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‘Double-header’ race weekends did in Randy Bernard

Published October 29, 2012

The significant racing news that Sebastien Vettel won his fourth straight Grand Prix of 2012 in India Sunday (details here) and that Jimmie Johnson is back where he belongs atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings (details here) was overshadowed late in the day by word that Randy Bernard had been dismissed as CEO of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The statement by the board of directors of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announcing that he would step down immediately was all warm and fuzzy but the fact of the matter is that the long knives had been out for Bernard almost from the time he took the job and a controversial move in recent weeks is finally what did him in.

And what was that, you ask?

I maintain it was the very sudden and last-minutedecision to schedule three “double-header” racing weekends in Toronto, Detroit and Houston in order to come up with the 19 races he’d publicly promised for the 2013 season.

Bernard had talked during much of 2012 about increasing the number of races from 15 to 19 next year and there was speculation about new races in places like Providence, Rhode Island, and the Mugello circuit in Italy, as well as the return of road courses like Road America and even Watkins Glen.

But when the 2013 schedule was issued, Providence wasn’t on it, nor were the other venues, and, instead, two races on the same weekend were included in three markets – two of them (Detroit and Toronto) not very far apart in distance (390 km) or time (six weeks).

Now, were the teams consulted? All of a sudden, their costs for a race weekend were doubled.

Were the title sponsors? Suddenly, the property to which they’d attached their name had been devalued.

Were the promoters? I suppose, but I ask you: how do you take a once-a-year headline attraction and turn it into two of them on the same weekend? How can you convince people that two Indy 500s are better than one?

And that’s the point here. Would you run the Indy 500 one day and then run it all over again the next? Or the following weekend? Would Formula One do that in Montreal? Hey, come Saturday for Grand Prix I and Sunday for Grand Prix II. Would NASCAR do this?

Of course not.

Supporters of Bernard, who mostly liked the fact that he wasn’t Tony George, thought this was just swell. Indy car racing used to do this all the time in the old days, they all said.

Well, Indy car racing didn’t do this all the time in the old days. Yes, there used to be “twin” Indy car races back in the day, but instead of a 250-mile race on a Sunday, they’d run two 125-miles races so there would be two complete starts and two complete races instead of just one. They’ve done that sort of thing recently at Texas Motor Speedway.

But “twin-125s” as they were called were (and are) a far cry from what is being proposed here, which is a full race on Saturday and then a full race again Sunday, which is – frankly – nuts.

(An aside: how do you promote two Honda Indy races in Toronto? You run one on Saturday the traditional way – clockwise through the streets of the CNE. On Sunday, you run the second-race counter-clockwise. In other words, on Saturday, the right-hand turn at the Princes’ Gates is Turn One; on Sunday, it would be a left-hand Turn Ten. That, ladies and gentleman, is the only way you can sell this thing. But I digress . . .)

When Bernard first came on the scene, he freely admitted that he had never seen an IndyCar race – or a car race of any kind, for that matter. He was attractive to the series owners, apparently, because he had taken rodeo bull riding from stock shows and rodeos to Las Vegas and the millions of dollars that went along with that.

His inexperience showed, and many members of the Old Guard (not just a few; most of them) were feeling let down almost immediately, as a result.

His time as CEO of IndyCar was not a dead loss, though: getting the new car accepted, built and on the track was, I believe, the highlight of his tenure.

But the negatives far outweighed the positives. As I’ve written often about them before, I’m not going to repeat them, except to say the ill-advised double-headers were just the latest in a long line of less-than-stellar decisions.

I shake my head when I read the comments of people who claim to be fans of the series, about how they will never watch another race, and so-on, because Randy Bernard got fired. I mean, does it really matter who runs the series as long as the racing is good?

I wonder how some of these people would have felt back in the so-called glory days of CART (or are they old enough to remember)? The people who ran that series didn’t exactly enjoy job security, either.

The guys in charge – John Franco, William Stokkan, Johnny Capels, John Caponigro, Andrew Craig, Chris Pook, Bobby Rahal and Dale Coyne (the latter two took turns running the series when the owners fired all the other guys) – lasted an average of about 2.5 years in the top job, which is about the length of time Bernard was around, so he fits right in.

And since none of these critics knows anything about running a racing team, starting with the enormous costs, the fact that they would side with a guy who also knows (or knew) next to nothing about that too probably explains a lot about the weeping and wailing going on.

The kicker, for me, is the constant bleating about the long-term TV deal that stupid nasty old Tony George signed with Versus (now the NBC Sports Network – and how come that rebranding didn’t work the miracles it was supposed to?)

Here are the facts: IndyCar signed with Versus because nobody else wanted to televise Indy car racing. Nobody. Some people think TV networks should be lining up to televise the series but the stark reality is that it is a niche within a niche; except for NASCAR Sprint Cup, auto racing in North America is not a draw and that includes Formula One. Unless a sport, like baseball and NFL football, regularly attracts millions of viewers, TV networks aren’t interested and that’s why, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, Indy car racing can’t get no respect.

But Indy car fans should not feel too badly. The NHL is on Versus and that’s because nobody watches hockey either.

I don’t think Tony George will be put in charge of IndyCar again – at least in the short term. The board will likely hire a Bernard clone – someone great with the fans but who has a better understanding of the sport and the owners.

But that isn’t to say that George won’t eventually be the boss again. At some point, the Indianapolis Speedway will grow tired of subsidizing the IndyCcar series to the tune of $10-million-plus a year and he’ll probably come up with enough cash to buy it.

As my great friend Brian Stewart, of Firestone Indy Lights fame, says: it’s all about the money. Nothing else matters.

And that, friends, will never change.

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