INDIANAPOLIS -- In an effort to provide more horsepower to the sport, the IZOD IndyCar Series turned to bull riding for inspiration when it hired
Bernard, who turned Professional Bull Riders (PBR) from a one-person operation to a viable sporting entity, is ready to tackle the "Bucking Bull" that threw off its founder,
Rather than selecting a racing "insider," board member
Bernard's distance from the sport is one of his greatest assets. For far too long, the sport had been run by "insiders" who were largely unwilling to change the status quo. They assumed failure before trying new ideas. But by hiring a leader from outside the sport, the IRL found an innovative and aggressive CEO to guide it toward a more successful future.
"I like the guy because he's a workaholic," said IndyCar team owner
The 43-year-old Bernard has taken the challenge of his current position with all the zeal and passion he displayed when he set up the PBR. Starting with only a card table and a folding chair, Bernard changed a sport known for its grizzled and battered cowboys to a profitable entertainment entity.
The biggest reason Bernard was successful: his ability to conceptualize the sport in a fresh, new way.
"When you do it for so long the same way, people often don't look outside of the box," Bernard recalled. "When I came into rodeo, people were doing it the same way for 70 years. I came in and was looked at as a crazy kid making stupid moves. Now, people can't see it any other way."
Bernard replaced the brass bands with rock 'n' roll music. He replaced the rodeo clowns who wore baggies and clown makeup with uniforms because "they have a serious job."
"I never tried to be an expert on bull riding and I will never try to be an expert on racing," Bernard said. "That's not my job. My job is to see how many more people I can get to come to that event and how many people can watch that event on TV. I have to be a devil's advocate to figure out what is in the best interest of the fans."
When Bernard met his IRL staff for the first time, he told them the one word he doesn't want to hear is "can't." He has challenged his staff to do whatever it takes to help the sport return to the level of success it once enjoyed when it was the preeminent form of racing in the United States for most of the 20th century.
"I don't want to hear that this is the way it's always been done," Bernard said. "I challenge everybody. I ask 1,000 questions. I try to push people to their limits and try to come up with better ideas. The one thing I want to do is make people think outside the box."
That new way of thinking has impressed the most successful team owner in the history of IndyCar racing. While
"We've got a little life in this series right now," Penske said. "We've got a CEO that is not infected by all of the old stuff yet, so he can kind of do his own thing for a while.
"I met him before he took the job and I think he is a business guy. He built PBR from scratch. When you talk to him he is talking about the right things. He is talking about purses. He is talking about people in the stands. He is growing the brand and trying to do things differently."
While Penske commends Tony George for keeping the series together during the open-wheel racing split that began with the competition between CART and IRL in 1996 and ended with unification in 2008, he knows that Bernard is focused on doing one job, not three.
"He is engaged everyday, seven days a week, and that is important," Penske said. "Tony George did a hell of a job bringing this thing to where it is, but he had other interests. Randy doesn't own a team and he doesn't own the track. His job is 24/7 to run the league, which is great.
"I think he is a breath of fresh air. If somebody said we are going to hire the guy from Professional Bull Riders, you'd say, what the hell -- that doesn't have anything to do with auto racing. But when you sit down and talk to him he is very smart. I told him, 'Hey, let's get together' and he said, how about tomorrow? I had to tell my wife I had to go to the office bright and early on a Sunday morning, and he was there waiting on me. He was like a sponge."
Bernard has been on the job a little more than a month and what has struck him is the passionate level of interest from team owners, sponsors and the fan base. But despite their interest, Bernard still faces a number of challenges to increase the sport's visibility and fan base.
He wants to create bigger stars out of the IndyCar drivers. One of the ways he wants to do that is to increase the prize money. "We have to make sure everyone understands that whether it is a big sum or money at the end or a famous trophy, we are building winners every week," Bernard said. "Open-wheel racing has seen some pretty hard times, but I'm a firm believer there is a rainbow at the end of the rain storm."
He also wants to build the sport from the ground up. To do that he wants to reach down to the karting level and bridge the gap between grassroots racing and the top level of open-wheel racing in the United States, the IZOD IndyCar Series.
"Within six months you will see us develop more with grassroots," Bernard said. "Karting is going to be a very big issue to me. If there are 25,000 to 50,000 kids out there karting, why aren't we capitalizing on that? I want them looking up to
"A lot of people have come up to me and said they want to see more Americans on our tour. From the League standpoint it's more important, from my opinion, that we have the very best drivers in the world on our tour. Having said that, we have to create a grassroots program where the best karters and the best midget racers are coming up and wanting to come back into open-wheel racing in IndyCar. That is how we are going to make sure we get more Americans in here."
Karting is how IndyCar's most famous face, Danica Patrick, got her start, and she seems optimistic about Bernard's future with IRL.
"I really like him," Patrick said. "He is just what we need. He seems open to suggestions, so we will see how far that goes. Sometimes suggestions go in one ear and out the other. We'll see if they are listening. As far as big ideas go, he has it. He isn't coming in to change anything, he is coming in to add things. As he feels more comfortable in the process, then he may change some things.
"It is a challenge so I'm glad we have somebody that is up for it."
Bernard brings a fresh approach to the sport that might rattle traditionalists who long for the return of the old "Roadster." But for IndyCar to grow, taking a chance with Bernard might be a risk it needed to take.
"I got a nice note from Roger Penske after I won the Daytona 500 and he said, `Welcome to the 500 Club.' I didn't realize that he and I were the only guys that have won the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. When he said `Welcome to the 500 Club, I didn't realize how small the club was.'"
While NASCAR Sprint Cup heads west to run under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway, the IZOD IndyCar Series will invade the Deep South with its first-ever race at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala. Talk about juxtaposition -- Phoenix used to be a showcase oval for IndyCar while the state of Alabama was NASCAR country. My how the tides have turned.