Fiery CEO Randy Bernard facing dissension within IndyCar ranks
DETROIT -- Just moments after the end of the 96th Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard received a text message.
"You delivered the greatest Indy 500 in history. It was a great show and an honor to watch. Congrats, Tony Stewart."
Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and five-time Indy 500 starting driver, was among many who were mesmerized by the thrilling race that saw 34 lead changes by 10 drivers and was ultimately won by Dario Franchitti, in his third Indy 500 victory.
"That was one of my proudest moments that day, to get a text from him," Bernard told SI.com late Saturday afternoon.
But just two days after Bernard received that text the storyline shifted away from the Indy 500 and onto Bernard himself. The CEO with the fiery personality and huge ambition sent out a tweet that would show dissent in the ranks of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
"If you saw my tweet, it's 'Yes, it's true that a team owner wants me fired. It's been confirmed by several team owners. Disappointing,'" Bernard explained. "It was worded very carefully. I didn't say anything negative, just the facts."
But those facts that have rippled through IndyCar. At times this season, Bernard has run afoul of team owner John Barnes, who was fined $25,000 for his tweet about "Turbogate" -- when Honda was allowed to make a change to its turbocharger to be more competitive with the Chevrolet teams. Since then, Honda-powered drivers have won the last two races including Franchitti's Indy 500 win and Scott Dixon's flag-to-flag victory in Sunday's Detroit Grand Prix.
Chevrolet team owners Roger Penske and Michael Andretti have also been upset by some of Bernard's actions. And while it cannot be said with certainty which team owner wants Bernard removed, it has certainly underscored the difficult role that the man in charge of IndyCar racing feels.
"It can be the worst job in the world," said corporate attorney and sports agent John Caponigro, who worked for CART from 1984 to '90. "It is the most thankless job you can have. You can do 100 things right but all you hear about are the two things you did wrong. That is what Randy Bernard is going through right now."
While some have buckled under the scrutiny, men such as NASCAR founder Bill France and his son, Bill France, Jr., excelled under the pressure. In fact, France Jr. once said that if half the NASCAR garage was happy with him and the other half upset with his actions then he must be doing his job right.
"I've heard quotes from Bill France saying that and I should look at him as someone to look up to," Bernard said Saturday night. "I haven't been in the business long enough that I want to please everybody, but I have to look forward, and if it is in the best interest of the sport I might make some teams, I might make some promoters, I might make somebody upset. But is it in the best interest of the sport and moving forward and is it complete, upfront, honesty in what I'm doing? I don't want to burn bridges. That's not my job. My job is to create relationships and build our sport. But am I going to make people mad? That's part of any business."
During his first year at the helm, Bernard made some tremendous moves that helped push the sport forward. Movement to create a new car had been stalled by then-President of Competition Brian Barnhart, so Bernard took it over, creating the ICONIC Advisory Committee and had the current Dallara DW 12 approved. He was also instrumental in working with Penske to bring Chevrolet back to IndyCar. Companies such as Sunoco and Verizon were also brought in to become official partners of the series.
Bernard severed ties at race tracks where attendance was low and took the sport to new venues to help generate fan interest.
But during his second year, Bernard's ambition sometimes got him in trouble. He has been known to disagree with some of the series partners, including the NBC Sports Network for lack of promotion -- an issue that he continues to work at improving.
"I'd be not truthful to say I have not been disappointed with NBC but we have to work together to develop a marketing plan and promotion to move the sport forward," Bernard said. "We are still the best kept secret on TV."
Bernard's ambition met tragedy at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when a 34-car field took to the track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Drivers complained the track had too much grip and that fast cars couldn't get away from the slower ones, creating a dangerous situation. On Lap 11, those fears were realized in a 15-car pileup that killed two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon when his car went airborne and his head hit one of the exposed fence posts facing the track.
After making the official announcement of Wheldon's death, Bernard and many INDYCAR officials went underground for nearly six weeks on the advice of a crisis management team. Many believe that was the wrong move -- that it would have been better to be visible during this time of crisis while the accident was being investigated.
Bernard came out swinging in February at the "State of the Sport Address" in Indianapolis and was determined to move IndyCar forward after the tragedy. With engine competition returning to the series for the first time since 2005 and a new car for the first time since 2003, the sport was prepared to move forward.
But when INDYCAR made a rule change to help Honda become more competitive after Chevrolet won the first four races this season, the powerful team owners who run Chevrolet began to voice their displeasure.
"Is everything perfect? No," Michael Andretti told SI.com Saturday at Detroit. "But is everything horrible? No. Was there a lot done right? Yes. Was there a lot done wrong? Yes. The only way it's going to work is if we all work together to make it better. Believe me, I've committed myself. I've put my life into this. I've had five cars at Indy, promoting two races, the only one that supports the ladder system all the way through. I'm not getting hardly anything out of it except I'm doing it for the series because I believe in it. I'm here to do whatever I need to do to make it better, and the only way it will get better is if we all work together.
"That thing was blown out of proportion so bad it's not even funny."
Bernard will be the first to admit that his fiery temperament and sometimes short fuse in dealing with partners and team owners has created problems.
"It's an asset and it probably bites me," Bernard told SI.com. "I'm black and white. I'm going to give you my view. Sometimes you like it and sometimes you don't. If someone is trying to hurt the series it is my job to voice my discontent or displeasure. That's what I did with my tweet on Tuesday. It's very important for me to communicate with our fan base, our team owners, drivers and sponsors. I felt like I was getting the run around basically and I felt it was important for me to stay strong on my beliefs on what I knew and to let it be known. I'm never going to forget in the back of my mind that there have been 13 CEOs since 1990.
"I keep hearing time and time again if there were any rumors to me being fired and I answered that. The owners can't fire me."
The only way Bernard can get fired is by the IMS Board of Directors and that is a point Bernard is well aware of. The days of CART team owners running off a CEO because of their personal agendas are over, but cracks in the IndyCar structure between team owners and the governing body remain.
Bernard emphasized his point when he met with media members Sunday afternoon before the Detroit Grand Prix.
"Let's be honest, I don't answer to the team owners; I answer to the board of directors," Bernard said. "My job is I want to work with the team owners, work with the promoters, work with the drivers, the sponsors and our television partners. You are going to make people mad along the way but you have to do what is in the best interests of the sport."
Mario Andretti, the famed former driver who won the 1969 Indianapolis 500, 1967 Daytona 500 and the 1978 Formula One World Championship, believes that Bernard's tweet shifted the focus away from a fantastic Indianapolis 500 and focused it on controversy.
"There were discussions about a lot of things and he went on the defensive immediately and started naming names," Andretti told SI.com. "I don't agree with that and the first thing I said to him is we came away with one of the best Indianapolis 500s ever, was extremely competitive and good and now we are talking about a negative. Why? He is at the forefront of it. Nobody else is tweeting this but him. Somehow I got mentioned in there and I'm not the one who started it and I don't have an agenda that is negative."
Bernard believes controversy is actually good for the series; that it keeps IndyCar in the news. This is a series that gets little attention other than the Indianapolis 500 and sometimes bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.
But there are more trouble spots ahead. The series is heading to the 1.5-mile, high-banked Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday night's race. TMS is a sister track to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the fence posts are arranged the same as Vegas -- facing the track rather than the grandstands. Many drivers and series officials are concerned about that for safety reasons and Bernard hinted that this may be the final time IndyCar competes at a venue that helped save the series back in the early days of the Indy Racing League.
"I rely on our technical people who have the knowledge of our sport to really clarify what needs to be done," Bernard told SI.com. "I had a meeting with Will Phillips [INDYCAR Vice President of Technology] today in regards to Texas and I believe there is progress to be made. If we have not addressed it we will continue to look at it."
Bernard also admitted that the IndyCar race in China scheduled for August may be in jeopardy. And then there is IZOD, which appears to have taken a step back because of its changing business climate.
"IZOD continues to be a great partner and we have to keep the focus now on what makes the most sense for them and how we activate and how they activate and try to complement each other," Bernard said. "That's not a fair thing for me to talk about. Right now we are committed to IZOD and we have a great contract and want to continue to work toward fulfilling it."
But there are also positives, mainly coming from this year's historic Indianapolis 500.
"Last week when you look at the Indy 500 and at our ratings, it's very important to say we had the best weather across the United States that you could imagine with no rain on Memorial Day, which hurts ratings as you know. We didn't have Danica Patrick and we were coming off our Centennial last year," Bernard said. "I was very concerned about that. To see an 8 percent increase speaks about three things -- our car, our engines and the credibility of our drivers. I think those three things are lending themselves well to IndyCar right now.
When Bernard arrived at IndyCar he said he was trying to absorb as much as he could about the sport, that it was like "drinking water from a fire hose."
"I'm drinking Ethanol now," Bernard quipped.