Monday, July 16, 2012

The Owner's POV: Interview With Brian Belardi

We hear an awful lot online about how the owners in INDYCAR should do this or that, from the first ranks of the Mazda Road to Indy to the IZOD IndyCar Series itself. Today's guest has a different point of view: he owns both a Firestone Indy Lights and USF2000 team. Brian Belardi, of Belardi Auto Racing, answered our questions about team ownership, the new 2014 Lights car, sponsorship, and future plans for some of his past and present drivers:

Thanks so much for your time, Brian. For those who don't know, could you recap how you got into the team ownership game?

Brian Belardi: I’ve always loved racing, and I even race in a few SCCA events throughout the year… so when I thought about pursuing my dreams of being involved in racing, the most logical was to start my own team.

How many full-time employees does it take to field a credible Firestone Indy Lights team? How about USF2000?

BB: Our Firestone Indy Lights and USF2000 programs both have seven full-time members each. That’s not counting our general manager and public relations rep who help out on both sides. We have a great staff of part-time employees as well since we don’t run all three FIL cars every weekend.

Sponsorship is one of the those items that's always seen as a health indicator of any motorsport series? How's the sponsor situation in Firestone Indy Lights? How would you compare it to, say, 1-2 years ago?

BB: Sponsorship is so hard to find nowadays…just look at the economy. You don’t see very many businesses willing to dish out anything extra unless it’s a huge advantage not only for the CEOs and their employees, but it also must benefit their long term goals. Most of the time those higher-ups just don’t see how putting their money into sponsoring a motorsport program will help them. The attainability of acquiring sponsors has gone down significantly in the past year or two. We are very fortunate to have businesses like Firestone, Sunoco and Peak who have been with the INDYCAR series for many years and truly help make the Firestone Indy Lights program what it is.

Is the Firestone Indy Lights program just too expensive to attract large car counts?

BB: That might be the case for some... There are a lot of talented drivers who are unable to garner enough money that is necessary, and without sponsors, it’s pretty darn hard to go anywhere. With the Mazda Road to Indy, I think it’s priced correctly especially since it is the last rung of the ladder before you get to the big leagues. You could ask folks if the IZOD IndyCar series is too expensive, and I’m sure they would say yes. It’s all relative…motorsports, in general, is a pretty expensive venture.

What would you like to see from the new Indy Lights car in 2014?

BB: I would love to see it look a little more futuristic. Like you said, it will be unveiled in 2014….shouldn’t cars be flying now? Kidding. I would love for it to still have a great sound, make it just as safe, if not safer, than our current model and slightly more comparable to the IndyCar. Our model now is pretty great, so any improvements I’m sure we’ll love.

For that matter, what about Indy Lights in general? Do you have any core ideas or principles that would be enacted if we woke up tomorrow and Brian Belardi was in charge?

BB: You know, INDYCAR does a great job of organizing this series already. I think I would just put a little more effort and promotion into the Firestone Indy Lights series and Mazda Road to Indy as a whole. Jason Penix, the marketing department and the public relations staff have really ramped up that promotion in the last few years, so I think I would just take it just one step further. Honestly, this is the best ladder series around, but there is always room for improvement.

The Belardi Firestone Indy Lights crew at Indy in 2011.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Let's talk about USF2000. We've definitely seen an increase in car count this year between the Championship and National classes. Do you see that continuing, and as an owner, are you getting increased inquiries regarding that series?

BB: I hope it continues to gain popularity like it has. We have definitely seen an influx of drivers interested in our program, which is obviously why we went from two cars to four cars since 2011. The USF2000 series is really competitive right now, and there are a ton of great drivers in the field…I would only imagine that it will continue to grow in the coming years.

What do potential sponsors think about the deal with Velocity TV?

BB: First of all, it’s fantastic that our races are broadcast on TV this year. Unfortunately the races are not immediately shown and are on a channel that not all cable providers offer, so it’s a little harder to use television as a selling point. The fact that we have any TV coverage at all is a huge step for the series, so I can only hope that it will continue to get better.

Are you happy with the balance in the schedules of USF2000 and Firestone Indy Lights as they currently stand?

BB: The schedules have been great so far…the biggest conflicts we have are coming up next month as our FIL team heads to Trois Rivieres, while our USF2000 team heads to Mid-Ohio. We split again in September for the finales, and it’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to attend both. The mix of race tracks we get to see in both series is great, but I hope in the future we will see more of the USF2000 races aligning with the rest of the Mazda Road to Indy.

Peter Dempsey is a guy who's had to bounce from team to team part-time since last year. He's also a driver who's pretty well-regarded as an open wheel prospect. Is he someone who's on your radar for a full-time Lights spot in 2013, and do you think he could be a Lights title contender?

BB: Peter is great. He has really brought such a positive and gung-ho energy to our team, and it’s been really awesome to see how well our team has adapted in such a short period of time together. We are mainly concentrating on finishing this season with he and Jorge, but we are currently working on partnerships to create a program for Peter in 2013.

How about Anders Krohn? Any chance we'll see the Viking back with the team in the foreseeable future?

BB: We didn’t have the season we had hoped last year with Anders, but he remains one of my good friends and is actually still a part of the team as a driver coach for one of our USF2000 drivers. Will we see him back in a Belardi FIL seat? You never say never, right? Whether he drives for me again or for any other team, I just hope his career is a successful one.

Your programs include drivers such as Jorge Goncalvez, Roman Lagudi, and Scott Anderson. Is there one of your drivers that you think deserves a bit more recognition or attention for their potential down the line?

BB: I think we have a great group of guys driving for us. They all have that potential to be a fantastic driver… Right now Roman is really showcasing his talent in USF2000, but again, I think all of our drivers have what’s necessary to succeed; they wouldn’t be driving for Belardi Auto Racing if I didn’t think they had it in them.

As a team owner, is there anything you see in terms of fan or media misconceptions that you'd consider a pet peeve or especially irritating?

BB: We have some of the greatest fans and supporters out there. The media is great, too. Sometimes the only thing that’s unnerving is the speculation and running away with a rumor, but luckily we don’t see too much of that happening with us. Overall all of that has been pretty nonexistent.

Do you see you and the team moving into either Star Mazda or the IZOD IndyCar Series anytime soon?

BB: We have definitely thought about both at one point or another. Hopefully one day we will be a winning contender in all four MRTI programs. For now we will continue focusing on bettering the two series we’re in. Who knows what 2013 will hold!

Finally, how much of a headache would you like your guys to give Cape Motorsports and Sam Schmidt's team between now and the end of the year?

BB: Trust me - we’d love nothing more than to give them a headache on track! Sam is a friend and someone I really respect, but one of these days I’d really love if we could just soar past his cars. Cape is the same…both are great teams and we want to be up there with both of them in either series.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the interview.

    Only one thing though: I would have been interrested to know his opinion on the lack of ovals in the Road to Indy, as an owner stand point.

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  2. That's an interesting question. When I've spoken to folks in USF2000 and Star Mazda before, they've referenced the progression on the ovals; USF2000 has 1, Star Mazda 2, etc. That said, I hope Star Mazda goes to Milwaukee next year...

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