As things calm down following the firing of chief executive Randy Bernard, it’s looking more and more like the people who pushed the IndyCar boss out the door are making it up as they go along.
Mark Miles, who becomes CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent organization of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar, suggested last week that the series might want to consider adopting a NASCAR-style Chase for the Cup system.
The reasoning is that it’s tough for a sport to hold the attention of fans, so a playoff-type ending to the racing year might be more exciting and draw more fans to the series. That would certainly be true if IndyCar’s championship race hadn’t gone down to the final weekend of the year for the past seven seasons.
And there’s the little problem the 19-race IndyCar’s season is just about half the length of NASCAR’s 36-stop calendar. The long NASCAR season allows the stock car series to set aside the final 10 events as Chase races. Using the same proportion, IndyCar would need to have the first 14 decide the championship field and then the final five as the title deciders.
NASCAR introduced the Chase format in 2004 which sees only the top-12 drivers after the first 26 races eligible for the season championship. It has had mixed reviews, with many traditional fans not liking the switch. In addition to turning off some followers, the Chase seems to be losing its appeal, with TV ratings dropping to record lows this year.
Moving to that kind of format is not only unworkable for IndyCar, but would also push away its core audience which mostly loathes anything stock car-like seeping into open wheel.
IndyCar chief executive Bernard was fired earlier this year after only three seasons at the helm, after several owners complained about his leadership. He was hired as the chief executive of cable channel RFD-TV in early December. RFD’s programming centres on rural America and agriculture.
While Bernard arrived in the IndyCar paddock admitting he had never been to a race, he knew enough not to suggest a Chase-style calendar for the series.
He also had sense to hire some whip smart racing people to help him get the series back on its feet. Unfortunately, with Bernard gone, his hires became vulnerable and sadly, one of the best people he brought in to the series headquarters was shown the door last week.
Now, it’s not often that motorsport journalists care about the fate of a public relations professional who works for a racing series. In most cases, the communications people that media deal with change so often that there’s hardly any time to build working relationships.
But when IndyCar vice-president of public relations Steve Shunck let go two weeks before Christmas, it caused several journalists to speak out on Facebook and Twitter, which speaks volumes about his abilities and popularity.
Even some IndyCar drivers joined the fray and offered support, although one said privately that e-mails and calls to new boss Miles about rehiring Shunck would likely be futile.
“They don’t even care what we think about driving matters, so why would they care what we think about a public relations director?” he asked.
Shunck was one of four laid off in IndyCar’s head office in Indianapolis. He has been working there since 2010 when he was hired by recently-dismissed IndyCar boss Randy Bernard.
Looking from the outside at Shunck’s job performance, this can only be seen as a political move to dump people hired by and possibly loyal to the former boss.
A life-long racing fan, Shunck was the best thing IndyCar had going for it on the marketing and public relations side. He knows the sport, the personalities, and how to get them exposure the series desperately needs. He worked well with the drivers and understood how to leverage the series past to help secure its future.
He was also fantastic with the media, which was key to getting the series out of the shadows.
When Graham Rahal played the Game Day panel pick delivery man in his IndyCar on ESPN on Super Bowl Sunday, Shunck made it happen. The extraordinary profiles of great Indy 500 drivers – including 24 of the 27 living race winners – that appeared in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in racing were also his doing. Those are just two examples of a long list.
So, instead of coming up with silly ideas that won’t work, Miles would be well-advised to make rehiring Shunck his first order of business when he assumes the boss’ chair today.
And speaking of terrible ideas, it’s entirely troubling that persistent rumours are circulating that former race director Brian Barnhart may get his old job back.
Unlike Shunck, IndyCar’s president of operations and strategy, Barnhart became famous for getting the series bad press with his questionable calls from race control, something that finally saw him removed last year by Bernard.
Barnhart is the last figure from the old regime of Indy Racing League founder Tony George who still remains in the series’ front office.
The list of poor calls is lengthy, but Canadian fans probably remember him best as the man who robbed Paul Tracy of his Indianapolis 500 win in 2002. He ruled that the “Thrill from West Hill” did not pass eventual winner Helio Castroneves on the penultimate lap before a yellow flew even though the replays clearly showed Tracy ahead before the caution was out.
The race ended under caution, so the ruling meant Tracy finished second instead of rightfully becoming the second Canadian to win the famed race.
Simply put, the return of Barnhart to the front lines would be the easiest way to ensure IndyCar slowly faded from the racing scene.
The series’ remaining fans who breathed a sigh of relief after he was finally removed after 16 years in the job would certainly not be pleased to see him return. There’s no doubt that many would finally walk away from the sport for good.
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