IndyCar chief Bernard strives to rev up fan interest

He aims to 'move the dial' with restarts, Vegas challenge

April 17, 2011|By Jim Peltz, Tribune Newspapers

Randy Bernard has a polite, self-deprecating manner that belies he's at the forefront of saving American open-wheel racing.

"Yes, ma'am," he said to a waitress confirming his lunch order. Then Bernard, 44, turned to a visitor and declared, "I'll never be an expert on motor sports."

But Bernard, starting his second year as chief of the Izod IndyCar Series, leaves no doubt he's in charge and willing to make changes in hopes of reviving a series whose popularity has tumbled from the days it dominated U.S. racing with household names such Andretti, Foyt and Unser.

"My job is to bring notoriety to the sport," Bernard said. "We've got to grow our fan base."

As the IndyCar series holds the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach today in California, the sport is especially abuzz over two changes he made to get IndyCar some attention.

One, proposed by IndyCar team owners and heartily endorsed by Bernard, is the "double-file restart," which NASCAR stock car racing also uses.

When the field retakes the green flag after a caution period, the leaders now line up two-by-two rather than single file, raising the danger that drivers could run into each other. "The double-file restart is going to be huge for our sport," Bernard said.

Some drivers initially groused at the change, noting that, unlike NASCAR, Indy-style cars don't have fenders and collisions can immediately end their day.

But "if I could tell the drivers one thing right now, [it's] don't take it out on me" if they wreck on the restarts, Bernard said. "Take it out on the guy who made the stupid move."

Another change was to offer a $5 million prize to a professional race car driver not in the IndyCar Series if he can beat the series' regulars and win the season finale Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The series is evaluating applicants now — "every day I get a new one," Bernard said without naming names — and will announce up to five approved drivers in August.

Bernard acknowledged that he's been ridiculed by some who see the Las Vegas promotion as gimmicky or a slight to IndyCar's regular drivers who are vying for a championship that pays $1million.

Bernard is unmoved.

"If I deliver a big star" to the Las Vegas race "and it drives a big [television] rating, I hope I get the last laugh," he said. "If not, I'll eat crow and say I made a mistake. But I don't think I am."

Besides, Bernard said, "I've got to move the dial" on the sport's popularity, "and I have a short time."

That has some drivers cheering. "He's coming at it from a completely different angle as a promoter, and he's always looking for that way to create a better show," said reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti.

IndyCar turned to Bernard after a bitter 12-year civil war between the sport's rival factions ended in 2008. The sport's two series at the time, the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series, reunited under the IRL banner.

But the split had been devastating for open-wheel racing, with attendance, TV ratings and sponsorship spending all in decline. NASCAR's rising popularity during the split exacerbated IndyCar's dwindling appeal.

Even after the two series' 2008 merger, "a lot of people still didn't know that [the sport] had reunited, and I think there were a bunch of people who didn't care anymore," Bernard said. "We know we lost 15 [million] to 20 million fans."

So Bernard has spearheaded other changes, including:

•The IRL name, a vivid reminder of the factional war, was dropped in favor of the IndyCar Series.

•The series, currently with one engine provider (Honda), next year will have three: Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus. The series also no longer will have identical "spec" cars but will allow different-shaped bodies, or "aero kits," on a newly designed chassis.

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