One of the most important stories in Indy car racing during 2009 was the boardroom coup that resulted in Tony George being removed from power at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even more surprising was George's subsequent decision to relinquish leadership of the Indy Racing League and the IZOD IndyCar Series, which he founded back in 1996.
George's roles with the IRL and IMS were taken over by Jeff Belskus, a longtime associate of the Hulman-George family who has worked for IMS since 1987. Like the Hulman family and many key members of Speedway management, Belskus is a native of Terre Haute, Ind., and he has been a friend of George through high school and into their time at Indiana State University.
A certified public accountant by trade, Belskus has long been known as the money man in the background of the IMS hierarchy. But with George's ouster from IMS and surprise move to distance himself from the IRL, Belskus found himself thrust into the spotlight.
Shy by nature, Belskus was somewhat unfairly roasted by Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz following his first public appearance in his new roles. But the key constituents of the Speedway and the IndyCar Series are comfortable with their new leader, mainly because he was quickly able offer a sense of calm and a "business as usual" approach to the issues faced by the track and the league.
"I think it has gone as well as anyone could expect it to go," Belskus said of his first three months as the outright leader of IMS and IRL. "I'm pleased with the way it has gone. Tony and I have a good working relationship and I'm happy about that. I'm still spending a lot of time learning the lay of the land in some respects. It's been a great learning experience so far and I feel good about the way it has gone."
Belskus' longterm association with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation gave him an insider's view of the workings of the company, a huge advantage over hiring an outsider to take over the notoriously private family business. He's not concerned that he could be stretched too thin by being in charge of multiple facets of the company.
"We have a good team in place at IMS that is very experienced and we depend on them," he remarked. "Even though I'm not there, I get e-mails and phone calls, but I have responsibility for running the Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
After relying solely on the Indianapolis 500 through 1993, the Speedway now hosts three major events a year. In 2009, attendance was down for the NASCAR Brickyard 400 and the second running of the Red Bull Indianapolis MotoGP race, but Belskus is not significantly concerned.
"Renewals [for the Brickyard] have been strong -- they are in line with last year," he said. "It's a higher quality product when you don't have to stop every nine or 10 laps for a competition yellow [as happened in 2008], so we hope those problems are behind us and we can win back the fans we lost as a result of that.
"Having said that, it seems like NASCAR in general, whether it's the economy or whatever it is, has certainly had their share of attendance issues this year. It's a good event for us and we hope it continues to be a good event for us. We met expectations this year. We planned for it to be off, but I think that was as much about the economy as it was about the event."
A bigger adjustment has been required in terms of managing and being the public face of the IRL. One of the toughest tasks he already dealt with was cutting staff by approximately 40.
"It's an ongoing process," Belskus said. "We're doing what we can to review everything for efficiencies to try to be as productive as we can be. I know my way around the racetrack pretty well and there haven't been too many surprises about what's going on with the League at these events. Terry Angstadt [Vice-President of Marketing] and Brian Barnhart [Vice-President of Competition and Operations] are working hard and doing a good job, and I think we deliver a lot of value."
The IndyCar Series got a huge boost in early November when it was revealed that apparel manufacturer IZOD signed a multi-year contract for title sponsor rights. Most importantly from Belskus' perspective, IZOD is essentially going to pick up the tab for the TEAM subsidy program that pays each full-time competitor up to $1.2 million annually in lieu of prize money.
"Getting the right [title sponsor] was important," Belskus said. "We spent a lot of time talking about 'fair value' and what the series is worth. We're very excited about being associated with IZOD, a brand that we feel good about."
The other bullet the IRL dodged was Danica Patrick's potential move to NASCAR. In the end, America's favorite female racer elected to remain with Andretti Autosport in Indy cars fulltime for at least the 2010 season while beginning to sample the world of NASCAR with a limited schedule for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.
"She's great for our series and an important part of our series," said the IRL leader. "We hope to see her as a part of it for many years to come. I won't say it's absolutely necessary, but we'd prefer to have her here, given our druthers. My hope is that she's going to continue to be an Indy car driver first and foremost."
Belskus said that Indy car racing fans shouldn't expect radical changes to the IRL schedule or the Indianapolis 500 during his watch. However, at a Dec. 9 meeting, the IMS board did approve a plan to shorten the month of May Indy activities to include just one week of practice and a single qualifying weekend.
"We will still be primarily a North American series, though international events are important to us," Belskus said. "We need a compelling reason to do the international events and it is important from that perspective. For Japan, it's because of Honda. We're looking at three or four international events as the most. I don't see it as a significant portion of our schedule."