.

Read Part I | Part II