New Hampshire: Randy Bernard Strikes Again
If the initial reports are correct – and they usually are – then CEO Randy Bernard is about to announce that the IZOD IndyCar Series is set to return to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2011. If you enjoyed the race in Iowa this past Sunday, this is great news.
Randy Bernard seems intent on making good on his promise that his open-wheel series embraces its short oval roots and try to maintain a greater than a 50% balance slanted more toward ovals than road/street courses. Adding the 1.058 mile oval in Loudon, New Hampshire is a great way to start. He reportedly also has his eyes set on Phoenix, Las Vegas and Milwaukee. If Mr. Bernard can pull off any of those in the near future, my opinion of him will be higher than it is already.
After the NASCAR Busch series began running at NHMS in 1990, CART ran its inaugural race there over the Fourth of July weekend in 1992. Bobby Rahal won the first open-wheel race there in his Miller Genuine Draft Lola-Chevy on his way to his third CART title. Subsequent CART winners in the mid-nineties included Nigel Mansell, Al Unser, Jr. and Andre Ribeiro. With the exception of Ribeiro, each CART winner at New Hampshire went on to win the championship later that season. The 1994 race won by Little Al is best remembered for a crash by Scott Sharp that found him spinning on his head in his Pac-West Lola along the backstretch, while still providing full radio communication to his crew. In 1995, Andre Ribeiro won, giving Honda their first Indy car victory.
With the CART-IRL split in 1996 – the track, owned by Bob Bahr at the time, chose to align with the IRL and attendance plummeted. While CART played to mostly full-houses in its run, the IRL was lucky to draw 20,000 to its races at New Hampshire. By this time, with the NASCAR Cup Series now in the fold and Bruton Smith part of the ownership picture, the IRL race became very expendable. Three very recognizable names won IRL races at New Hampshire; Scott Sharp, Robbie Buhl and Tony Stewart, but 1998 was to be the last year for open-wheel racing at New Hampshire – until 2011.
In the meantime, New Hampshire cast its lot totally with NASCAR as it began hosting two Cup races in 1997. Unfortunately, New Hampshire Motor Speedway was the site of two separate NASCAR fatalities in 2000. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were both fatally injured in turn three on different weekends – both the apparent victims of stuck throttles. Although NASCAR had already invented the HANS device, its use was not yet a requirement. NASCAR’s invention of the SAFER barrier was still a couple of years away. On a serious note, had both of those systems been in use, both drivers may still be alive today.
Since 2008, New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been solely in the hands of Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI). Jerry Gappens has been the Executive VP and GM of the track since then as well. Gappens has made it clear that he wanted the IZOD IndyCar Series at his track. In 2009, he made a strong push to be on the schedule for the 2010 season, but for some strange reason – the previous regime didn’t see fit to pursue New Hampshire. There weren’t many oval tracks that wanted an IndyCar Series event at their track, hence the first season where road courses outnumber the ovals. Here was one that actually sought out the IndyCar Series, yet the leaders at the time inexplicably showed lukewarm interest, at best. Fortunately, Randy Bernard had no axe to grind with New Hampshire and he made scheduling the track a priority for the 2011 schedule.
This is a good move on several fronts. First and foremost, it gets another oval on the schedule. Secondly, it is a short oval similar in size and shape to Milwaukee. As we saw this past weekend, the short ovals can be very exciting – now that the oval package has been tweaked to allow better racing. Thirdly, the New England area is currently an unserved market in the IZOD IndyCar Series. The demographics of that area align nicely with the markets that IZOD is trying to reach.
I’m sure that Randy Bernard is going to make some major mistakes along the way. He has to. But so far, I have to say that I continue to be very impressed with what this man has done, after not even four full months on the job. Unlike the previous regime that was so arrogant, when they actually had very little to be arrogant about – Randy Bernard has come in and seems to be fully intent on listening. Not only is he listening, he is listening to the right people. And the biggest surprise is that he seems to actually be listening to the most important people of all – the fans.
So add his commitment to short ovals to the growing list of Randy Bernard’s accomplishments over a very short period of time. With the engine formula that pleases most already announced and the much anticipated chassis announcement coming later this summer, things were already looking up for the IZOD IndyCar Series. With a popular win by Tony Kanaan in a very exciting race on a short oval, the timing could not be any better to announce the addition of New Hampshire. And how are they to announce it? By having Dario Franchitti drive his Target Dallara-Honda at speed on the track at New Hampshire just before the NASCAR race, before the throngs of NASCAR fans who have probably never seen an IndyCar run before. Somehow, I cannot imagine that Tony George or any of his inner-circle would ever have given such a move a single thought.