Bull-riding boss curious choice to lead IRL

Randy Bernard is certainly an interesting choice to replace Tony George as CEO of the Indy Racing League.

It makes me wonder how many other candidates turned down the opening. It also makes me wonder who Jeff Belskus, the shepherd in charge of herding this open-wheel operation, is listening to.

I know Just Marketing International CEO Zak Brown turned down an invite do discuss the opening. And who can blame him. His Indianapolis-based marketing firm is flying high with NASCAR and Formula One sponsorship deals, making JMI one of the fastest growing firms on wheels.

Mark Miles, the former CEO of the ATP Tour, also took a pass. He’s now busy heading the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership and helping lead Indianapolis’ 2012 Super Bowl host committee.

When I reached Brown earlier this week, he was hoping someone from inside racing circles could be tabbed. Some within racing thought Tony Cotman would be the best choice.

But Cotman, 42, decided to start his own race track design and operations firm earlier this year. He still consults for the IRL (he’s in Brazil doing so now), but the formation of his own company certainly removed his hat from the ring.

Brown’s top two choices this week were Scott Atherton, American Le Mans Series CEO and Eddie Gossage, known for his work at Texas Motor Speedway. One thing Brown was adamant about; the need for a racing insider.

Atherton, Brown said, is ideal not only due to his motorsports knowledge, but also because he understands the inner workings of a family-run operation, as is the case with the ALS.

Gossage, said Brown, has undeniable marketing and leadership skills. And, he added, the fact that motorsports sponsors are familiar with Gossage and his work, “is a big plus.”
“I’m sure Randy is a strong marketer, but he’ll have a big learning curve,” Brown said. “He’ll need to get up to speed on the inner-workings of the sport, and motorsports sponsors will have to become familiar with him.”

Maybe a fresh set of eyes is just what the Indy Racing League needs. It didn’t work out so well with Gene Simmons and Creative Artists Agency, but who knows?

Sponsors—still trying to figure out the relatively unknown Belskus—have said they won’t likely put any new money into the sport until they are confident in the new CEO’s direction.

That’s likely to take a bit longer with a question mark like Bernard. And if it’s two things the IRL are short on, it’s time and money. Few still believe the IRL has until 2013 to sniff a profit. If George’s dismissal by the board didn’t prove that, I’m not sure what will.

Whoever the new series boss is, he seems to have a host of serious challenges before him. Not the least of which is putting enough cars on the track to make it interesting. With the closure of Tony George’s Vision Racing today, and with several other teams on the ropes, there’s serious concern about fielding 33 at Indianapolis this May, and 20 cars at other races.

Bernard hasn’t exactly taken bull riding to the main stream, but he has undeniably grown the sport from almost nothing to something. And, since PBR is a regular on the Versus cable TV channel, he at least has familiarity with the open-wheel series’ broadcast partner.

Hmm, I wonder if that’s who’s getting into Belskus’ ear.

To read more about Bernard and the IRL’s offer, click here.

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