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Signs point to internal hire to replace Bernard as IndyCar CEO

November 2, 2012

All signs are pointing toward an internal hire as a replacement for the recently departed IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard.

And that’s not because there’s no listing on Monster.com and no “Help Wanted” sign posted in the window at 16th and Georgetown.

The first sign was Thursday’s admission by Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus, who is acting as interim IndyCar chief, that he might be interested in taking on the job permanently.

“I’ve been energized by this role, and as time goes by I get more excited, so let’s see where this goes,” Belskus told IBJ Thursday.

The IndyCar Series has received eight to 10 unsolicited inquiries for the job already, Belskus said. But sources said none of those appear more qualified than three insiders.

The qualifications board members are seeking are: "experience as a CEO, a good businessperson and has experience in sports and entertainment. Experience in motorsports would be a plus but not a requirement," Belskus said.

Belskus served as interim IndyCar CEO when Tony George was fired in 2009, but at that time there was no plan or even mention of lifting the temporary tag. Belskus likely had enough to deal with as the Speedway’s new CEO. Three years later, he appears to be comfortable enough to at least consider taking on more responsibilities.

It’s not clear how the former Speedway chief financial officer would be received as the open-wheel series leader. His calm, steady demeanor could serve him well in the politically-charged position, but he’s not considered a hard-core racing insider despite his tenure at the track. He's certainly not a marketer's dream. And a bigger question mark: how his hire would play with team owners and drivers.

On Thursday, Belskus started reaching out to fans, but as Bernard found out, the IndyCar CEO’s relationship with fans has little to do with success in that position.

Sources inside the series are also saying that the Speedway’s public relations/communications guru Doug Boles, an attorney and former team co-owner and sponsor representative, is being considered for the job.

When I asked Belskus on Thursday about Boles, he said: “I’d think Doug is capable of holding any job here.” He ended that statement with a laugh, but I think we both know it’s not a laughing matter. I also should mention that Boles was listening in on the call.

Boles certainly understands team owners’ perspective, and since up-and-coming driver Conor Daly is his stepson and he’s close to other drivers, he also gets where they are coming from.

It’s unclear how Boles would play with IndyCar fans, an area where Bernard excelled perhaps more than any open-wheel CEO before him. Boles is certainly a capable public speaker and understands marketing.

Boles brings a solid background of working with sponsors. Prior to taking his post at the Speedway in 2011, Boles headed the Indianapolis office of Atlanta-based brand management firm Ignition, whose powerhouse client list included Coca-Cola, Delta AirLines, Arby's Foundation, John Deere and Honda.

Mark Miles, a recent addition to the Hulman & Co. board of directors, is the most intriguing inside candidate sources identified. As the former CEO of the ATP Tour and chairman of the 2012 Super Bowl Host Committee, he certainly has big-game experience.

Miles is a classic powerbroker who should do just fine with sponsors, media partners and other dues-paying constituents. And if you know anything about the men’s professional tennis circuit, you know Miles can navigate a politically-charged landscape.

How Miles would handle the fickle and feisty IndyCar fans is another story. He might be seen as one of the insiders who worked to get the fan-favorite Bernard deposed. And while he’s a consummate professional, he can be brusque—some may even say curt. But he certainly would have the respect of local brass at almost every level.

Some outside candidates also have surfaced, most notably Scott Atherton, who is president of the American LeMans Series and has previously worked for Roger Penske.

But a couple possibilities can be scratched off the list: Just Marketing International CEO Zak Brown said he’s not interested in the job, and the board isn’t interested in former series CEO and ex-Hulman & Co. board member Tony George.

“He’ll continue in an ownership role. He’s not on the board and won’t be involved in management,” Belskus said of George on Thursday.

Belskus told IBJ on Thursday that there’s no short list, and that Hulman & Co.—which owns the series and Speedway—has no intention of using a search firm.

You don’t need a search firm to point you down the hall—or to yourself. You don’t need to compose a short list if you already have a candidate or two ready, eager and at least seemingly capable of stepping in.

Belskus said there’s no timeline to fill the vacant CEO job.

Sponsors and team owners largely agreed it needs to be done by Jan. 1.

And if IndyCar takes the inside track that it looks like it will, it should take a lot less time than that.

For more on the future of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500, see the upcoming IBJ which hits newsstands Saturday. Subscribers can also see IBJ's most recent IndyCar story online starting Saturday.

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