INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a dark year for the IZOD IndyCar Series, but Randy Bernard says the series is ready to reclaim some momentum. On Monday, the IndyCar CEO gave a "State of the Sport" address at the Hilbert Circle Theater on Monument Circle and told those in attendance that despite missteps, the series is well-positioned going forward.
"No one could deny or claim we haven't made mistakes along the way. We have. But our only goal every single day with IndyCar is to better it and make it stronger. We have fantastic drivers, we have outstanding teams, and partners willing to invest millions into the series in an effort to help this series thrive and ensure IndyCar will be here for another century."
For Bernard, the list of mistakes starts and ends with Las Vegas. He attempted to make the season's final race a grand finale, billing it as the IZOD IndyCar Series world championships and offering a $5 million prize to drivers from other forms of motor sports if they could beat IndyCar at its own game. He was hoping to lure big-name NASCAR drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch, but none stepped forward.
With no big-name stock car driver in the fold, Bernard turned to Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. Wheldon, lacking a full-time ride, was offered a chance to start at the back of the 34-car field and drive his way to the front for the $5 million bonus. Anticipation was high, but the race ended tragically when a 15-car crash took Wheldon's life.
Instead of celebrating Dario Franchitti's impressive fourth IZOD IndyCar Series crown, the series fled town and tried to recover and heal during one of the darkest times in the sport.
"[Wheldon's] absence hangs over us still," he said. It's imperative we commemorate Dan's life by continuing to make great strides in our sport, from safety to the competition to the overall health and growth of the series. We must communicate better. We must work together. We must grow the sport together."
And a defiant Bernard noted that, despite the tragedy, the IndyCar Series has grown.
"I'd like to take a moment to address the many critics the series has faced," Bernard said. "I read and hear the same things that all of you do -- that IndyCar is headed for doomsday. That the series will be out of business in two years -- I heard that two years ago. I counter that with the fact that the IZOD IndyCar Series just had one of its best financial years in history. That could not have happened without the tremendous partners we had in the series."
One of those partners is Firestone. On Monday the tire company announced its decision to remain with the series through 2014. Just a year ago, Firestone was on the verge of leaving the series.
Partners are also excited about the new car. For the first time since 2003, IndyCar will introduce a new chassis with turbocharged engines from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus, bringing multi-engine competition back to IndyCar. Those circumstances, combined with a still-recovering economy, could have led to a low car count in 2012. But the size of this season's field is another testament to the health of IndyCar, Bernard said.
"We faced doubt with the size of our field and speculation we would be lucky to have 18 cars on the grid this season because of the introduction of the new Dallara DW-12 and the economy," Bernard said. "Wrong again. We are very excited to have a minimum of 26 cars compete in the series in 2012."
The length of the season was also in question. Oval tracks at Las Vegas, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Milwaukee were dropped from the schedule because of poor attendance and Japan was eliminated for economic reasons, and IndyCar looked like it might not reach the minimum of 16 races set by series sponsor IZOD. That fear was alleviated over the weekend when team owner Michael Andretti agreed to become the promoter at The Milwaukee Mile, putting that venue back on the schedule and giving IndyCar 16 races for 2012. The final race of the season will be on the oval at Fontana, Calif., on Sept. 15.
"I'm done with the 2012 schedule but trust me, [in] 2013 I want 19 events," Bernard said Monday night. "Some of the events we had in the schedule didn't materialize, but I can tell you we are further along for 2013 than we were last year at this time for the 2012 schedule."
Also at this time last year, Danica Patrick's future was the main storyline. With that decided -- she announced a full-time move to NASCAR in late 2011 -- IndyCar is ready to move on.
"Danica was a great ambassador for IndyCar and Danica will do unbelievable things for NASCAR but it won't hurt us as much as you might expect," Bernard said. "Danica had such a big umbrella [and] she took so much attention away from the better drivers in the series. This is a time for us to showcase some of our better drivers in the series and that is important. It's also very important to say that even though we have a new car, our drivers are the No. 1 story and we need to build those drivers into stars."
One of those stories is the much-needed influx of American drivers. This season the series will feature an impressive seven drivers from the U.S., a boon considering the majority of the IndyCar scheduled is contested in the U.S.
With IndyCar driving in the right direction, Bernard told all the critics he's not leaving his post anytime soon.
"There has been constant speculation about my future with IndyCar," Bernard said. "Many wrongfully predicted I would be gone within a year or I would be using this as a launching pad. But I'm here to say once and for all I will be with IndyCar as long as the Hulman-George Family and the board wants me."
And with him at the helm, the series seems be steering through the troubled waters.
"We at IndyCar believe the series is headed toward a strong passion that will provide excellent entertainment and value for everyone involved.
"It's time for everyone to put their faith back in IndyCar. I know when you tune into ABC and the NBC Sports Network you will see what an incredible product we have. I'm confident the strong staff at IndyCar along with the drivers, teams sponsors and promoters and all of the fans can bring IndyCar to a new height. So let's sit back, buckle up and hold on tight because 2012 promises to be one hell of a ride."