Tony George's successor might trade tradition for revenue

July 6, 2009

A management shake-up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has some in the motorsports industry thinking major changes could be on the horizon at the fabled race venue—maybe as soon as next year.

"I think you'll see the Speedway management going through each and every expense category from top to bottom," said Tim Frost, president of Frost Motorsports, a Chicago-based business consultancy. "And they'll look closely at every revenue opportunity."

On July 1, Tony George was removed as head of the Indy Racing League and the Speedway, and replaced by Jeffrey G. Belskus, a Terre Haute native who began working for the Hulman-George family in 1987. George, 49, had been in charge of the IMS since 1990 and launched the Indy Racing League in 1996.

Belskus was most recently the chief financial officer of Hulman & Co., which oversees the family's racing interests and various other holdings, including the Clabber Girl baking powder brand. Belskus is a certified public accountant who graduated from Indiana State University in 1981. Curt Brighton will replace George as head of Hulman & Co., overseeing the Hulman-George family's non-racing enterprises.

George will retain a position on Hulman & Co.'s board and thereby retain some influence over the Speedway and IRL, but he will be primarily focused on operating his IRL team, Vision Racing.

Sports business experts estimate that each of the three events that the Speedway hosts is profitable, but they believe they could be more profitable. Besides the Indianapolis 500, the Speedway hosts the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race and the MotoGP motorcycle race.

"I think they're going to be forced to weigh the tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and some very difficult financial decisions," said Zak Brown, CEO of Just Marketing International, a locally based firm that represents some of the biggest sponsors in motorsports.

For instance, Brown pointed out that the IMS is the only major racetrack in the United States with no advertising on its surrounding walls. He said the new regime might also consider a naming-rights sponsor for the Indianapolis 500.

"Those two things alone could bring in easily more than $10 million a year," Brown said. "Selling that inventory would be relatively easy. And those are just two examples of ways the Speedway could generate more revenue.

"They are sitting on millions of dollars of assets due to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway history and tradition. They have some very difficult decisions in front of them."

On the expense side, Belskus and his lieutenants—most of whom have been at the Speedway for a number of years—will also begin examining everything from infrastructure maintenance to utility bills, sources close to the track said.

"You can bet the month of May will get a hard look," Frost said. "It's a long month with significant operational expenses. Some of the events they've traditionally held during May simply don't attract the crowds and generate the revenue they did two decades ago."

The Brickyard 400 has seen a serious decline in ticket sales this year, and the new regime will likely scrutinize those operations. IMS officials credited a downturn in ticket sales—especially for the Brickyard 400—with causing cuts of about 50 jobs at the Speedway and the IRL combined in December. The management change has some wondering if more job cuts will come after the racing season concludes.

"I think the off-season could be a time for serious introspection and would be a natural timetable for change," Frost said.

IMS and IRL officials were working the phones the morning of the management change to reach out to corporate partners to allay fears about potential changes, said Speedway spokesman Fred Nation. IMS leaders still support the IRL and the events currently held at the Speedway, Nation emphasized.

Just Marketing's Brown said there are some concerns on the part of sponsors about the future of the various races held at the track.

"The board is supportive of the current direction," Nation said.

Whether to pursue the return of a Formula One race to the track, which has been discussed in the past year, will be "a financial decision," Nation said. He said that conversation is still alive.

IRL spokesman John Griffin said there are few fears on the part of IRL brass that the change will hurt the open-wheel series. But it is well-known within motorsports circles, Frost said, that Speedway revenue has subsidized the IRL to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually.

"I think there's a big question about the level of financial support that the board and the new leadership will be willing to commit going forward," Frost said.

IRL officials say the league will maintain the course it was on prior to George's departure.

"We know what he have to do here, and selling sponsorships is priority one," Griffin said. "There's a lot in the hopper, and we think we're just a couple of moves away from breaking into profitability." 

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