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Sports Business

Uncertainty once again hurting IndyCar Series

October 24, 2012
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Nothing kills sales faster than uncertainty. Especially when that uncertainty pertains to the product being sold.

That’s why the IndyCar Series finds itself—once again—in a less-than-ideal growth position this off-season.

Perhaps it’s time for a little transparency.

But then again, that’s never been the strong suit of the Hulman-George clan, which owns the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Let’s roll out a quick IndyCar recap.
Less than six weeks ago, Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win the IndyCar title since 2006. Chevrolet wrapped up the manufacturer championship in its first year back in the series after a six-year absence. The 2012 season saw the debut of IndyCar’s first new chassis in nine years, eight different on-track winners, loads of parity and an exhilarating Indy 500.

More than a few people—and not just open-wheel diehards—say IndyCar is the best on-track product in racing right now.

But no one is really talking much about the good stuff. That's because the series' progress is being overshadowed by the ivory-tower antics that make the sport seem like more of a circus than the bull-riding circuit Randy Bernard left to replace Tony George as IndyCar czar.

Need a refresher on some of the off-track nonsense that has occurred since the last checkered flag dropped on the IndyCar season?

First, Tony George may or may not be interested in buying the IndyCar Series. Wait, doesn’t he already own part of it as a Hulman-George family member? Yes, he does—but not total control. Wasn’t he offered total control of the series when he was fired by his mom as head of the Speedway in 2009? Right again.

At any rate, we’ve been told three times in the last three weeks in no uncertain terms that the IndyCar Series is NOT for sale.

So the news last week that George was resigning his board position to resolve an appearance of a conflict of interest because he is part of a group that's interested in buying the series was just plain bizarre. It was almost as odd as the prepared statements he and the Hulman-George board released.

“Tony George has made the difficult decision to resign from the board because of his involvement with a group that has recently expressed an interest in purchasing the Hulman & Co.-owned IndyCar organization,” said IMS President Jeff Belskus. “While the business is not for sale and no offers to sell it have been considered or are being considered, we applaud Tony’s efforts to resolve the appearance of a conflict and appreciate the gravity of this decision.”


So did George get mad and quit—again—because his offer to buy the series wasn’t being considered? Was he shown the door because he was trying to get Bernard fired and subvert the company’s mission and goals? Or does George genuinely want to buy the series out of concern about its long-term viability?

His statement wasn’t exactly illuminating.

“I realize that my recent efforts to explore the possibility of acquiring IndyCar represent the appearance of a conflict, and it is in everyone’s best interest that I resign,” George said. “It goes without saying that I want to do what is best for this organization.”

More than a few sources inside the IndyCar paddock are chirping that Bernard’s job is in jeopardy whether Tony George buys the series or not. The last word I heard was that the ax will fall by year’s end. Why? Who knows?

I do know this: I haven’t been able to get Belskus or a single team owner or executive (and I’ve called a lot of them) to give Bernard an endorsement since the season ended.

And it’s been a less than an easy proposition to get a clear picture of this series’ future. Maybe because there isn’t one.

This is the sort of uncertainty that makes sponsors and other potential investors run for the hills.

It’s time that the Hulman-George board lift the blinds and let their fans, investors and other supporters in on what’s being done to address sliding television ratings, small race crowds and sponsorship challenges. It’s far past time to let potential sponsors and investors know that this sport has a future—a real, long-term, blueprint-driven future.

They might start by clarifying the status of the series’ CEO and the ownership issue.

Because without a little clarity, there’s bound to be a lot less sales—on every level of IndyCar. And a motorsports series can’t run on fumes forever.

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