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IndyCar chief Randy Bernard attempts bold moves to reengage fans

As the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach rolls through Southern California, two major changes to open-wheel racing — enacted by second-year chief Randy Bernard — are creating buzz around the sport.

April 16, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Randy Bernard, Indy Racing League CEO, announces the season-ending IndyCar Series race will be Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during a news conference at the Crystals at CityCenter.
Randy Bernard, Indy Racing League CEO, announces the season-ending IndyCar… (David Becker / Getty Images…)

Randy Bernard has a polite, self-deprecating manner that belies he's at the forefront of saving American open-wheel racing.

"Yes, ma'am," he said to a waitress confirming his recent lunch order of beefsteak tomatoes and grilled chicken. Then Bernard, 44, opened the interview: "I'll never be an expert on motor sports."

But Bernard, starting his second year as chief of the Izod IndyCar Series, leaves no doubt he's in charge and willing to make changes in hopes of reviving a series whose popularity has tumbled from the days when it dominated U.S. racing with household names such Andretti, Foyt and Unser.

"My job is to bring notoriety to the sport," Bernard said. "We've got to grow our fan base."

As the IndyCar series holds the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, the sport is especially abuzz over two changes Bernard made to get IndyCar some attention.

One, proposed by IndyCar team owners and heartily endorsed by Bernard, is the "double-file restart," which NASCAR also uses.

When the field re-takes the green flag after a caution period, the leaders now line up two-by-two rather than single file, raising the danger that drivers could run into each other. "The double-file restart is going to be huge for our sport," Bernard said.

Some drivers initially groused at the change, noting that unlike NASCAR, Indy-style cars don't have fenders and that collisions can immediately end their day.

But, "If I could tell the drivers one thing right now, [it's] don't take it out on me" if they wreck on the restarts, Bernard said. "Take it out on the guy who made the stupid move."

Another change was to offer a $5-million prize to a professional race-car driver who's not in the IndyCar series if the driver can win the season finale Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The series is evaluating applicants now — "Every day I get a new one," Bernard said without naming names — and will announce up to five approved drivers in August.

Bernard acknowledged that he's been ridiculed by some who see the Las Vegas promotion as gimmicky or a slight to IndyCar's regular drivers who are vying for a championship that pays only $1 million.

Bernard is unmoved.

"If I deliver a big star" to the Las Vegas race "and it drives a big [television] rating, I hope I get the last laugh," he said. "If not, I'll eat crow and say I made a mistake. But I don't think I am."

Besides, Bernard said, "I've got to move the dial" on the sport's popularity, "and I have a short time."

That has some drivers cheering. "He's coming at it from a completely different angle as a promoter, and he's always looking for that way to create a better show," said reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti.

IndyCar turned to Bernard after a bitter, 12-year civil war between the sport's rival factions ended in 2008. The sport's two series at the time, the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series, reunited under the IRL banner.

But the split had been devastating for open-wheel racing, with attendance, TV ratings and sponsorship spending all in decline. NASCAR's rising popularity during the split only exacerbated IndyCar's dwindling appeal.

Even after the two series' 2008 merger, "a lot of people still didn't know that [the sport] had reunited, and I think there were a bunch of people who didn't care anymore," Bernard said. "We know we lost 15 to 20 million fans."

So Bernard has spearheaded other changes, including:

— The IRL name, a vivid reminder of the civil war, was dropped in favor of IndyCar Series.

— The series, currently with one engine provider (Honda), next year will have three: Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.

— The series will no longer have identical "spec" cars but will allow different body shapes, or "aero kits," on a newly designed chassis.

— IndyCar is dropping its race in Japan after next year. Coming just before the season finale, the race ran at late hours in the United States and "took all your [championship] momentum and killed it," Bernard said.

Raised in rural San Ardo in Central California, Bernard spent 15 years as chief executive of Professional Bull Riders Inc., expanding that sport before IndyCar recruited him.

Lifting IndyCar's popularity won't be easy. Versus, the cable channel carrying 12 of IndyCar's races, isn't nearly as viewed as sports giant ESPN. (The other races, including the Indianapolis 500, are broadcast on ABC.)

Versus' parent, Comcast, took control of NBC Universal this year and kindled speculation that NBC Sports will pour more resources into Versus, possibly boosting IndyCar's exposure.

But there's also the prospect that IndyCar's most popular driver, Danica Patrick, will leave the series next year to drive full-time in NASCAR, where she's been testing the waters.

"Of course you never want to lose Danica," Bernard said. "I will tell her everything that we're going to do that's positive and how we can help her, but I will support her decision 100% whichever way she goes."

Besides, Bernard's overriding concern is which way IndyCar as a whole is going, and he's convinced the series can rebuild its audience.

"We have to redefine our sport," he said. "If [fans] were once passionate about open-wheel racing, why can't they be again?"

james.peltz@latimes.com

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