When Randy Bernard was hired to run the IZOD IndyCar Series early last year, he enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon period. Everything he said or did was met with near-universal approval.
But that was then and this is now. So far in 2011, he’s been on the receiving end of near-universal disapproval of everything from instituting double-file restarts during races to determining the starting order of a recent race in Texas by lottery draw.
He expects the criticism to continue and to grow ever louder as the last race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway approaches. Why? Because he wants to add five non-regular-season drivers to the starting field.
He agrees the idea’s going to open a hornet’s nest among other drivers in the race but vows that if it doesn’t drastically improve TV ratings in the United States, he’ll quit his job on the spot.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Star prior to a business luncheon Wednesday in which he planned to promote this year’s Honda Indy Toronto (a week from this weekend) and to discuss the future of IndyCar racing in general, Bernard also said that he expects star driver Danica Patrick to leave for a career in NASCAR at the end of the season, that the reason Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon doesn’t have a full-time ride is because there’s concern about how well he would do racing on road and street courses, and that he’ll discuss with his two Canadian promoters the possibility of more races in Canada going forward.
Bernard was CEO of Professional Bull Riders before being hired as CEO of IndyCar, taking over from Indy Racing League founder Tony George. His major accomplishment to date has been the selection of a new engine and chassis package for the 2012 season, which will include the return of Chevrolet to the series. Honda has been the sole engine supplier in recent years and will continue with some teams.
Bernard acknowledged some justification on the part of drivers who didn’t like determining the starting lineup for a race by lottery and said that when the series returns to Texas Motor Speedway for a double-header again in 2012 that he’ll simply invert the field rather than mixing it up.
And although he said double-file restarts also resulted in criticism from drivers, they’ve proved to be popular among fans so will continue.
But he admits to having his head down as the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas on Oct. 16 approaches.
“I’m sure that you’ve just hit the next hornet’s nest,” he laughed. I think “you just took a bat to that hornet’s nest and stirred things up. Because I think that it will. I’m confident that they’re (the series’ regular drivers) going to be upset.
“But here’s the deal with it. Last year’s best-kept secret was the Homestead race (the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida). It was a fantastic race and it got a .3 rating (on the U.S. cable channel Versus, which works out to fewer than 350,000 viewers. A 1.0 cable rating equals about 1 million U.S. households).
“If we do a .3 rating on this, I’ll quit. Right there on the spot. I’ll literally quit on the spot. If we do a .8 rating, I will quit. On the spot.
“I think we have to do something big. I definitely hope we can attract somebody like a Travis Pastrana (a motorcycle racer and X-Games competitor) or a Kasey Kahne (a NASCAR driver who started his career in open-wheel midgets) or someone to that capacity.
“There are famous drivers that are willing. We say we have the best drivers in the world, now we’re willing to put up $5 million (a bonus if a non-series regular wins the race) to prove we have the best drivers in the world. If you think you’re better, come beat us.
“I’ve had some F1 drivers call but they couldn’t figure out a way to get to Las Vegas from Korea, where they’re racing the same weekend. If they could have figured out how to get from Korea, I think they would have been willing to try it.
“There’s definitely a couple of NASCAR drivers who are interested. Kasey Kahne has expressed a lot of interest. I think it’s (the success of the promotion) going to be determined by who and how. Can you imagine if Kyle Busch would come? He’d be fantastic.”
— Bernard said he’ll sit down at the end of the season with Toronto race owners Kevin Savoree and Kim Green as well as Edmonton promoter Octane Management of Montreal to determine if there’s interest in another Canadian race.
“I’d like to use the promoters we have because they’re doing a good job,” he said. “Toronto this year is going to be off the charts, I’m hearing.”
— On Wheldon, who’s been doing TV commentating since winning the Indy 500: “My first instinct is that I have to get him into a car. But then I think I can’t turn around and give money to drivers every time they win a race. The fact is, there’s concern about how Dan is on the road and street. It goes to show you how important your versatility in a race car is.”
— On criticsm following the second race at Texas Motor Speedway several weeks ago, in which the starting positions were determined by lottery.
"I like the criticism. I want them (the drivers) to speak their mind. I like controversy. I’ve told the drivers, ‘Say what you want. I don’t have a problem with that.”
— Danica Patrick. “I think she’ll go where her chequebook takes her. And yes, she’s done a lot for IndyCar. But I think her sponsor, GoDaddy, has done as much and I hope I can get them to stay.”