- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Want to create a panic attack for INDYCAR's fan base?
Then tweet something along the lines of "Hearing rumblings that Brian Barnhart will be named #INDYCAR CEO."
I arrived late to the Twitter party and am still not a Twitaholic like many of my media colleagues are, but when I thumbed out that cryptic 10-word statement Monday night, it created a firestorm of intensely negative reaction from Indy car fans that demonstrated the power of social media in the modern world -- for better or worse.
INDYCAR quickly moved to quell speculation about Barnhart's future, issuing the following statement Tuesday morning: "Brian continues to be an executive member of INDYCAR, and his understanding of our sport continues to provide our organization with valuable input. However, Brian's future role with INDYCAR will not be as CEO of the organization."
Here's the thing: As unpopular as Barnhart seems to be among Indy car racing's small remaining core of loyal fans, he's not the worst choice the series could make in terms of appointing a new leader. Far from it, in fact.
Compare Barnhart's record and skill set to some of the other executives who have "led" the sport of Indy car racing over the past couple of decades. Taking everything into account, he comes out looking rather better than the likes of Joe Heitzler, Chris Pook or Dick Eidswick. In some ways, he appears even better than Randy Bernard, who was pretty much anointed a saint by that same fan base that so despises Barnhart.
Let's take a look at the positive attributes Barnhart would bring as the boss of INDYCAR. First of all, he knows the company better than anyone -- even founder and former CEO Tony George, who is a polarizing figure to say the least. While George was the face and mumbling mouthpiece of what was initially called the Indy Racing League, Barnhart is the guy who did the work behind the scenes, setting up the rules for competition. For 15 years, he ran the race operations side of the organization. He has plenty of management experience and is familiar with (and a known quantity to) all of the key players in the sport.
As a former Indy car mechanic, Barnhart also literally has hands-on experience within the field of auto racing. That lack of specialized knowledge about auto racing in general, and Indy car racing specifically, was a key weakness in almost every executive who has presided over the sport for the past two decades. It's certainly what led to the strained relations between Bernard and the team owners who allegedly worked hard to orchestrate his ouster after less than three years at the helm of INDYCAR.
The other thing that works in Barnhart's favor is that he is beloved within the walls of INDYCAR headquarters and trusted by the management of Hulman & Co. and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That most certainly cannot be said about Bernard, who quickly got offside with many of his employees and was never able to repair or rebuild those key working relationships.
The downside to installing Barnhart, whose current title is president of race operations, in the top spot is that he is intensely disliked by many Indy car fans. He was often ridiculed for the way he instructed drivers to "Gimme four good ones" prior to their qualifying runs at Indianapolis, and his attempts to micromanage competition on the track -- even shouting at drivers over in-car radios during races -- was disturbing and unprofessional.
Barnhart rightly took a lot of heat for a series of gaffes during the 2011 season that included restarting an oval race during moderate rainfall, a move that resulted in a multi-car crash and the memorable image of driver Will Power extending a double-barreled expression of displeasure to officials in Race Control. Beaux Barfield was appointed race director prior to the 2012 season, and other than the embarrassing mistake of assessing an incorrect penalty against Scott Dixon at Milwaukee, there were fewer officiating controversies last year than there were in quite some time.
Fan fury against Barnhart was fueled by influential Indy car journalist Robin Miller, who crusaded for the ouster of "TGBB" (The Great Brian Barnhart) for more than a decade. Those intense emotions came out in response to my Barnhart-as-CEO tweet, with comments like: "One step forward, 20 back. They just don't get it on 16th Street," "If I were to stick my head in the oven, what temp would I use?" and "If that's true, I will no longer support the IndyCar series."
There's clearly a management shake-up going on within Hulman & Co.'s racing-related businesses, with Indianapolis businessman Mark Miles having been brought in a couple of months ago as the new CEO of the parent company of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IMS CEO Jeff Belskus was appointed interim CEO of INDYCAR, with former public relations chief Doug Boles named interim COO.
Belskus has made no secret of the fact that he would relish the opportunity to take the helm full-time with INDYCAR, but in my opinion, that would require him to step aside from his duties at IMS. The long-running joke is that the Speedway can run itself, and that may well have been the case in the days when the Indianapolis 500 and the Month of May were the only activities at the legendary, century-old track.
But these days, IMS hosts three major racing events, and if the Speedway's efforts to land tax breaks for upgrades including lighting the entire facility prove successful, running the Speedway is going to become even more of a full-time job -- one that Belskus, already with more than four years of experience in that role, is perfectly suited to continue in.
Which leaves INDYCAR still searching for the right man to be its leader as the series fights for relevance and market share in a crowded sports and entertainment spectrum. I'm not saying Barnhart is that man, nor do I have any other thoughts about who might be, short of Roger Penske -- and that ain't gonna happen.
But I do believe that for all his perceived shortcomings, Barnhart isn't the worst choice the Hulman & Co. board could make.
As long as they keep him out of Race Control.