SBD/Issue 135/Sports Industrialists

THE DAILY Goes One-On-One With IRL President & COO Barnhart

IRL President & COO
Brian Barnhart

BRIAN BARNHART has grown up in motorsports just a short drive from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).  Named President & COO of the IRL in December by IRL Founder TONY GEORGE, Barnhart previously served as VP & Dir of Race Operations and Superintendent of IMS.  Earlier in his career, he held a variety of positions for Galles Racing, Penske Racing and Patrick Racing, working with drivers A.J. FOYT, EMERSON FITTIPALDI and AL UNSER JR.  Active in the IRL/IMS SAFER barrier project since its creation, Barnhart has also served as the league’s chief race-day official, winning the respect of drivers, team members and owners. At the start of the IRL’s tenth season, Barnhart spoke with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

Q: As an Indianapolis native, you grew up in the right place for this sport and job.

Barnhart: Yeah.  I was exposed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 by my father at a very early age.  I was born in 1961 and attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1970, and haven’t missed one since.

Q: How does weather factor into the IRL races?

Barnhart: The biggest thing is that it makes it difficult for us in scheduling.  You’ve got to be able to run the oval track events.  You’re looking for some good warm weather dates in the spring that are difficult to come by.  It kind of limits the number of tracks and places you can go in the spring, so it really affects your scheduling as much as anything else.

Q: You worked with some legendary drivers and were a member of Al Unser’s two Indianapolis 500-winning teams.  You were also car crew chief, track superintendent, IRL chief technical inspector and VP/Racing Operations.  Your background seems to have prepared you for your current position.

Barnhart: It certainly helped because I’ve been on all sides of the fence, even if you include being a spectator.  I was a fan for a dozen years before I got an opportunity to start working on race teams.  And then I was kind of in the trenches and worked my way up from the mechanical side of it as well.

Q: Did you ever get behind the wheel?

Barnhart: No, I never drove.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

Barnhart: From a league standpoint I think we’ve got to really improve on the business side, on our television production and ratings.  That’s obviously a huge challenge.  We’ve got to work some venues very hard to improve attendance.  On the operational side, it’s a continued goal of ours to control the cost of racing.

Q: How do you attract a casual fan and make him more of a regular fan?

Barnhart: We’ve got an outstanding product that we put on the racetrack.   We’ve got to do a better job of transcending what people see in person and through television.  We’ve got some things on tap for television that are going to enhance the production value of our series.

Q: What are they?

Barnhart: We will have a new production team in place.  Our announcing talent will be a little trendier and something I think the younger generation can relate to better.
The other innovation is the continuous coverage. ... It’s difficult from a racing standpoint.  You always hate it when they go to a commercial.  If you have a lead change or an accident or a pit stop during the commercial, it’s hard for the production to [catch] up with what happened while they were away.  There are no time-outs in racing.  The event is non-stop from green to checkered [flag].  When you go to a commercial there are often times that you miss key events that take place.

Q: Your advertisers are OK with this continuous coverage?

Barnhart: It’s going to be something that’s different for them, but they also understand and accept it because they know ultimately it’s being done to improve the numbers that are watching our events.  And they’re all very supportive of it.

Q: Among the 17 races on the IRL schedule are three non-oval events.  When will they occur?

Barnhart Hopes IRL Road Races
Will Increase Fan Base

Barnhart: We [had] a street course in St. Petersburg, Florida, on April 3.  We also have two permanent road course events, at Infineon Speedway in August and at Watkins Glen in New York in September.  Those are the first three non-oval events in the ten-year history of the Indy Racing League, and we’re very excited about that.  It’s going to expose us to a completely new fan base that historically may not have followed Indy Car racing on the ovals.  And getting to the niche market of road race fans and exposing our great product to them is going to be a good thing, increasing the fan base and the awareness of what we do.

Q: George has his own team this year, Vision Racing.  I read where car Owner EDDIE CHEEVER said, “Maybe running a team will give him a different perspective on what it takes to run a successful team.”  Do you think it will?  And is there a conflict of interest there?

Barnhart: I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest.  It’s not unlike most other racing series out there.  Most of the principals involved in virtually every racing series out there also have ownership of a car, so it’s not unheard of.  His car will have to abide by and follow the rules and the code of conduct on the racetrack like everybody else.  I think Tony’s doing what he needs to do to assure the strength of our series.

Q: You have established a reputation for your emphasis on the safety of the audience and the racers.  What innovations have been implemented to improve the safety of the racing environment?

Barnhart: We’re continuing to work very hard with most of the facilities on our schedule to get them to implement the use of the SAFER barrier, which the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League, led by Tony George, were the innovators and developers of.  We can’t say enough and be more proud of anything as we are of the SAFER barrier, which was first installed at the IMS for the 2002 Indianapolis 500.  We made a lot of progress and continue the evolution of that barrier to the point where we’re hoping to have it installed at all of the oval-track events that are on our schedule for 2005.

Q: Is there resistance to having them installed?

Barnhart: No, it’s just from a budgetary and a cost standpoint and timing, implementation.  You’ve got to get the materials made.  You’ve got to get them shipped, delivered and installed.  And, of course, a lot of the facilities are already into their schedule for 2005.  There’s not any resistance from what its benefits are; it’s just a matter of being able to get them installed in time for our events.

Q: For the first time, the IRL promoted its brand at an event of one of the major pro sports leagues: the NBA All-Star weekend.  The IRL had six 30-second spots on the super screen main entrance of the Pepsi Center.  What was behind that?

Barnhart: Obviously we’re trying to attract more people, sports fans from whatever the sport is.  We’re just trying to expose fans to what our product is and get them entertained.  We wanted to introduce them to our excitement, to our brand of racing.  If you’re an NBA All-Star fan and you’re attending that event, you’re obviously a sports fan.  We’d like to introduce to the excitement that we put on the racetrack and hopefully convert you into a racing fan as well.

IRL's Two-Seater Experience Car
Touring Top Ten U.S. Markets

Q: Any other cross-over plans along those same lines?

Barnhart: We did an IRL night at the Indiana Pacers game here in town.  We had drivers doing autograph sessions and giveaways.  We’ve been involved in the X Games in the past.  We have a Green Flag tour that will visit the top ten markets across the country with our two-seater experience car. ... We’ve got a lot of things in the works to try to announce [the IRL season] to the world.

Q: Do you get any inspiration from the major professional sports or borrow ideas from them for the IRL?

Barnhart: We certainly follow them but don’t really have any contact with them.  I’m a large sports fan.  I follow the NFL and the NBA and I love Major League Baseball.  We’ve got some good friends that have been a lot of fun to travel with.  We’ve had some Major League Baseball players take some rides in our two-seater experience.  We’ve gotten to know some of the players.  We went as guests to the All-Star Game in Houston, so you get an idea of what they’re doing.  You certainly can learn from the big three.  We’re all in the entertainment business, we’re all in the sports business, and we’re trying to attract fans to what we’re doing.  So we follow them, we’re fans of them, and we certainly learn from them.

Q: There seems to be an effort by all the major leagues to bring more entertainment into their sports to try to attract and convert the casual fans.

Barnhart: I think you have to do that.  You have to improve the value of the fan’s experience. It’s not just the race that we’ve got to put on.  We’ve got to entertain the fan throughout most of the day, so you’ve got to have some additional entertainment there through concerts, through celebrities and pre- and post-race.  It’s not just about dropping the green flag, conducting a race and sending the fan home.  You’ve got to do more to entertain him and you’ve got to do more to improve his value for his ticket price.

Q: Is it a peaceful co-existence with the IRL and NASCAR and Champ Car?  Are you competing for the same fans?

Barnhart Says Competition For Fans
Goes Beyond World Of Motorsports

Barnhart: We’re competing for fans with everybody in the entertainment industry.  There certainly are limited dollars that families can spend on any form of entertainment, whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, going to the movies or taking your boat out on the weekend.  We certainly view it as a peaceful co-existence.  Our focus has always been on what’s best for the Indy Racing League. We’re just trying to do our own thing, have our own little niche in the market, and do the best that we can to be the worldwide leader in motorsports entertainment.

Q: Is the business health of the IRL in good shape?

Barnhart: It is.  It’s a difficult thing.  We’re [in] our tenth season, and the hard part is, to be honest, we’re probably not as far along as we’d like to be in some areas.  On the other hand, we’ve got an awful lot of areas that we’re very proud of, what our growth has been in those nine years.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag, but overall we’re in very good shape.

Q: Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Barnhart: Orlando.

Q: What is your favorite piece of music?

Barnhart: Anything by ELVIS.

Q: What is your favorite movie?

Barnhart: “Die Hard.”

Q: Who is your favorite author?


Q: What is your favorite sporting event?

Barnhart: The Indianapolis 500 -- like no other!

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