In May, hope springs eternal in the land of open-wheel racing.
And why not?
The Indianapolis 500 isn’t quite the cash cow it used to be, but it’s still the land of milk and honey when it comes to the IndyCar Series.
With the corporate suites sold out for Carb Day and nearly sold out for race day and a crowd of near 300,000 expected this Sunday, there’s still reason for optimism.
Make no mistake, the Indianapolis 500 is still quite profitable for the Hulman-George empire.
The IndyCar Series, however, is not and never has been profitable. And that led to Tony George’s firing as the boss of the Speedway and IndyCar Series last June.
But all that is about to change. Well, I don’t mean George is coming back. But according to the new leadership of the IndyCar Series and Speedway, the 15-year-old open-wheel race series is about to break even, or gasp, make a profit for the first time.
Optimism from the month of May is spreading.
In separate interviews this month, Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus and IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard told me that the series is likely to be financially self-sustaining next season. Yes, that’s 2011!
One can excuse Bernard for any state of clueless bliss he might be experiencing as he watches race cars zoom by at near 230 mph at the fabled Brickyard. After all, before March, he had never seen an open-wheel race, and a year ago this month he was more worried about not stepping in a cow pie than spinning the press any sort of bull … well, you get the point.
But Belskus’ word I don’t take lightly. In the year that I’ve known him, he’s always been cautious, conservative, and measured in what he says. He may not be a polished speaker, but his word is usually as solid as oak.
Belskus has been with the Speedway 23 years, having spent many of those as the chief financial officer. So when he backs up Bernard 100 percent on the IndyCar Series likely being break even or in the black next year, I sit up and take notice.
Remember, all heck broke loose with Tony George and the IMS’ other board members (primarily his three sisters) when Tony said in New York that the series would be profitable by 2013 or else. Clearly that timeline wasn’t good enough for the other board members, and Belskus and Bernard were put in charge to make the financial magic happen.
It’s not really so much magic as it is, cutting expenses (staffers, planes and travel, the month of May at the Speedway, etc., etc.), abandoning things that weren’t working and costing money (propping up American racers and other teams, holding on to the notion that this has to be an oval dominated series, etc.) and implementing things that work financially (i.e.: foreign markets and road races among other things).
“I think the series has great momentum,” Bernard said, citing increased TV ratings, successful races in Sao Paulo, Long Beach and Alabama) and sponsorship gains including Izod’s cash and massive activation.
Bernard told me this month he thought 2011 would be better than year’s past and that future years will only get better.
Belskus didn’t back down one single inch when I told him of Bernard’s assessment, as if to say, "Yes, that’s what the board pays us to do, turn a profit.” A novel idea indeed.
The two are definitely the yin and the yang of open-wheel. Bernard, sources said, could be the Barnum & Bailey of open-wheel, bringing the IndyCar Series the kind of sizzle he brought as the chief of the Pro Bull Riders circuit.
Belskus is the man with his hands on the purse strings unafraid to pull the reigns back or let them loose a little if he sees fit.
They know their roles, Bernard in charge of the series and Belskus heading up the biggest race in that series and the facility that hosts it. They also know those roles have considerable overlap and will require much cooperation. There's no room for turf battles, and so far, there's no sign of that happening.
Clearly they both have the ear and trust of the three Hulman-George sisters and their mother, who now comprise four-fifths of the IMS/IndyCar Series board of directors.
And they both have the same marching orders; Make open-wheel racing profitable—now!
Optimism is great. But it doesn’t pay the bills.
And everyone knows what blooms in spring often withers under the relentless summer sun.
In 12 months time, we’ll have a much better idea if what Bernard and Belskus are planting has real roots.
And if this odd couple can really make it rain.