(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)
Freshman Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard understands that he’s got a lot to learn. When he was plucked by The Sisters for the top position in the Indy Racing League management in January, he didn’t know a whole lot about the IndyCar Series. He had never been to an IndyCar race, and he probably didn’t exactly realize what he was getting himself into.
After three months on the job, Bernard has done a remarkable job of making even his most ardent detractors stand up and take notice that his lack of familiarity with the wars of open-wheel past is not necessarily a bad thing and, in fact, may be his greatest asset.
I had the great honor of having lunch with Randy Bernard this past week in Indianapolis and got the chance to really start to understand where he looks to take the IZOD IndyCar Series in the future. One of Randy’s first orders of business (besides that minor 2012 chassis issue) is connecting the past legends of the sport with the drivers of today’s IZOD IndyCar Series. In speaking of drivers such as AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Rick Mears, Bernard says, “They were the legends that built this sport. We need to make sure we don’t forget that. I’m very keen on making sure the legends stay at the forefront along with today’s superstars.”
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always done an admirable job of celebrating its heritage, but outside the realm of Indianapolis, those legends of the sport seem to be forgotten. Bernard hopes to change that and draw the lineage from AJ Foyt to Tony Kanaan in much the same way as the NBA links Wilt Chamberlin to Michael Jordan and Lebron James. Of course, Bernard also feels that the League needs to do a better job of promoting the drivers not merely as sportsmen but as superstars. By putting the drivers out front, Bernard believes that a more personal connection will be formed, and that, in turn, will drive the passion and growth of the IndyCar fan base.
It became obvious very early in our conversation that what drives Randy Bernard’s decisions is ultimately the fans. Randy is smart enough to know that in any sports or entertainment realm, nothing exists without the fans. The sport of auto racing, though originally conceived as a testing competition between automobile manufacturers, is particularly reliant on the fans because of the expense involved and the perilous reliance upon sponsors to finance the annual budgets of the racing teams. Says Bernard, “Fans are everything. Fans drive ratings and fans drive attendance.” Without the fans, the sport simply cannot exist.
Bernard also already understands that the IZOD IndyCar Series has not two sets of fans but four. The first two sets of fans straddle the division between new fans and old fans — the people that that IndyCar Series needs to reach and draw in versus the fans that have supported the IndyCar Series for many years. Regarding this dichotomy, Bernard says, “We have to consider tradition and culture and make sure [we] do not offend people… we do not want to affect the purists but how do we attract new fans at the same time? In the end, we have to create bigger and better storylines.” It’s a fine line that the League must walk in moving forward.
When he began his tenure as the CEO of the Professional Bull Riders Association, Bernard says the main audience demographic was an “older” crowd that migrated from the traditional rodeo crowd. But within a few years through diligent marketing, the PBR was able to lower the average age of their fan to 37. Bernard admits that he isn’t sure just yet what the current demographic of the IZOD IndyCar Series is because he wants to take on that research himself. However, he understands fully where that demographic needle needs to point and says that having IZOD on board as the title sponsor of the League’s premier series is a critical component of reaching that target demographic. Specifically, he points to IZOD’s “Race to the Party” campaign as an image that will strike a chord with younger audiences and promote the excitement of the Series.
Combine those groups with the remaining groups, those that consider themselves ovals fans versus those that consider themselves road/street course fans, and that fine line suddenly becomes a needle point. Bernard dismisses the notion that the recently announced oval and road course titles do anything to reopen old wounds and re-polarize the fan bases that spent a dozen long years battling against each other. However, he does recognize that many of the Indy Racing League’s long-time supporters are disheartened by the growing number of road courses and the dwindling number of ovals. He says that many of the Series’ Midwestern-based fans tend to appreciate the oval tracks while the international fans and fans on both coasts tend to prefer the road racing. Bernard says that oval fans should not worry that the Series will become dominated by road and street courses as the former series sanctioned by CART and Champ Car did. He plans to retain a “very equal mix” of ovals against road and street courses. Furthermore, he says, “Our goal is to keep [the schedule] as equal as possible to show the diversity of the cars and drivers.” Those race fans that loved the PPG IndyCar World Series circa 1994 will no doubt take heart in such sentiments.
One topic over which IndyCar fans have voiced passionate concerns relates to the television coverage. While fans generally agree that coverage provided by Versus is high quality and thorough, much has been made of Versus’s limited distribution. Versus is available is approximately 75 million households. ABC is available in more than 125 million households. The lack of coverage and apparent passion from ABC/ESPN has been an issue lamented by fans for many years, only made worse when Versus debuted in 2009 with a breath of fresh air and a commitment to cover the Series from as many angles as possible. Still, Bernard says his relationship with ABC is “great” and that ABC is committed to helping the IZOD IndyCar Series grow. Earlier this week, ABC executives flew to Indianapolis for a lengthy meeting with Bernard to examine ways to make the IndyCar coverage more compelling, exciting, and entertaining. Though Bernard looks forward to the U.S. Department of Justice ruling on the Comcast/NBC merger sometime this fall, the current contract with Versus has not allowed the Indy Racing League to initiate talks to move any of the Versus-covered races to NBC in future years.
The thing that struck me most about my time with Randy Bernard was how passionate he is about not only listening to the fans’ opinions but actively seeking them out. Though much was made of his lack of experience related to all things IndyCar racing before assuming his position as CEO of the League, many are now finding that his outsider’s mentality may in fact be one of his greatest assets. Bernard makes no allusions that he has prior knowledge or experience with racing organizations but is determined to learn all he can learn in short order. To his great credit, he is seeking to learn about the sport from not only those people inside the Indy Racing League but those outside as well. He has met countless times with IndyCar officials, team owners, drivers, media, and fans over the past two months to understand what each of those groups brings to the table.
This is obviously in vast contrast to the way things were run under Tony George’s guidance. I do like Tony George and appreciate many of the things he did for racing in general, but I never felt that I was going to be able to sit down with him over lunch and openly express my opinions about the Indy Racing League, especially if some of those opinions were less than flattering. Within a matter of minutes, Bernard’s easy demeanor and openness to opinions gave me the feeling that he was not simply there to give lip-service to “caring about the fans” but that he was genuinely interested in what I, a mere fan, thinks about the current direction and the future of the IZOD IndyCar Series. By the time we were 20 minutes into our meeting, the conversation had turned to the point where Randy was interviewing me as much as I was interviewing him. He was particularly interested in my views on what I feel is important for the 2012 IndyCar chassis and what I feel are the greatest concerns of the current IZOD IndyCar Series fans.
After such a long period where the fans have felt their voices have fallen on deaf ears, let there be no doubt that this new leader, the proverbial new sheriff in town, is hearing the voice of the fans and is listening intently. “I’m going to bust my butt to try to listen to as many folks as I can when making the decisions to help this sport grow,” says Bernard. It is a welcome break from the Tony George era where fan interaction was nearly non-existent and opinions, if heard, were rarely acknowledged.
In speaking of the 94th Indianapolis 500 later this month, Bernard is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to view the Greatest Spectacle in Racing from as many angles as possible. Though he admits he will watch part of the race from the suites so that he can meet the sponsors, he also looks forward to viewing portions of the race from four or five grandstand locations throughout the facility in an effort to be in and amongst the fans. From the passion in his voice, there is no doubt that the fans will be first and foremost in the growth of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
IndyCar fans have good reason to hope for a very bright future. While the ramifications of the 12-year civil war will not be erased overnight, or even in a single year, the Indy Racing League now has a new figurehead with a clear conscience that is singularly focused on growing the sport. Randy Bernard understands that things will not be easy and that difficult decisions will need to be made. He understands that in a sport that hopes to have millions of fans, he will likely never make a decision that pleases all people. However, he also understands that the IZOD IndyCar Series has a host of valuable assets and that he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. As he says, he just needs “to make sure it rolls.” Under his guidance and leadership, open-wheel racing is finally poised to roll successfully for many years to come.