What Might Have Been
This past Monday, an infamous anniversary came and went with little or no mention. Monday October 28 marked the one-year anniversary of the unceremonious firing of former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. I believe in looking forward and not dwelling on the past, but I’ll admit I pondered the question of what might have been, had Randy Bernard been left to continue his work.
Without knowing much about what I was viewing, I watched the end of the Professional Bull Riding World Finals from Las Vegas on Sunday. Although I know few rules of that sport, I know the object is to climb aboard a bull and hold on for dear life, while the huge animal tries to throw you off. Based on the commentary I heard, I know it’s more complicated than that. But one thing that stood out was the packed house in the stands. Another point that did not go unnoticed was the electricity in the air. It was so palpable; I could feel it from my couch.
Randy Bernard was CEO of the PBR for fifteen years. In that tine, he literally built that sport from the ground up. When he got there it was not even a niche sport. It was an obscure group of bull-riders who rode in front of very few fans. In that fifteen year span, Bernard grew that sport through marketing and promotion. He utilized his many contacts to get that sport on network television. He turned the PBR into a successful enterprise that had a growing and loyal following. It did not go unnoticed.
In 2010, Randy Bernard was recruited away from his beloved PBR to become the permanent CEO of IndyCar, replacing the ousted Tony George and allowing interim CEO Jeff Belskus to return to his duties of President of IMS. The hope was that Bernard would do for IndyCar what he did for the PBR. It was probably not explained to him at the time that the expectation was for him to do in a little more than two years, what it took him fifteen to achieve at PBR.
Randy Bernard did not snag the IZOD deal, nor did he get the series ensnarled into a ten-year deal with Versus/NBCSN. Terry Angstadt was responsible for the IZOD title sponsorship and Tony George is the one that signed off on Versus. But Randy worked with IZOD to build a level of excitement that had not been seen in the series for quite a while. Although he could not get out of the Versus deal, Randy Bernard worked with the TV partners to get what he could.
As soon as Randy Bernard took the job, he immersed himself into the sport. He picked the brains of Donald Davidson, Robin Miller and many others that had spent their entire careers, if not lives, passionately following the sport of American Open Wheel Racing. He became a sponge, doing his best to learn the history, the traditions, the nuances and the challenges the sport has faced in the past as well as currently. After a little more than a month on the job, he spoke fluently about the sport – as if he had followed it all of his life.
Randy also made himself available – very available. He walked among fans and eagerly engaged in conversations with anyone that approached him. He had that innate ability to put anyone he was speaking with, completely at ease. And yes, he embraced the IndyCar bloggers. He understood the importance of social media and recognized it as a vehicle to help promote the sport. Most importantly, he listened to the fans and tried his best to give them what they wanted – within reason.
After several years of the old Dallara chassis that was introduced in 2003, Bernard saw to it that it be retired in short order. Fans were wanting a new car, but the series seemed content with the status quo. He appointed the ICONIC committee to listen to fans, series officials, owners and drivers to determine which direction the series should go for their next generation of cars.
Randy Bernard also heard the fans desires to have more than one engine manufacturer, as had been the case since 2006. He worked hard to convince Chevrolet that it was the right time for them to return to the series. Suddenly, Lotus wanted to be involved as well. We all know that didn’t work out, and Randy should probably accept some of the blame for not holding Lotus more accountable as they were developing their engine. Regardless, there was suddenly a lot of buzz and excitement about IndyCar.
The man some callously referred to as Ropin’ Randy, for his time spent at PBR, brought a lot of new ideas to the series – some better than others. He introduced double-file restarts, he came up with the double-headers that turned out to be very popular with fans and he listened when fans bristled at the idea of a “lucky dog” rule as they have in NASCAR.
He worked tirelessly to get the New Hampshire race on the schedule – knowing that fans wanted more ovals. He was also doing his best to get Phoenix and Michigan back on the slate for IndyCar.
He rubbed some owners the wrong way when he was negotiating with another tire manufacturer to possibly take the place of Firestone, which was increasing their fees dramatically. One of those owners was John Barnes, the owner of Panther Racing. Apparently, Mr. Barnes holds quite a grudge, because more than a year later – he was the primary figure that tried to oust Bernard shortly after the 2012 Indianapolis 500.
Many blamed Randy Bernard for the outcome of the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas when Dan Wheldon was fatally injured. They point to the $5 million offer for the winner of the Indianapolis 500, who did not have a full-time ride, to start at the back of the field and do his best to work his way to the front. Had Wheldon won, he would have collected the bonus. Originally, the offer was to drivers from other series but none took up the challenge. Bernard then modified it for Wheldon. Detractors maintain that had Randy not made such a tempting offer, Wheldon would not have taken chances to get to the front. I maintain that Wheldon would have driven for free, regardless of any offer. Regardless of that debate, Bernard was never able to escape the shadow of the Wheldon tragedy.
Things got worse between Barnes and Bernard. It escalated just before the month of May in 2012 when Honda, who was winless at the time, was allowed to make changes to their turbocharger housing in the infamous “Turbogate” hearing. Chevrolet owners were infuriated and Bernard caught the brunt of the heat. Panther is a Chevrolet team and Barnes was not amused.
In early June of 2012, on the eve of the Grand Prix of Detroit, things came to a head. Barnes was strongly rumored to be leading a coup to have Randy Bernard ousted. Then, the tweet heard ‘round the world was posted by Randy when he tweeted “…it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired, I’ve had several other owners confirm this. Disappointing.”
The heat died down to a low simmer throughout the summer, but the story never fully went away. About a month after the 2012 season finale at Fontana, the story got legs again. On the evening of Sunday Oct 28, Bernard was summarily kicked to the curb by the board. The pocket of owners put so much heat on the board of Hulman & Company, that they finally relented. After two months of fumbling and stumbling around, Mark Miles was finally named as Chairman of the Board. A few months later, it became apparent that he planned to keep the job of IndyCar CEO for himself.
Although we’ve heard very little from Mr. Miles, except for the predictable sound bites – I have confidence that he will do a good job in the long run. His resume and credentials speak for themselves. But there is no way to measure the loss of momentum suffered by the series, which already had such a small margin for error. Quite frankly, the board bungled this firing. They came off as spineless and John Barnes came off as an arrogant malcontent.
All the goodwill and great feelings about the series created during Randy Bernard’s tenure have vanished. A bunker mentality is now what seems prevalent from the IndyCar brain trusts. It seems like we now get information on a need-to-know basis. During the Tony George administration, we got the feeling from the series that this would be a great series if we didn’t have to deal with all these fans. Randy Bernard changed that mindset. During his regime, the fans wishes were front-and center when making decisions. Now we’ve entered another age of secrecy.
Don’t think this change hasn’t been lost on sponsors – both at the team and series level. Some series sponsors cut back their monetary involvement after the mishandling of Randy’s firing. Who’s to say that Go-Daddy and HP didn’t base their respective departures on the perceived instability at the top, or that they didn’t care for the new direction (or lack thereof) of the new administration?
Randy Bernard landed on his feet. He is now the CEO of RFD-TV, a cable channel based out of Omaha. I still follow him on Twitter and he has tackled that position with the same vigor and enthusiasm that he did at IndyCar. He still closely watches PBR and he still follows IndyCar and tweets nothing but high praise for the series. He made several good friends in the series and has never uttered a bad word about IndyCar. Based on his tweets, it seems he wants nothing but success for the series that dumped him. That’s what you’d expect from a class individual
So, on Monday – I couldn’t help but wonder where the series might be right now and what might be on the horizon for 2014. We’ve now been told “wait ’til next year” because 2014 is going to be a transition year – meaning nothing will change. Now 2015 is promised to be the year of change and improvement. Had Randy Bernard been left in place, I can’t help but think we would be facing a year of change and improvement for 2014. I look at where the PBR is today compared to where it was when Randy Bernard was brought on board and given the trust and freedom to do what he thought best.
I am amazed that successful businessmen have gotten where they are when they at times act like children on a playground. We’ve seen what happens when owners are put in charge of making decisions for a racing series. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Why does a rogue owner of a mid-pack team that has not won since 2005, think that he should decide the fate of this series? It just makes me shake my head and wonder what might have been.