Bernard hopes $5 million challenge can renew interest in IndyCar
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The date passed without much fanfare; in fact, he had to be reminded that March 1 was the one year anniversary since he took over as CEO of INDYCAR. But Randy Bernard spent that day in Europe, meeting with manufacturers, promoters and even Formula One ruler Bernie Ecclestone.
Bernard has made some bold moves and put INDYCAR on a positive path, but he is prepared for his biggest challenge yet -- a $5 million bonus to any driver outside of the IZOD IndyCar Series that comes to the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and can beat his drivers at their own game.
When Bernard made that announcement on Feb. 22 he had people talking about IndyCar just two days after NASCAR's biggest race of the year -- the Daytona 500.
"It's been fun to see," Bernard told SI.com before heading to Europe. "I've had 15 inquiries and some agents from some pretty big drivers which is pretty exciting to me wanting information. It's been well-versed -- a little bit of everything. A couple of drag racers have said they would want to try it.
"It's our job to make IndyCar top of mind. I want to make sure our strategy is very well designed. I'm trying to bring the credibility of our sport -- just as hard as it is for Juan Montoya and Sam Hornish and others to go to NASCAR it's just as hard for NASCAR drivers to come over to our sport. My point is now that we are unified since 2008 we showcase the best drivers in the world. I don't care if you are an F1 driver -- our guys would lick their chops to race against an F1 driver on an oval. This is a $5 million challenge. What it does for us is build perception of the credibility of how good our drivers are."
Bernard is trying to make the sport front-page news again and while that remains a major challenge because of NASCAR's stature in American motorsports, he isn't afraid to come up with new concepts to create attention.
Offering a $5 million bonus to any top driver outside of IndyCar certainly grabbed some attention, but how realistic is it that it will attract the "big-name" drivers that Bernard is hoping to get?
The only NASCAR driver so far who expressed interest is former Champ Car Series driver A.J. Allmendinger. While he would certainly be a fast driver in an IndyCar and one worthy of consideration, Bernard's challenge is aimed at such drivers as five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon and two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. Others that would generate tremendous interest would be Kyle Busch and former CART champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and Carl Edwards.
All of those drivers were asked their thoughts on the $5 million bonus last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. While they found the challenge intriguing, those drivers said logistics would be a major issue.
"Let's not even talk about if I would like to do it or not, it's just impossible logistic wise," Montoya said last week at Phoenix. "If you really were going to go to try to win the 5 million bucks, you would have to get all the practices down and do it right. And I think we are racing that weekend, aren't we? Initially I would say no. It's intriguing and I think it's intriguing for a lot of people. I think a lot of people are going 'oh' but being realistic it's impossible. Are you going to show up on Sunday and race without practice and hope for the best? Who the heck is going to win that?"
"It's very doable," Bernard said. "If the race ends at Charlotte at 11 p.m. and you are on a plane at midnight in Charlotte, you will land at 1 a.m. in Vegas. That gives you 10 hours. We will provide practice time for these guys in late summer. They qualify at Charlotte on Thursday night. What we are thinking of doing is qualifying and practice on Friday rather than Saturday. We will have the truck race on Saturday but the Cup drivers will be in Charlotte.
For NASCAR drivers to immediately discount the $5 million IndyCar World Challenge as "logistically impossible" seems a tad bit strange. Consider that in the past, drivers such as Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer have driven Cup cars in practice at Sonoma, Calif. on Saturday morning, hopped in their planes and flown to Milwaukee, Wis. for a Saturday night Nationwide Series race, then flew all the way back to the West Coast and take the green flag for a Sunday Cup race, there is no reason why they can't do that for a chance to win $5 million.
Many of the top drivers in NASCAR will be involved in the Chase and may not be willing to risk a chance to win the Cup title. But Bernard hopes to attract a wide range of drivers from sports car, rally racing and other forms of motorsports around the world.
"The five guys that we choose will be five guys that help our sport," Bernard said. "We will ask anyone that is interested to fill an application out. A committee will analyze that and the top five guys that we believe the fans will want to see race against our guys will be chosen. If we don't get any that doesn't change our belief.
"Our belief is we believe our drivers are the fastest, most versatile race car drivers in the world.
"If another driver comes over here and beats us it means there are some great drivers out there that kicked ass and they should put that on their resume and be damn proud of it."
It's a pretty good bet that a full-time IndyCar driver at Team Penske, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport will be battling for the 2011 series championship. In the past, these teams would focus their full effort on the season-title and would not dilute that effort by adding another car to the field in the final race of the season. But with a chance to pocket $5 million by adding a "non-IndyCar driver" to the field, Bernard is confident those top-level teams will take up the challenge.
"Put it this way -- I know Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi and after one year one thing I have learned is they are highly competitive," Bernard said. "So is Michael Andretti. This would be one of the largest payouts in American motorsports. Do you think Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Andretti or Panther Racing are not going pass on an opportunity to win $5 million?"
Let's consider this prospect, however.
Suppose Bernard strikes gold and Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon take up the challenge. Throw in either Montoya or a top sports car driver such as Scott Pruett into the mix and all five drivers are in top-notch equipment. Meantime, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti are locked into a four-driver battle to win the IZOD IndyCar Series crown.
Despite a great season-long points race, the IndyCar season-finale sees Busch win the IndyCar race and collect the largest race winning check in motorsports history -- $5 million.
That would certainly overshadow the IndyCar season champion.
Bernard, however, doesn't see it that way.
"What is worse is last year," Bernard said. "We were the best-kept secret in sports last year when no one saw such a phenomenal race and Dario Franchitti win the championship. Would I rather have a way to drive our ratings up? Our storyline will not change on our network show. It will have an emphasis on the World Championship but it will focus on our drivers battling for the IZOD IndyCar Series crown. If we have some great drivers going for the $5 million it will help everything.
"I'll take that bet every day of the week."
While this prospect has created interest in IndyCar, which begins its season on March 27 at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, there remains some unexpected challenges before the season begins. Just last week 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan lost his ride when he was unable to secure enough sponsorship at De Ferran Dragon Racing. This came just two months after the former Andretti Autosport driver was hired by the team in December.
Bernard calls that a setback and that is why he is charged with building the sport into a viable product, returning it to the glory and luster that it hasn't enjoyed since the early 1990s.
"It's very, very unfortunate that Tony Kanaan will not be racing at de Ferran Dragon Racing," Bernard said. "It seems like every two steps we take forward there is a step back and this is a major step back. This reinvigorates me why we have to lay down a solid foundation and grow our TV audience, our ratings and ticket sales so that we can drive more success. I think Tony Kanaan will end up with a ride. I will do everything I can to help him because he is a huge asset to our sport as well as Paul Tracy, Dan Wheldon and Townsend Bell. Those are great names that are very important to see back in our sport.
"I've been able to work with Gil tremendous on the ICONIC committee. He is very articulate and a great ambassador for the sport of IndyCar. It's never good to see a champion like that have to close down shop. I think Jay Penske is very intelligent and has a tremendous passion for IndyCar. I see him making something happen yet. I'm not giving up on them."
So as March 1 passed and Bernard had been on the job for a full year, Bernard realizes despite the progress, there remains much work to be done.
"It seems like it has been five years -- I feel like I'm five years older, I'll tell you that," Bernard admitted. "I love it and to be honest it has gone by rather quickly. We have so much to do. I had seven goals when I started last year and I pull them out about every two to three months to see if I'm making progress.
"Yes, we've made some progress, but we still have a long ways to go."