While CART's ship lists like the Titanic, the Indy Racing League's arsenal of "name drivers," marquee events and series support swells. Instead of engaging in "I told you so" rhetoric, the six-year-old organization has quietly put its own house in order, bracing for tough economic times.
The division of IRL responsibilities into two separate entities, headed by Brian Barnhart and Ken Ungar, bodes well for the IRL. Establishing a business affairs division that operates in parallel with the racing operations division means each can take care of critical elements of their business.
Barnhart was promoted to vice president of operations for the IRL in August 2000 after serving as director of racing operations. His steady hand has helped the IRL navigate through some choppy waters. His experience as a mechanic for Team Penske and track superintendent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave him a broad overview of the tasks facing a fledgling operation.
Team owners may or may not like Barnhart (depending upon his rulings' effect upon their team), but they respect him. Track operators respect him for his integrity and his willingness to take into consideration their specific needs. He and his staff have put together a comprehensive rules package that has been a major factor in the series' growth and level of competition.
Barnhart enjoys the shadow of the spotlight, but that is not to say he avoids attention. If there is a problem or an issue that needs correcting or clarification, Barnhart has stepped up and answered all queries.
From the beginning of the IRL, what has been missing is a "Barnhart type" to oversee the marketing, event scheduling, promoter relations, broadcaster relations and strategic planning. Bob Reif brought a remarkable energy to the job when he served as the IRL's marketing maven. But, there remained a number of areas where the IRL seemed inadequate.
In short, the business side was not keeping up with the racing side. In many cases, corporate partnerships developed not out of a regard for the IRL, but instead from a desire to be part of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its "500."
Ungar, an attorney, has been with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp., since 1997. He knows the ropes. He was Tony George's chief of staff. As such, he was exposed to virtually every element of the motorsports industry. Like Barnhart, Ungar is not a publicity hound. Instead, it is a work ethic that defines the New York City native.
Ken Ungar has watched the IRL grow from its precarious origins. He witnessed the ebb and flow of popular support for the series. His plate is a full one with regards to what he must accomplish both in the short term and the long run.
It will take a deft administrator to keep the IRL moving forward. It will also take an individual that understands the fine line created by tradition and "outside the box" thinking.
When the Indy Racing League was founded, George stepped up to a leadership role because there was no one within his organization prominent enough to get the attention necessary for it to succeed. From Jack Long to Leo Mehl, George attempted to transition into a "founder" role. Instead he was forced to divide his loyalties between the IRL and the speedway.
Now, George gets what he hoped for.
"The Indy Racing League is poised to reach new levels of growth and leadership in 2002," George said. "As with any company, organizational charts evolve, especially when you experience the kind of expansion the League has recently gone through. So, it is time to adjust and plan for the future."
Critics continue to deride George as everything from a despot to a bumbler who succeeded only because CART cannot get it right when it comes to plotting its future. That is not the case. George may have his faults. But, he has looked like a "rocket scientist" because he may just be one.