Picking candidates for IndyCar CEO
Scott Atherton is the ideal candidate, but committed to ALMS/Grand-AM merger
Roger Werner was CEO at ESPN from 1980 to 1990, and has strong racing ties
Robert Clarke built Honda racing into a powerhouse; has skills to lead IndyCar
After a rough three years, Randy Bernard was fired as IndyCar CEO on Sunday by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board of directors Sunday; Jeff Belskus was named interim CEO. In the wake of the firing, I surveyed a number of well-known motor racing executive insiders, who all requested anonymity, about who would be the best replacement for Bernard.
Scott Atherton's qualifications make him an ideal candidate to become IndyCar's next CEO. He has 27 years experience in the motor racing industry, starting with administrating a high profile sponsorship program in CART Indy Car in the middle '80s, followed by stints running the Laguna Seca, Nazareth and California Speedway tracks and, for the past 12 years, President and CEO of the American Le Mans Series.
Atherton is well respected in the motor racing industry. His name popped up every time -- usually first -- during discussions with racing insiders, and it's easy to understand why Atherton is so attractive. He's negotiated every kind of deal, sanctioning agreements with race tracks, sponsorship and television contracts. He has the contacts to hit the ground running, which IndyCar needs.
But as good as he sounds, Atherton won't be on the short list. ALMS and sports car rival Grand-Am have announced they are merging in 2014 and he's working on putting it together.
"I am fully committed to what to we're doing here with ALMS and Grand-Am," Atherton said. "I have made a commitment to Jim France and Don Panoz. To be completely candid, this opportunity to put sports car racing under a single, powerful platform has been a goal for as long as I can remember.
"The combining of Grand-Am and ALMS is a merger of cultures of personnel, practices and protocol, and we recognize the importance of getting it right the first time. Nothing else matters now. If I wasn't fully engaged in the merger process, [IndyCar] would be tempting."
Atherton would have been a prize catch, but there are other executives with racing experience who are very capable of leading IndyCar to increased marketing and media exposure -- the two areas it needs to grow exponentially to regain the prominence it had prior to the infamous split into two series in the mid-1990s. The quality of drivers and teams, the new Dallara DW12 and engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda delivered exciting racing in 2012 and provides IndyCar with a viable product to build upon. But the series must get the public to recognize it and support it. That will be the challenge for the new CEO.
Here are four executives the IMS board should consider:
-- Roger Werner. He's a television executive who's always had strong ties to racing. Werner was CEO at ESPN from 1980 to 1990, and helped spur the growth of NASCAR with plenty of programming hours. He started Speedvision -- now SPEED -- in 1995 and built it from the ground up until living. He's co-chairman and director of Outdoors Channel Holdings and was President and CEO of the Outdoor Channel until resigning last Jan. 31.
Werner clearly likes challenges and has a record of success of overcoming them. He also likes racing, which is obviously a requirement for this position. Werner is the Chairman of the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS), which oversees and sanctions racing under the umbrella of the worldwide sanctioning body FIA.
-- Robert Clarke. Clarke was the first employee at Honda Performance Development, the American company of Honda racing, and built it into a powerhouse. Under his watch, it's matured from an engine rebuild facility into a research and development.
Clarke resigned from HPD late in 2007 to be CEO of Gil de Ferran's sports car team. Since 2008, he has been the owner and president of Clarke-Works, a motorsports consulting business that works in driver management, racing series and team business planning.
Clarke has the racing experience and leadership ability to be effective in building the IndyCar organization, including developing a more effective marketing and public relations department.
-- Joie Chitwood. He's the president at Daytona International Speedway and the former President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Chitwood, who began his career with his family's famous Chitwood Thrill Show at age five, worked in the IndyCar series in the late 1990s as manager of administration and was senior vice president of business affairs at IMS before becoming president.
Chitwood, whose grandfather drove in seven Indy 500s between 1940 and 1950, has the overall background in racing, and understands where IndyCar has been and where it must go. He'd be ready to lead IndyCar from his first day on the job.
-- Andrew Craig. He's probably a surprise on this list because he was the CEO of CART from 1994 to 2000 when Tony George began IndyCar. But Craig's marketing skills can't be underestimated. He worked for ISL Marketing, which handled sponsorship for the International Olympic Committee, from 1983 to '94, and kept CART viable despite not having the Indy 500 during his tenure.
Craig formed a consulting company after leaving CART and has been a senior strategist for the winning Olympic bids for Vancouver in 2010, London in 2012 and Sochi in 2014. He's also kept his hand in racing by becoming a member of the FIA Touring Car Commission in 2009.