(by Ken Belson and Jerry Garrett nytimes.com 10-22-11)
In the wake of Dan Wheldon’s death at a race in Las Vegas last Sunday, IndyCar officials have been all but silent. No formal statements, beyond an expression of regret and a pledge to investigate themselves. Certainly no news conferences to answer questions about the propriety of the race, which was held at a fast track not truly built to stage such an event.
The IndyCar officials, after canceling their suddenly pointless championship banquet, left Las Vegas, trailing bitterness and finger-pointing.
“This wasn’t even our event,” said Jeff Motley, a communications director for Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which leased its track to IndyCar for the fatal race. “But they’ve left us to be the only ones to answer for this. There is such a thing as Crisis Management 101. And they flunked it.”
IndyCar racing, in truth, had been in some degree of crisis for more than a decade — attendance at races had slid, television ratings had fallen and a stream of drivers and fans had abandoned the sport for the more prosperous Nascar circuit.
Randy Bernard, a former chief executive of the Professional Bull Riders, had been signed up as chief executive last year to end the larger crisis. And the Las Vegas event — complete with glitzy promotions and a race featuring a multimillion-dollar bonus for Wheldon if he could pull off the feat of winning the race after willingly starting in last position — was going to be Bernard’s masterstroke.
Bernard’s unfamiliarity with racing had been seen as an asset of sorts by those who hired him. He had been unburdened by the infighting and litany of strategic and marketing mistakes that had plagued the sport. Having turned bull riding into an international success, Bernard had spent his first year and a half atop IndyCar using his prodigious work ethic and showmanship to try to revive a sport whose heyday went out with the Nixon Era.
While he knew little about racing when he arrived, Bernard understood that fans love danger, speed and a spectacle, his formula for success at the Professional Bull Riders. Instead of seeing cowboys get tossed and gored by bucking bulls, fans would come out to watch drivers hit speeds of 220 miles per hour, one snap decision from peril.
Despite some grumbling by many IndyCar followers, many people at IndyCar embraced their new leader. In his short tenure, Bernard had signed big-ticket sponsors, added a popular street race and new car designs, and stanched the slide in attendance and television ratings. Eager to shake things up, Bernard worked his Rolodex relentlessly, regularly held predawn conference calls and fired off e-mails while others were asleep.
“Racing, for all the talk of how advanced it is, is pretty stale,” said Bobby Rahal, the three-time series champion who co-owns a racing team and is president of the Road Racing Drivers Club, which mentors young drivers. “Randy has brought a different look because he hasn’t been in the sport. He thinks outside the motor racing box.”
Las Vegas, then, was Bernard’s different look. IndyCar had not raced there in years, but Bernard had struck gold in Vegas with the bull riders, holding an annual extravaganza in the city. To better manage things, Bernard leased the track and promoted the race on his own. He somehow persuaded local officials and businessmen to allow him to have the Vegas strip shut down so the racers could drive their cars past the throngs of tourists at the hotels and casinos.
He also persuaded Wheldon, the Indy 500 champion who had driven just a few times this year, to race for a $5 million bonus that would be split with a randomly chosen fan. Several drivers complained that the prize was more than the pool for the rest of the field. Yet Bernard was so confident the event would be a success, he staked his job on it, saying he would resign if the event did not do better than last year’s finale.
When the dust settled, Wheldon, a beloved driver and a handsome, articulate face of the sport, was dead. IndyCar has pledged to investigate what one historian called the biggest crash in the sport’s 100-year existence. Reforms may follow, though they are unlikely to include a wholesale reinvention of the sport.
A spokeswoman for IndyCar would not say whether Bernard would make good on his promise and resign. Several executives of the sport have urged caution about rushing to conclusions about blame or reforms; others did not want to speculate while still grieving for Wheldon.
What is clear, though, is that emotions remain raw. Some racing executives who were skeptical of Bernard’s tactics are mulling his ouster, while others are considering keeping him on a shorter leash. Competitors like Tomas Scheckter claim that the drivers need to stand firm against what he regards as Bernard’s reckless efforts to create more exciting races.
There are, though, still significant forces in the sport that for the moment remain supportive of Bernard. After years of turmoil in the sport, they are wary of starting over. They include legends like Mario Andretti, who says he does not blame Bernard for Wheldon’s death and sees no use in adding to the turmoil by replacing him.
The promotion Wheldon participated in, he said, was not a factor in the crash. Besides, Bernard — who declined to speak for this article — was only doing the job he was asked to do, which was to find novel ways to breathe life into the sport.
“We all want more promotions, more publicity,” Andretti said.
The roots of the sport’s problems stretch back decades. As in other racing circuits, Indy car drivers, racing teams, speedway owners, promoters and others form factions and hold grudges that can sabotage even simple decisions. The bickering was so fierce it led to the splintering of the sport that effectively ended its prominence as the top racing circuit in the United States, creating an opening that Nascar ultimately filled.
In 1979, Indy car teams and drivers, eager for a greater say in the sport’s business, split from the United States Auto Club sanctioning body and formed their own series. Eventually, track promoters — except those of the Indianapolis 500, which remained loyal to the Club — gave the new series more say in scheduling and how purses and television money were divided. The breakaway drivers could still race at Indy, but the 500 was not part of their new series.
Initially called Championship Auto Racing Teams, the CART series grew steadily during the next 15 years. The series began replacing some of the sport’s traditional oval tracks with more lucrative stops at road courses and city street circuits.
In 1989, the heirs of the longtime Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman handed control of the famed Brickyard to Hulman’s grandson, the young, untested Tony George. CART soon ran afoul of the enigmatic George, who objected to what he saw as an excessively foreign flavor of the slate of competitors that CART promoted. George wanted more opportunities for homegrown American talent, and a return to the sport’s oval racing roots. He also felt rich car owners had too much say, and wanted to give track operators and small teams a greater voice.
George reportedly pumped untold millions of dollars of his family’s fortune into teams, events, race track construction and television packages. But the sport’s civil war made it hard for either series to prosper because it forced fans, broadcasters, sponsors and other players to choose sides.
While Nascar has raced into the mainstream, huge patches of empty seats at Indy car races are now the norm, schedules have been shortened and old standing-room sections reduced or eliminated. And while Nascar is a staple on network television, Indy car races are harder to find, often consigned to lesser-known channels. Some of the top Indy car drivers have left or are leaving for Nascar, including Sam Hornish Jr., Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick.
Sponsors routinely pay $30 million to sponsor a top Nascar driver, about three times more than what they will spend on an Indy car, according to Zak Brown, the chief executive of Just Marketing International, which brokers sponsorships in motor sports. Nascar drivers also typically have about twice as many sponsors for their cars, he said.
By 2008, the two struggling factions in Indy car racing finally agreed to reunite, with Tony George in charge. Within a year, however, George’s sister, Josie, reportedly engineered a boardroom coup that led to his ouster.
Bernard, who had been named one of the country’s top young sports executives, was hired.
From Bulls to Racecars
In sports and business circles, Bernard’s rise is the stuff of legend. He grew up on a working ranch in Monterey County, Calif., and from an early age helped out at his family’s farm and pitched in at the fairgrounds, which his grandfather ran.
Bernard studied agricultural business management for a few years in California, but left before graduating to work promoting the California Mid State Fair. It was there that he met Cody Lambert, who was riding in the rodeo. Impressed with his work ethic and creativity, Lambert and his friends and colleagues recruited Bernard, then 28, to run the Professional Bull Riders.
When Bernard came on board in 1995, he had no more than a table, a telephone and instructions from Lambert to “take us to the next level.” Lambert recalls telling Bernard to set a goal of bringing in at least $50,000 in new business so he would at least get paid. Things were so tight that one executive groused about the $300 Bernard had spent for a proper desk and chair.
“But pretty soon, we had three floors in that building and 100 employees,” said Lambert, who is now the livestock director for the P.B.R. “He’s very creative and he’s willing to outwork everyone.”
Bernard turned bull riding into a show, and made many riders rich in the process. Grand openings — including pyrotechnics and loud music — were added, television contracts were signed and a $1 million bonus was given to the circuit’s champion. More than 20 riders have earned more than $1 million and, through the wonders of television and showmanship, they were turned into modern-day gladiators. Even the bulls became superstars.
Bernard was seemingly everywhere, selling a sport that he unashamedly said relied on danger as one of its attractions. Something of an urban cowboy, he traveled the country in snappy suits and a Stetson hat meeting sponsors and television executives. He kept working despite needing neck surgery. A colleague had to take him to the hospital to take care of some blood clots.
The hard work paid off. In 2007, Spire Capital, an investment firm in New York, bought into P.B.R., making multi-millionaires out of the original founders. Wayne Gretzky and John Elway later invested in the group.
If Bernard had a fault, Lambert said, it was trying to do too much.
True to form, Bernard wasted no time getting to work at IndyCar. He spent months talking with the key players, absorbing as much as he could about a sport he hardly knew. At one breakfast meeting, Rahal jokingly told Bernard that “you must feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose.”
Bernard not only had to get up to speed on a blizzard of technical issues, he also had to navigate IndyCar’s byzantine politics.
“In Indy car racing, it’s like the Middle East,” said Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway. “There are so many factions and cultures, so you can’t possibly understand it.”
But as he did at P.B.R., Bernard eagerly tried new things to see what worked. He took Gossage’s advice and split the annual race in Texas into two 275-mile events, even though some drivers complained about how they were positioned to start the second race.
Bernard, too, lopped off races at tracks where attendance lagged, including at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and restored a race at Belle Isle in Detroit. He is exploring the possibility of racing in China.
Recently, IndyCar made a splash in Baltimore, which hosted the first of five annual street races this year. In these events, cars race through downtown streets.
Though the event drew larger-than-expected crowds, it did not turn a profit because of the initial investments in street paving, barriers and so on. Some local businesses objected to dozens of trees being removed to make way for the course. Others complained that the city should not be spending precious dollars on paving projects.
“But Randy realizes that the street events are important because instead of trying to attract people to the middle of nowhere, you’re putting your product in the middle of the city,” said Jay Davidson, president of the Baltimore Grand Prix. “You feel like you’re in good hands with him at the helm.”
Under Bernard’s watch, Lotus and Chevrolet have announced plans to join Honda as engine suppliers, and a safer new chassis for the cars has been developed. The new design features bumpers, partly enclosed wheels and a reinforced cockpit.
When needed, Bernard has done damage control, too. This year, Firestone, a major sponsor and tire supplier, let its deal with IndyCar lapse. Bernard raced to lure the company back, allowing Firestone to pay less for its sponsorship and receive more for its tires.
“It was a marketer’s dream,” said Al Speyer, executive director of the Bridgestone Americas Motor Sports.
Bernard has certainly had his missteps and generated concern and pushback, most notably from drivers who feel his introduction of a race feature — what is known as a double-file restart — is too dangerous. Bernard actually told some reporters that the restarts are exciting because they can lead to more crashes, a comment he has since regretted.
And the decision to return to Las Vegas will get picked over long after the memorial services for Wheldon are over on Sunday.
“I think this is going to be a wake-up call that could lead to some massive changes,” said Scott Goodyear, a commentator on the telecast of the race. “There was the same reaction when Dale Earnhardt was killed and changes were implemented.”