INDIANAPOLIS — Randy Bernard came into the job as CEO of the IZOD IndyCar Series 28 months ago with the promise of a new era for open-wheel racing in North America.
It was hoped then that the bright, young executive who had taken the Professional Bull Riders Association from insignificance to a player on the U.S. national sports scene could repair the damage that had been done in a decade-long schism that had ripped the life out of open-wheel racing.
Bernard inherited a series that had, by most accounts, nearly drained the Hulman-George family — owners of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 — of its vast fortune through wild spending in an effort to beat down the rival CART/Champ Car World Series.
When he arrived, peace had been made between IndyCar and its rivals, but what remained was a mere shadow of its former self.
NASCAR had moved past the IndyCar series in popularity and, in the process, took a giant piece of he sponsorship pie with it.
But with the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 — the self-proclaimed “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” — set to go on Sunday afternoon, Bernard took stock of the series Friday at the home of the yard of bricks.
He said one of his most important goals when he took control of IndyCar from Tony George was to restore IndyCar as the fastest, most diverse racing series in the world.
Faster than NASCAR’s stock cars and more challenging than Formula One’s sleek road racers.
Bernard said he is well on his way to achieving that.
“When we set out two years ago, we defined how we wanted the sport of IndyCar to be differentiated from NASCAR and Formula One by saying we’re the fastest and most versatile race cars in the world,” he said. “We can say that because of our oval, road and street courses.
“The next year, we were pretty far along on getting that in 2011. But we saw some events that weren’t very good, quite honestly.”
What he was referring to was holding races on huge oval tracks designed for NASCAR, where smaller IndyCar crowds looked insignificant.
So IndyCar last year and more this season dropped a number of those big tracks such as Chicago, Homestead-Miami and New Hampshire in favour of more road and street courses such as Toronto, Edmonton, Detroit and Houston.
“In our executive retreats this year, one thing we did was we sat back and said, ‘What’s most important to us?’ ” he said. “We said, ‘Having a great crowd’. When you come, when sponsors come, when our partners come, they see a big amount of people, a large attendance. We need that ‘wow’ factor.”
Bernard said that was happening at new races such as the Grand Prix of Baltimore, where an estimated 100,000 showed up at the Labour Day event last season.
But Bernard admitted that in doing so, IndyCar was backing away from the 60-40 split between street and road courses and ovals.
“We want to continue to talk to some of the ovals,” he said. “It’s no secret we’ve talked to Richmond (International Raceway); it’s no secret we’ve talked to Phoenix.
“I think it’s important that we maintain as many ovals as we can, but not at the expense of having 150,000 seats with 30,000 people in them. That is going to be one of the most important things we do to grow our sport.”
He said IndyCar will continue to seek out venues such as Toronto and Edmonton — city-centre races — in other markets.
One of those markets is South Florida — particularly the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.
“Very much so,” he said. “Fort Lauderdale is a place we would like to go. We want to continue to discuss those options.”
He must be careful, though, because at least one very influential team owner — Roger Penske — is bullish on maintaining a balance between all of the racing circuits: Streets, road courses and ovals.
Bernard said that, too, is his goal, but not everything can be done at once.
“And, yes, it might be a little lopsided here for the next couple years,” he said of the fewer oval races on the calendar. “But our big picture has to remain having the fastest and most versatile race cars and race car drivers in the world.”
Bernard also promised sponsorship help to new and old races such as Baltimore and Milwaukee this season.
Both of those races are being promoted by Michael Andretti’s group. “I think we owe it to Michael Andretti, who is laying out a lot of money to make (Milwaukee and Baltimore) successful,” he said. “We put a lot of money into this, too.”
That’s all well and good, but the problem is what does IndyCar do when promoters of the Canadian events in Edmonton and Toronto start looking for handouts as well?
That approach, after all, is what started the IndyCar decline back in the 1990s.
MOTOR MOUTHS: FIVE INDY 500 DRIVERS SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS
(No. 50 Target Ganassi Racing Honda — 222.360 m.p.h.)
“The car was good, as good as it has been all month, really. It had good power, good balance and good grip. The track is getting more slippery the more the air temperature goes up, and the more the car moves around, the harder it is behind the wheel. But it’s the same for everybody, and I think we’ve got a good setup for race day.
“It would have been nice to have had that motor for qualifying. The forecast (for Sunday) has been running in the high 90s, we’ve known that for weeks, so we know what we’re going to be setting up for. It’s definitely going to be slippery. We’ll deal with that (heat) on Sunday, but it’s going to be hard work behind the wheel in those conditions; hard for the pit crews to keep their focus in that heat. It’ll be a hot day.”
(No. 9 Target Ganassi Racing Honda — 222.274 m.p.h.)
“There’s still a lot of unknowns. Previously, we knew what to expect because we knew everybody had the same stuff. I think we are expecting a lot of unknowns and I just hope that ... I think our car seems good. I think we can expect to see a very tight race with a lot of passing.”
(No. 26 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet — 221.702 m.p.h.)
“Every time I finish (the Indy 500), I have been in the top 10 and that is a good thing so, you know, I think obviously we will be open-minded and this is 500 miles and we know how hard it is to get ourselves in position to win or to even have a shot at winning. I think we have a great shot and I think this is our best shot at it. We have a great car underneath us and the RC Cola guys are ready for a win. They deserve one as well, so we will try to deliver.”
(No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda — 221.078 m.p.h.)
“We improved the car in a few areas; I was reasonably happy with the balance. We still need to improve some areas we weren’t very happy with, but we improved the car from (last) Sunday. I was able to run in traffic, which was definitely good preparation for Sunday.
“The most important thing now is to analyze the data correctly and make the changes we think will improve the car for the Indy 500, but obviously make sure we don’t misjudge it.
“To prepare for the race mentally, you just need to keep your focus. There is good excitement building. Tomorrow will be a good autograph session and the parade. You can feel the atmosphere coming. The Indy 500 is here.”
(No. 2 Penske Racing Chevrolet — 221.025 m.p.h.)
“I feel good. I feel prepared for it. I’ll pick Helio’s (Castroneves) brain a little bit. He’s done it from the pole.
“There’s a list you can go through of things that you’ve got to do to keep yourself from not winning it. It’s hard if you have a problem and you need to come back into the pits and get off strategy, it often ruins your race. I did that in ’09, with a bad restart, leading the race, and felt like that was a huge opportunity for me and we missed that one. You need good pit stops. We’re looking at between eight or nine pit stops on race day, so that’s a lot of work for the guys on pit road, the pit crew.
“It’s also a busy place, a narrow lane there. I’m the fifth pit stall, so I could have cars coming across my front, coming out behind me ... Then, at the end of the race strategy, fuel, so many times this race becomes a fuel deal at the very end.”
HINCHCLIFFE REALIZES IT REALLY IS A BIG DEAL
INDIANAPOLIS — James Hinchcliffe said he has finally figured out just how big a deal it is to be starting on the front row of the Indianapolis 500.
The 25-year-old from Oakville said Friday he was well aware of the history of the race, but it took something his chief mechanic related during the lead-up to the Indy that really made him realize this is a race like no other.
“It’s a complete 180,” Hinchcliffe said. “(The team) takes this race more seriously than anything else. My chief mechanic openly says in front of his wife, that when he won the 500 with Dario (Franchitti) back in ’07, it was the greatest day of his life, including his marriage.
“She’s cool with it and she gets it. That’s how important this race is to these guys.”