Changes afoot in IMS front office

Confirming rumors that had been speculated for the better part of a month, today the Indianapolis Motor Speedway officially announced a change in leadership within the track's management team.

Tony George.
Photo by Andy Sallee.

Tony George, founder of the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series and IMS Chief Executive Officer, will no longer hold that title. A new management team has been named with IMS veterans W. Curtis Brighton and Jeffrey G. Belskus, who will now lead the Hulman-George companies effective July 1.

Belskus and Brighton were in fact hired by George, and has each served at the Speedway for over 15 years. Belskus joined IMS in 1987 and advanced to the treasurer position two years later. He has also held roles as the company's chief financial officer, vice president and executive vice president. Belskus has held the executive VP position since 1994.

Brighton joined Hulman & Company that year and was promoted to the same position, executive vice president and general counsel in 2002. He did similar tasks within IMS, Clabber Girl Corporation and the Indy Racing League.

"Jeff and Curt have both been with the company for many years in positions of top leadership," said Mari Hulman George, IMS chairman of the board. "Tony, as well as the entire board of directors, has the utmost confidence in their capabilities.

"Both of these men have years of experience and leadership within our companies. In addition, each of our companies has effective presidential leadership, and that will remain in place," she added.

It is in fact the first time since Tony Hulman bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway out of World War II in 1945 that the track's executive leadership is not a Hulman-George family member. Belskus and Brighton are unofficial family members, Mari Hulman George said, who are committed to growing both the track and the IndyCar Series.

"These changes underscore our family's commitment going forward to all of our companies, especially our commitment to the growth of the Indy Racing League and the sport of open-wheel racing," Mrs. George said.

"We believe the Hulman-George family's long stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, beginning in 1945, and our significant investment in the Speedway and in the IRL demonstrates that we have full confidence in all of our companies and that we intend to grow them in the future," she added.

Centennial Era Logo.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.

Tony George will still hold a spot on the Hulman-George family board of directors and of course still owns the Vision Racing team in IndyCar, which fields a car for Ed Carpenter (his stepson) and James Davison in the Indy Lights division. The team withdrew its second entry for Ryan Hunter-Reay after the June 6 race in Texas due to a lack of sponsorship.

Only two days after this year's Indianapolis 500, which drew its lowest ratings ever (3.9) since moving to live television in 1986, Robin Miller of SPEEDTV.com reported that Tony George had been in fact ousted of his role as Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO.

Within the days and weeks that followed, the 12 teams currently competing in IndyCar issued a unilateral statement in support of George. The Speedway itself offered a press release that denied the assessment, but still left open the door that change could be in the works. Mrs. George expanded on that in today's announcement.

"Our board had asked Tony to structure our executive staff to create efficiencies in our business structure and to concentrate his leadership efforts in the Indy Racing League," she said. "He has decided that with the recent unification of open-wheel racing and the experienced management team IMS has cultivated over the years, now would be the time for him to concentrate on his team ownership of Vision Racing with his family and other personal business interests he and his family share.

George is a figurehead in American open-wheel racing and within the IMS powers. He made the drastic decisions that altered the direction of both his track and the open-wheel landscape within his tenure while in charge of the Speedway from 1990 until June 30, 2009.

His decision to allow NASCAR's Cup division, then called the Winston Cup to the track in 1994, ended over 80 years of solely running the Indianapolis 500 at the Speedway. It has accrued a large sum of revenue in tickets and merchandise sales over its 15-year period, even despite last year's race which was nothing more than 10-12 lap sprints before Goodyear's tires disintegrated.

The Speedway does not release official attendance numbers but each NASCAR event since 1994 has drawn a healthy crowd, if not quite the levels experienced over the Memorial Day classic, the Indianapolis 500.

The Pagoda.
Photo by Bret Kelley - IRL.

Money used for what was then called the Brickyard 400 (now the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard) helped to fund the IRL IndyCar Series, to divide the competitors and fan base within open-wheel racing in America. Many of the principles which the original IRL was founded on, aiming to promote American short-track racers with low costs, all on ovals, have largely failed.

George also made the decision to build an infield road course to attract Formula One back to America, and the 2000 United States Grand Prix ended a nine-year hiatus. But after eight years and the fallout from a diabolical tire issue at the 2005 race where only six Bridgestone-shod cars raced, the F1 circus packed up and headed out of town. MotoGP still utilizes what is now a revised infield road course.

In 2008, George helped in the reunification of American open-wheel racing, extending an olive branch to the former Champ Car teams and drivers with free chassis and engine leases for the Dallara-Honda package that currently makes up the grid.

There has been a fair bit of turmoil emanating within the IndyCar Series this year with the product and the future of the series in the wake of these announcements. It has been rumored though not officially confirmed the reason for the change has to deal with annual expenses for the series that Tony George has invested, that haven't sat well with his family members, and by default, the Speedway board of directors.

There was also the prospect of H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the well-known former president, general manager and promoter at the Lowe's (nee Charlotte) Motor Speedway taking on an active leadership role within the company. Wheeler was present at this year's Indianapolis 500 and had the potential of stepping into the role now jointly held by Belskus and Brighton.

This year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway continues its celebration of its centennial with NASCAR Sprint Cup race July 26 and the MotoGP championship event on August 30.