If anyone ever wants to make a movie about the IndyCar Series, they’d likely be at a loss for a title because Dumb and Dumber is already taken.
How else could you describe a series run by people who wouldn’t know a good thing if it drove over them?
A case in point is the now former IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard, who resigned late Sunday afternoon after weeks of speculation that he was on his way out. The announcement came after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board of directors met by teleconference. IMS president and Hulman & Co chief executive Jeff Belskus is the interim IndyCar boss.
Officially, Bernard will stay on as an advisor, but that’s likely a no-show job where IndyCar pays him for the final two years of his contract while he stays quiet.
Yup, that’s exactly the way to reward the guy who admittedly never saw an IndyCar race before he became its boss, but nevertheless found a way to take a completely floundering series and get it moving solidly in the right direction again.
His personal style was open and straight forward. He made himself available and he listened, which made him popular with IndyCar fans. He also guided the series through its transition to a new chassis and he brought engine competition back with Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda as suppliers.
Sure, there were problems. The low-point in his tenure has to be the death of two-time Indy 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon in a crash in the 2011 season finale.
This year, many owners grumbled that the new Dallara car’s replacement parts were much more expensive than Bernard promised. That said, complaining and being a team boss seems to be a given. Indeed, there apparently were several attempts by owners to get him fired this year, something that should have earned him bonus points with his bosses. Upset owners probably meant the IndyCar boss was probably doing his job well and not letting them ride roughshod over him or the series.
Bernard also didn’t do much to improve the television ratings, which were rock bottom this year, although his hands were tied on that front by a deal was already in place when he arrived.
On the other hand, nobody could gripe about the action on track in 2012. Anyone who watched an IndyCar race this season – it doesn’t matter which one – saw the fabulous fruits of Bernard’s labour.
The return of engine competition racing was great, although Lotus was a bust and won’t be back. The chassis allowed for harder, closer racing in 2012 and saw eight drivers from five different teams win races and the championship go down to the final race of the season.
On top of it all, the series crowned its first American champion since Sam Hornish Jr. took the title in 2006.
Unfortunately, in an off-season where the series should be promoting its newly-crowned champ from Texas to engage U.S. fans and help drum up corporate interest in the series, IndyCar instead ensures the spotlight shines on its ugly office politics.
And that sad fact certainly wasn’t helped by his Hulman & Co. bosses inept – at best – media relations efforts. Hulman & Co. owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).
When the rumour mill got started again on Friday with a media report circulating that Bernard had been fired, IMS public relations director Doug Boles seemed to go out of his way to support the IndyCar CEO with the most lukewarm language possible.
“Randy has not been terminated and his employment status is the same as it was last week and last month,” he offered.
“At this point, Randy is not fired. That is the case in the moment and in the future.”
With a ringing endorsement like that, it’s no wonder that Bernard stepped down on Sunday.
The bigger issue is that the fans and sponsors who ultimately pay the bills may now feel they can’t trust IMS or IndyCar to be straight with them, considering that Bernard was gone two days after it was implied nothing going on.
Unfortunately, this was the second statement in a couple of weeks that turned out to be more spin than substance.
In an IMS release in early October, Belskus’ reaction to a story that the series was the target of a takeover bid left so many holes you could drive a transporter carrying several IndyCars through it.
“The IZOD IndyCar Series is not for sale, and representatives from Hulman & Co and IMS have not received or considered any offers to purchase the series,” it read.
“Further, executive management from both Hulman & Co and IMS maintain continuous and open dialogue with IndyCar team owners about numerous issues related to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and no IndyCar team owner formally or informally approached either organization about purchasing the IZOD IndyCar Series.”
Although it said “have not received or considered and offers,” which was true at the time, it left out the fact that someone was interested in buying it, something it appears Belskus could have known when he was quoted. The person considering the offer was former IndyCar boss Tony George, who occupied a seat on the Hulman & Co. board with Belskus.
And, while the group led by George is thought to have backing from some inside the paddock, the team owners themselves would not be the ones handing the offer to IndyCar. So, the line that IndyCar has not been approached by owners wanting to buy the series was a throw-away. Less than two weeks after the IMS release, it was reported that George made a cash offer to buy the series.
To make matters worse, the exit of Bernard opens the possibility that the series may actually have a Back to the Future moment, with George retaking the reins. His return could drive away the few fans IndyCar has left.
Fans might recall George as the reason that open wheel racing in North American is a shambles. George broke from the old Championship Auto Racing Teams (commonly known as CART and then Champ Car) and started the Indy Racing League (IRL) in 1996, beginning a long, agonizing decline for open wheel in the U.S.
The IRL’s only saving grace – and the only reason it survived as long as it did – was the Indianapolis 500, which is controlled by the George family. The split ended in 2008 when the IRL swallowed Champ Car and the reborn IndyCar Series began with George at the helm.
After losing millions of the family’s dollars on his series, George was booted from the chief executive’s chair by his mother and sisters in 2009 and replaced by Bernard in 2010. He also resigned from the Hulman & Co. board of directors.
He returned to the board two years ago but resigned for a second time last week, fuelling speculation that Bernard was on his way out and George would soon be back behind the CEO’s desk.
Now that Bernard is gone, the door is open for George, although he may be trampled on the way in by IndyCar fans stampeding in the opposite direction.
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