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IndyCar: Consultants did what they’re supposed to do

Published March 4, 2013

The reaction to a weekend news story about a report from a consulting group concerning what the owners of two well-known auto racing properties should do with them illustrates perfectly why the consultants were hired in the first place.

It also illustrates a misunderstanding of what consultants are supposed to do.

Let’s go back to the start.

Last Friday, AP motorsport writer Jenna Fryer reported that Boston Consulting Group had been retained by Hulman & Co., owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series, to conduct studies and make recommendations about the future of those businesses.

The most important recommendation, according to the 115-page report that Fryer obtained, is for the parent company to continue owning the speedway and the race series.

And then, according to the story, there were these other suggestions:

– A series of 15 races in 19 weeks should be held in major American cities (in a nod to Ben Affleck, Toronto was included) followed by a three-race playoff and a grand finale on the road course at the Indianapolis Speedway;

– The series’ “daredevil” drivers should be promoted.

– There should be just one television partner in the U.S. instead of the current two.

– Ticket prices should be increased for the Indianapolis 500 and lowered for the Brickyard 400 and the Moto GP race.

There were other suggestions (you can pack a lot into 115 pages) but you get the drift.

In short, Boston Consulting is suggesting a radical shift in order to not only rescue the two businesses but to grow them.

Two things happened after Fryer put the story out on the AP wire.

First, the Speedway issued a statement. Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman and Co., said the report was an early version of one of many prepared by the consultants. He said no decisions had been made and discussions were continuing.

Second, fans of the series panned the report and its suggestions. Many wanted to know how come Hulman and Co. had hired a firm that obviously knew next to nothing about racing.

Let’s start with why companies – and governments – hire consultants in the first place. It’s usually because fresh thinking is needed. Something isn’t working and nobody in management can come up with the answer so a person or group is invited in to make suggestions to trigger discussions in hopes of finding a solution.

In the case of IndyCar, you have a racing series that isn’t on anybody’s radar. Yes, it’s on my radar and yours (if you’re reading this blog) but there are about 300 million people in the United States and Canada and it’s a good bet that most of them have no knowledge of IndyCar because if they did, more people might go to the races and/or watch them on television.

The board of directors of Hulman & Co. is made up primarily of either racing people (the descendents of Tony Hulman and Elmer George) or people who know about racing and are fans. They’ve been trying for years to make this series work.  They haven’t been successful.

So they reached out to Boston Consulting and asked them to, a) answer some specific questions (I would guess that among them was whether or not Hulman & Co. should even continue to own the speedway and the race series) and, b) make some suggestions that might help turn IndyCar from being auto racing’s biggest secret to auto racing’s latest success story.

Now, if I’m Boston Consulting (and with all due respect), the last people I’m going to ask for their opinion are fans of this racing series. And this includes columnists and pontificators like me. IndyCar has already got us; they want to go after people they don’t have.

Fryer, in an analysis written several days after she first broke the story, seems to mock the consultants for including seven cities that don’t have IndyCar races at present and for suggesting that three races currently on the schedule be dropped.

Remember, it is not the consultants’ job to come back with a report that says everything’s rosy. They obviously pushed the envelop by suggesting cities where, in their opinion, IndyCar races should be held. And one of the three races they want dropped – Fryer called it “stalwart Milwaukee” – is such a challenge to promote that last year, one of the series’ drivers, Graham Rahal, bused fans up from Indianapolis to fill seats because interest in the Wisconsin city was less than overwhelming.

Why keep putting on races in places where people could care less? I suggest Milwaukee is right up there. And while 20,000 people might show up to watch IndyCar in rural Alabama and in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, the corporate sponsors that IndyCar desperately needs are not interested, but might be if those races were held – instead – in major cities, right downtown.

The job of a consultant is to suggest alternatives to the status quo, to challenge conventional thinking.

I’d suggest that Boston Consulting, from what’s been reported to date, has done a pretty good job.

Of course, I wonder how Fryer came to get the copy of the report that she did – if, in fact, it’s an early draft, as the CEO of Hulman & Co. insists it is.

As a news editor and political reporter most of my working career, I’ve been on the receiving end of any number of confidential documents slipped to me in brown manila packages. And, in my experience, the people doing the leaking fall into three categories: political (or business) enemies looking to cause mischief; disgruntled people (frequently employees of the subject company); and/or deliberately by government or business looking for reaction – the proverbial trial balloon.

It’s hard to say which this is, but it’s certainly got the natives restless – another sign that, yes, Boston Consulting has done what it was hired to do: stir the pot.

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