Where does IndyCar go from here?
The IndyRacing Series is coming off one of its most exciting Indianapolis 500s in recent memory.
In addition to a sellout crowd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the race enjoyed a 7 percent increase in TV viewership.
While IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard knows the event’s success was a step in the right direction, he humbly acknowledges the series “still has a long way to go”.
“From Day 1, we’ve said one of our goals is to re-engage all the open wheel fan base that we once had — and we need to continue that,” Bernard said. “We did see a substantial increase (in crowd and TV viewers from Indy). I’ve had a lot of fans say that have not been to a race in 12 or 14 years, and now they remember why they used to come.
“While we have the momentum and the snowball is picking up speed, I think this is the best opportunity for us to continue to showcase our sport.”
Bernard’s current challenge is carrying that momentum forward starting this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas has hosted the IndyCar Series each year since it opened in 1997. And the crowds have been supportive over the years.
Not surprisingly, Bernard selected the 1.5-mile venue to relaunch an old-school concept in the Firestone Twin 275s — which will feature two races with two winners, an interesting twist to the traditional 550-kilometer race. A record 30-car field is expected to participate.
But for the fans at home, the task of finding the race on broadcast providers that carry Versus can be frustrating. Bernard’s advice: Give it time.
“Versus has been a great partner of ours, and it’s only going to get bigger and better,” Bernard said. “A lot of people say that Versus doesn’t have the homes. But let’s be honest, last year during the NHL playoffs they had a game do a 2.2 or a 2.3 (share). People found the NHL playoff games.
“It’s in 75 million homes. That’s a lot of homes. What we need to do is allow Versus to get to 100 million homes and it’s our job to build our sport. I think we’re doing that. We have to keep building our story lines and building our stars and showing how good our drivers are. Personally, I think our drivers are some of the best drivers in the world.”
Along with the popular and more famous drivers — defending champion Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan — a new generation is emerging with Simona de Silvestro, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and JR Hildebrand. Hildebrand is a 23-year-old California rookie (who happens to be a huge Dale Earnhardt fan) who came one corner short of winning the Indy 500.
“We do have some great story lines,” Bernard said. “We have great sponsors coming along. Verizon is exciting to me. Sunoco is another one and, of course, IZOD. We’re not only gaining momentum with our drivers, but with our sponsors and with our fans becoming engaged again, we have a lot of good things going on.”
Bernard isn’t afraid to step out of the box. While he has taken some criticism over double-file restarts from the competitors this season, Bernard felt the response from the fans and media was “overwhelming” and that the teams saw “the value in it for the sport.” More important, the procedure offered the drivers another avenue to showcase their talent, particularly in the Indy 500.
“I’m not a motorsports expert, so for me to tell you how it would be with or without the double-file restarts, it would not be fair for me to say,” Bernard said. “But I’ve talked to enough people that are legends or experts in the industry that think the double-file restarts had a big play in all the passing and overtaking that we saw in that race.
“For those that say we have the best drivers in the world — they proved it (at Indy). They ran double file without any problems, really. They have that many problems on restarts with the single file. I thought the drivers did a spectacular job — and I’ve heard that and I think that’s important because it builds credibility among our drivers, as well.”
Another innovation Bernard is bringing to IndyCar is a new race car for 2012 — along with new manufacturers, including Detroit-based Chevrolet. Bernard believes the buzz of the new model will not only add more excitement but encourage additional “activation around the sport.” During Indy. Bernard pulled an “Undercover Boss” type moment and stood by the display featuring both the road/street course and oval prototypes to gauge the response of the fans.
“I stood and just listened to some of the comments,” Bernard said. “If they knew who I was, at first most people were polite and complimentary. I was more intrigued when the people didn’t know who I was and they said, ‘God, I love the look of this . . . ’ or ‘Wow, I don’t like it.’
“I love going there and just listen to comments. Overwhelmingly, they loved it. If there’s one thing they don’t like about the car it’s the flair behind the back wheel.”
The league has made tremendous strides since title sponsor IZOD came on board 18 months ago. The more than $10 million investment has been a win-win for both Phillips-Van Heusen, IZOD’s parent company, and IndyCar. And with the sportswear company geared to a younger target market, it will help Bernard achieve his desired goal of an average fan age of 37.
“I love that IZOD offers a different demographic than what you’d reach with an endemic sponsor,” Bernard said. “We have two priorities. We have to reach the 15-20 fans that we lost in the mid-’90s. My opinion is that’s low-lying fruit. If you were once passionate about the sport, there has to be a way to bring you back to the sport.
“On the other side of that sphere is the non-endemic sponsors. When you have a company like IZOD that wants to reach the 18-to-34 demographic that’s hip, that’s fun — it’s all those type of words that you really want to relate your product to from an entertainment standpoint. I think that’s very key to us to try to reach both sides of that.”
There’s no doubt the star power of Danica Patrick has gone a long way to attract that female audience, as well. With rumors swirling that the 29-year-old media darling will follow the stock car trek to fame and fortune, following previous open-wheelers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya, Bernard doesn’t seem concerned.
“We think she’s a great ambassador for IndyCar and she has a great fan base, but I also understand that there are financial reasons why she might have to leave,” Bernard said. “In saying that, and I’ve said this many times before, I think it’s as essential that we try to keep GoDaddy in our sport because I think GoDaddy has done more for Danica than fans have given it credit (for).
“The fact of all the Super Bowl commercials and all the marketing to build the brand of Danica Patrick with GoDaddy has been very important. I think we should be thanking GoDaddy for everything they’ve done for Danica in this process.”
Bernard knows to continue growing the sport and attract the next generation of American talent he must increase the number of ovals that are on the IndyCar schedule. The key, Bernard says, is to “stay balanced."
“I think that’s what got us into trouble in the early ‘90s when we became more partial to road and street courses,” Bernard said. “It almost seemed like an encouragement to bring in more European drivers because they did so much better on the road and street. I think this is what we have to do to continue to make sure that we’re out front with American drivers and give them an opportunity to come and showcase their talent as well.”
Bernard was expected to meet with Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of International Speedway Corp. this month to discuss possible venues — among other topics. Bernard would love to race at Phoenix International Raceway and other venues if the dates can be worked out.
Bernard was also surprised that Kennedy’s brother, Brian France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR, didn’t touch base with him during his visit to the Indy 500 last month.
“Unfortunately, I had a better relationship with him when I was at the PBR than I do now,” Bernard said. “I didn’t even know he was there until he left. Well, I heard he was there about 12 o’clock and he left at 2 o’clock. I was disappointed in that. I was disappointed — as a friend — I would have thought he would call. Maybe he thought I was busy.”