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IndyCar boss Bernard opens up about future, Hmiel and more

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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FOXSports.com recently sat down with Indy League Racing CEO Randy Bernard to discuss a variety of topics.

Bernard, 43, took part in a Texas Motor Speedway announcement on August 17 along with track president Eddie Gossage and NASCAR Chairman Brian France. Along with IndyCar’s 2011 TMS race dates, Bernard unveiled his plan to run two races, crowning two separate winners in one day – a concept that’s been dormant for nearly two decades.

Prior to assuming his new post with the IRL, Bernard spent 15 years as the CEO of Professional Bull Riders, Inc. Bernard humbly admits he’s still getting acclimated to his new job.

FOXSPORTS.COM: How has your time been with the Indy Racing League so far?

BERNARD: It feels like five months, going on five years (laughs). It has been fantastic. It’s just a huge learning curve. I’ve spent so much time wanting to learn the sport and you’re not going to learn it overnight. My job is, first and foremost, to be a marketer. This event that Eddie announced played right into that. We have to be able create brand identity that allows fans new and different reasons to travel down to Texas or want to make sure they’re in front of the TV set when this comes on TV. That’s our biggest goal right now is to create brand identity at specific events and create compelling storylines.

To wrap my tenure up, it’s been a remarkable time – very educational. The fans have been so welcoming. It’s been so heartwarming to me to see so many fans. Everybody just wants to see it grow -- that’s the big thing. Maybe I shouldn’t say everybody – there have been a lot of critics out there. But most of the people that send me emails want to see this sport take off.

FOXSPORTS.COM: For the past three years, NASCAR has been touting a “Back to Basics” approach to racing. You announced that IndyCar will bring back a two-races-in-one-day deal that hasn’t been run in open wheel for 19 years when Rick Mears won both races while driving for Roger Penske. Why is it important to take a step back and embrace the fans that might have been loss along the way?

BERNARD: I know we lost 15 to 20 million fans in the mid-90s, especially during the divorce (when Tony George resigned from the CART board of directors in 1994 and formed the IRL). We know they didn’t die. They’re out there. In my opinion, that’s low lying fruit. It’s my job to make sure that those are the first ones that we can go back and get. We need to make sure we give them a reason to come back and want to watch our sport. We have to make it entertaining. We have to make it competitive and exciting.

The other thing we’ve seen even before the split, we saw CART alienating a lot of American fans by bringing so many Europeans in and going to the road courses. It’s very important for us to make sure we reach the Americana crowd and go back to our roots with traditions just like this and reach out to the USAC and dirt tracks and create some roads up our ladder system that also helps us bring up sprint and USAC drivers. That’s important. Everyone comes to me and says we need more American drivers. My point is, “Yes, that’s great. But as a sanctioning body we need the best drivers in the world. Period.” If they’re from Brazil, so be it. Our top priority is that we have the best. That’s how we promote it. That’s what we need the perception to be. Now what we need to do is go out and make sure we have a ladder system that allows Americans to a way to come up here instead of going to other series around the world.

FOXSPORTS.COM: NASCAR is no longer an option for Shane Hmiel, who failed three drug tests and is banned for life. But he is one of the young hot kids in USAC and he’s looking for another chance. Is IndyCar a place where he could make his mark?

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  • Should Shane Hmiel drive in IndyCar?
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BERNARD: You bet! I’m excited to see Shane compete with us. Everyone says he’s a great driver and we’re going to give him a chance. I think that’s very important. Everyone deserves a chance and we’re committed to making sure that he has that opportunity. He’s exactly what I’m talking about. He’s a dirt track, short track, Americana and if he makes it over here it’s going to be a great storyline. And that’s the type of thing that we need to develop, the embrace him and give him the opportunity to succeed.

FOXSPORTS.COM: There’s been recent talk of a drivers association developing in IndyCar with your champion (Dario Franchitti) at the forefront. What are your thoughts about that?

BERNARD: I think it’s great. They came to me before the big meeting, met with me in Watkins Glen and asked my opinion. I said, “Look, I love it. Twenty-four minds are better than one.” When you get together, there are going to be some great things about it and some not such great things about it. What we have to do as a sport is to look at what is in the best interest for us going forward long term.. At the same time, if you bring us great ideas, there’s no reason why we’d turn them down. If we can create better relationships with the drivers, it’s a win-win.

I encouraged it. The Bull Riders did the same thing and it worked very well. This isn’t about my ego or our ego as a property and we make the rules and that’s how it’s going to be. My philosophy is “Hey, if we can be better, let’s fix it.” If they come up with something that’s great, let’s make changes and do it right away.

FOXSPORTS.COM: Did you have an open door policy with the Bull Riders?

BERNARD: I had a very big open door policy. I didn’t come from the Bull Riding world either so that was totally new to me. I learned real quick that there’s a lot of experts. You learn real quickly who the ones are that you can trust and who you have respect for, have great ideas and are in it for the best interest of the sport and some of them are selfish and have their own hidden agendas behind it. It’s very important to bounce it off enough people that you have a solution that will help that sport grow. There are times when you’re going to have to tell people, “No” and that you respect any way.

FOXSPORTS.COM: Have you had a chance to spend time with Brian France?

BERNARD: Brian and I have been friends for a long time. We did business together back around 2002 with his company in L.A. and a guy named Robert Hollander (vice chairman of Brand Sense). I have tremendous amount of respect for Brian.

Good gosh, with all of Brian’s responsibilities to see that sport grow, I don’t know how he sleeps at night. He’s always been very fair to me, very direct and very honest. I’ve always enjoyed working with him.

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