With Bernard gone, INDYCAR faces a critical crossroads

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on October 30, 2012 12:37 pm
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Now that I’ve let the news of Randy Bernard’s “departure” stew for a few days…

…I can’t say I’m feeling a whole lot better about it.

I keep thinking back to a couple of years ago, when IZOD was newly on board and was promoting INDYCAR enthusiastically, and when Randy Bernard was starting to show his promise as a fan-friendly leader brimming with innovative ideas for the growth of the sport.

Things seemed so heady then.

Now, with Randy Bernard mercilessly stabbed in the back before being let loose after being hounded on all sides for months, and with rumors aplenty that IZOD will be leaving its title sponsorship contract early, the air in the paddock is quickly getting that stagnant and hopeless feel to it again.

So very many people have come out swinging, declaring that they won’t spend another dime on a Series that insists on breaking fans’ hearts time and again.

Another, much smaller group is proclaiming butterflies and rainbows, insisting that everything will continue to trend upward if we would all just hold hands, form a circle, and sing Kumbaya.

I can’t place myself firmly in either camp yet.

My perception of the IZOD IndyCar Series, and the degree to which it will earn my fan dollars and support going forward, hangs fully in the balance of the next move made by Jeff Belskus and the IMS Board of Directors. And I know I’m not alone.

In the coming days, Belskus and the Board have a highly critical decision to make.

The one I hope they go with is this one: treat their paying customers with the respect they deserve. Offer a passable explanation for why continuing with Bernard in charge was detrimental to the Series — the people on the outside don’t see it and they deserve to have at least a vague idea. (The explanation doesn’t need to offer painstaking detail, but it should probably be a little deeper than the “Randy Bernard is not fired” announcement from Friday). Then, come forward with some kind of semblance of a plan (“we’re looking for a CEO with X, Y, and Z qualities and will not conclude our search until we find the right person for the job” will do). Offer even a modicum of reassurance that the concerns of the fans have been heard and that dialogue will continue going forward, thus validating the level of investment that this sport’s most fervent fans somehow still feel after so many years of these trials and tribulations.

But sadly, I suspect this is the course of action they will actually take: Offer no explanation for Randy Bernard’s firing. Return to the culture of silence. Hire a CEO with clear connections to the George family and decimate the tiny scrap of confidence remaining with the existing fan base. Sit around scratching their heads come next October when TV numbers are down the toilet, ticket sales are the worst in history, and tracks are trying to back out of contracts.

If the first scenario plays out and INDYCAR can demonstrate that Randy Bernard’s tenure with the company has facilitated a much-needed culture shift into valuing fan opinion, then there is some hope of retaining the large portion of the fan base on the brink of walking away.

(A reminder is warranted here: so many people will say that the fans don’t pay the bills, the sponsors do. But if the sponsors don’t have fans to advertise at, what do they get out of their involvement? Sponsors write the checks, but butts in the stands and in front of the TVs are what ultimately pay the bills.)

Instead, if it becomes evident that there will be an internal return to the perception that fans will always bitch no matter what happens and that there’s no point in listening to them, then INDYCAR deserves the mass exodus that’s coming to them.

Jeff Belskus: your move.

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