Nigel Mansell’s victory at Nazareth Speedway having turned the IndyCar finale at Laguna Seca into something of an anti-climax, it was only natural for the talk on the Monterey Peninsula to centre on Bill Stokkan’s successor as CART chairman. Little more than a month earlier, Stokkan caught everyone off guard by announcing he would not seek to renew his contract beyond the expiration of his current term on January 1 1995 and that he would work with the Board to insure a smooth transition should a replacement be named before his scheduled departure.
Nobody seriously entertains any thoughts of Stokkan staying on as a lame duck chairman for more than a year; indeed, the general belief is that a successor will be nominated by the current Board of Directors before the election of a new Board, scheduled for November 10. Since Stokkan dropped his Road America bombshell, four names have been widely circulated as candidates: Nick Craw, Bill Hildick, Michael Kranefuss and Jim Melvin.
In many ways, Melvin appeared to be the best qualified of the candidates. He is general manager of the Milwaukee Mile and his Pinnacle Marketing firm handles the promotion for Road America. Moreover, he is past president of the Sports Car Club of America, he was CART’s first president for a time and he also managed Michigan International Speedway. Thus he is fully conversant with the ins and outs of the geo-politics of racing on both the national and international fronts. And as a successful marketing man in his own right, Melvin would be eminently capable of building on the progress made by Stokkan in the past three years. Moreover, having worked for Roger Penske and Carl Haas he knows both well and would, presumably, be able to stay a half step ahead of them in their ceaseless efforts to stack the IndyCar deck in their favour.
Unfortunately, Melvin was interviewed for the chairmanship back in 1989/90 when the search committee went with Stokkan after reports that Melvin was “too aggressive” – ie he made it clear he thought CART needed a chairman who wouldn’t be pushed around by the likes of Roger Penske and Carl Haas. And this time around, despite his name being bandied about in the press, Melvin was apparently never given serious consideration, perhaps because he is too valuable a man for Carl Haas to lose at Milwaukee!
Craw is something of a career bureaucrat, having held a number of prominent positions in the federal government including director of the Peace Corps. In his younger days, he was also an avid sports car racer himself, and since 1983 has been president of the Sports Car Club of America. His tenure at SCCA has met with mixed reviews, with membership growing from 23,000 to 54,000 but a number of his ventures – most notably the SCCA spec series, in which the SCCA contracts with outside vendors to build cars such as the Spec Racer (formerly Sports Renault) and CanAm, which compete with existing classes – have been highly controversial, to say the least.
Craw was one of three candidates to be invited to interview with the Board in late September and while by all accounts he made a favourable impression, being quite candid about his strengths and weaknesses, most see him filling the role of a straw man who will be sacrificed in the name of a “thorough” search.
As chairman of the Portland Rose Festival Association and the Portland IndyCar race, Hildick has considerable experience as both an organisational leader and event promoter. Portland is annually one of the best run, most popular events on the IndyCar calendar. Hildick has been very effective in upgrading what was once little more than a glorified club racing circuit into one of the better tracks in the PPG IndyCar World Series, and while much remains to be done before it challenges the likes of Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, the fact that Portland annually attracts the largest sports crowd in the Pacific North-West is testimony to his promotional expertise. The question is whether he has the horsepower to move from successful race promoter to head of an organisation that must deal with the multi-headed hydra of technology run amok as well as the likes of Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley and Tony George.
Kranefuss, of course, is well known throughout the motor sports world, as outgoing head of Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations division. As such he saw Ford’s joint ventures with Cosworth in Formula One and, more recently, IndyCar racing, as well as a highly visible (and successful) presence in NASCAR, TransAm and IMSA GTO programmes. A skilful politician, Kranefuss is also fully up to speed on the technical issues facing CART in the here and now, as well as the future. Rightly or wrongly (but, undeniably, successfully), he lobbied long and hard to get CART’s controversial engine supply rules enacted. And having worked in racing from the “other” side for so long, he is also keenly aware of the challenges manufacturers and sponsors alike face in justifying astronomical (even in IndyCar racing) financial outlays in a sport where success is far from guaranteed.
On the other hand, of course, Kranefuss will inevitably have to overcome the perception – fair or not – that his ties to Ford will make it hard for him to be impartial when it comes to decisions affecting engines and manufacturer involvement. Indeed, his part in the CART engine rules can not have made him a favourite with Honda or Toyota, to say nothing of Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Which brings us to Cary Agajanian. Not among the early candidates, Agajanian’s name surfaced in mid-September and he had his interview with the Board at Laguna Seca. The son of JC Agajanian, whose Ol’ Calhoun roadster Parnelli Jones drove to a controversial victory in the 1963 lndy 500, Cary is a lawyer who successfully defended the Long Beach Grand Prix Association against Clay Regazzoni’s lawsuit in the aftermath of the Swiss’ horrible accident in the 1980 US Grand Prix. He was also the promoter of the famed Ascot Park track in Los Angeles as well as a principle in the Curb Motorsports IndyCar team of the 1980s and a trusted adviser to a number of bright young drivers including John Andretti, Tom Kendall, Jeff Gordon and Bryan Herta. And in 1991 he was named on the board of ACCUS, the FIA’s United States arm.
Although some may see Agajanian as a return to the John Frasco and John Caponigro days when the lawyers ran CART, in fact his appeal stems from the fact that he is fully conversant with issues in racing ranging from stock cars to sprint cars, from IndyCars to funny cars and, here’s the key, would instantaneously improve the relationship between CART and the IndyCar fraternity in Indianapolis – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the United States Auto Club. Indeed, IMS president Tony George has privately informed some key CART constituents that Agajanian is the only candidate that interests him.
What path is the Board likely to take in recommending a candidate?
“I think we need someone who has a vision,” says Derrick Walker. “A person who is able to see how we can keep the many positive things about the series while growing and also coming to grips with the thorny technical issues ahead of us. IndyCar racing is changing, and we have to have someone with a clear vision of where we’re going at the helm.”
For his part, Carl Haas seemed to be leaning towards someone who could build upon the tentative steps towards reconciliation between CART and USAC and IMS when, at the CART awards banquet following the Laguna Seca race, he said “In order to grow further, to reach the next level we are making a transition. Some are afraid of change, I am not. In fact I welcome it, because it is the best course of action for our organisation…. I know I speak for everyone here when I say one of our most important objectives for the future is not just to keep Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway involved but to create a structure where you feel you can continue to be involved.”
Who will it be? The bookmakers seem to favour Kranefuss with Agajanian a very legitimate contender as well. Stay tuned.