IndyCar CEO rolling the dice on Las Vegas showcase
Rumors of IndyCar’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
True, open-wheel racing in America is a world removed from its
heyday. It’s lost the war against NASCAR and the bitter 1996 split
between CART and what’s now called IndyCar created casualties –
small crowds, terrible television ratings, insulting purses at
major events – that might never rebound.
But peel away the thick layers of negative perception and apathy
shrouding IndyCar and what’s revealed is an edgy series rife with
many of the qualities the weary NASCAR fan has long complained is
There’s a compelling title race between three-time champion
Dario Franchitti and perpetual bridesmaid Will Power headed into
Sunday’s season finale at Las Vegas. In many respects, the
Franchitti-Power rivalry resembles something close to the animosity
that lingers in NASCAR between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.
Franchitti is the Johnson, with a dominating reign, workmanlike
approach and measured emotions. Power, like Busch employed by
Penske Racing, can’t seem to get over the hump in pursuit of the
championship and tends to let his emotions get the best of him.
This season alone, Power referred to Alex Tagliani as ”a
wanker” in a television interview, called Franchitti ”princess”
in a Twitter rant, and picked up a $30,000 fine for a
double-barreled obscene gesture directed at race control and aired
during the live broadcast at New Hampshire.
Power, who was given the option by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard of
completing ”community service” in lieu of paying his fine, has
maintained a good sense of humor about his bad behavior this
”Yeah, Randy’s got me digging holes out at the speedway,
putting posts up, emptying trash cans, waxing his car,” Power
joked. ”Whatever he needs, I suppose I’ll do it.”
There’s no denying, though, that the antics and actions have
helped IndyCar bring in eyeballs this year, even if some of the
interest is in nothing more than the drama.
”It’s been a bit more out there this year, the competition on
the track and off the track, and Twitter,” said driver Scott
Dixon. ”It does seem to be whenever there is controversy or you
are doing something outrageous, you get more coverage for that than
you do for the racing. I guess that’s what gets attention.”
The fact is IndyCar will take attention anyway it can get it,
and Bernard, the second-year CEO, has practically bet the house on
having an increased interest this weekend in Las Vegas.
Bernard thought he had everything in place last year, his rookie
season in trying to pump life into the series, but a strong title
race didn’t lead to a fabulous finale at Homestead. The race pulled
in a .3 rating on cable channel Versus.
”We had a fantastic race in Homestead, same thing, down to the
wire between Will and Dario,” Bernard said. ”I sat there and
watched that race and saw the ratings the next day and said ‘That
will never happen again, and if it does, it’s my fault.’ That was
my grace year. Now I have to make decisions and changes that can
grow our audience.”
That’s how IndyCar found its way to Las Vegas, where the series
is essentially renting the speedway this weekend from owner Bruton
Smith and promoting the event itself. Bernard has done just that,
through sponsorship agreements, a deal with MGM Grand Resorts that
offers a pair of tickets to anyone staying this weekend in one of
the chain’s 14 properties, and a Thursday night spectacle in which
all 34 cars entered will drive down the Las Vegas Strip.
Then there’s that whole $5 million thing.
In the days after NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500, when
fresh-faced winner Trevor Bayne was crisscrossing the country and
charming every talk show host into thinking NASCAR was cool,
Bernard brilliantly managed to get IndyCar some attention with an
outrageous $5 million promise to any moonlighting driver who could
win the finale at Vegas.
There was a deep pool of candidates, particularly from current
NASCAR stars with open-wheel backgrounds. But as the months went
on, there were no takers and Bernard couldn’t push along deals to
get Kasey Kahne, Travis Pastrana or Alex Zanardi into the race.
He refused to scrap the idea, though, and Indianapolis 500
winner Dan Wheldon was declared eligible for the prize. Wheldon,
who couldn’t put together a full-time ride this season, doesn’t
exactly meet the spirit of the promotion.
Bernard could have stood up and said ”IndyCar is too hard,
nobody would accept the challenge.” But he firmly believed
continuing the promotion was the best thing for the series and
critical in building momentum for next season.
”How we end our year is so important with so much riding on
next year,” he said. ”We can’t have a repeat of last year. We
have to have something of significance.”
But like almost everything else this season, the decision has
its share of critics. Powerful team owners Chip Ganassi and Roger
Penske were never publicly on board with the promotion, questioning
the wisdom in fielding entries for the $5 million challenge when it
would directly compete with their championship-contending
There’s also some resentment from drivers who have wondered how
it’s fair that the season champion will collect roughly $1 million,
but Wheldon, who earned $2.5 million for winning the Indy 500, is
eligible for four times that amount. Should he win Sunday, Wheldon
will split the prize with a fan.
”You’ve essentially got a guy who can win two races and earn
more than the entire field combined,” Franchitti said. ”Good for
Dan, that’s a lot of money he can win. But the fact is the champion
won’t win that much and that’s not really right.”
Bernard has defended the inequality to the drivers, explaining
that the promotion was about spending a portion of his marketing
budget on the insurance policy that covers the $5 million.
”I’ve told them, ‘Guys, think big picture. This is how much
money I have to spend on advertising, it’s not that much, tell me
how would you spend it?” Bernard said. ”Nobody has any other
ideas on a national advertising campaign that can drive our
ratings, put people in seats and give us a new database. If
somebody has another idea, then I’ll do it next year. But this is
what we’ve got right now.”
Attracting an audience has been Bernard’s top goal, and he’s
gotten it this year for both the good and the bad. He implemented
double-file restarts, a la NASCAR, tried to create an All-Star type
event by splitting the annual race at Texas into twin 275-mile
events, and launched a new event in Baltimore that by all accounts
was a rousing success. He was in Detroit on Wednesday to announce
IndyCar will return to Belle Isle in 2012 for the first time in
four years, and a deal to run in China next year seems
Some of his ideas have worked and some have not, which Bernard
readily admits. But he’s willing to listen to competitor concerns
and take another look at execution going forward.
The one area he’s so far been inflexible on is race director
Brian Barnhart, who by all accounts has lost the respect of some
drivers. It was Barnhart whom Power was gesturing at in New
Hampshire, and Helio Castroneves was fined $30,000 this month for
referring to Barnhart on Twitter as ”a circus clown.”
But Bernard has remained publicly supportive of Barnhart, and
praised him for admitting he was wrong on the infamous restart in
the rain at New Hampshire that led to Power’s eruption. Bernard
instead thinks the root of the problem is a rule book that leaves
too much to interpretation and needs ”an immediate scrubbing,
front to back, at the end of the season.”
Franchitti, Dixon and even Power concurred that Barnhart’s
challenge is that the rule book forces him to make arbitrary calls.
When asked about Barnhart, the trio quickly began debating several
different penalties this season that lacked consistency.
”It’s the process that goes on when you make a call should be
more like Formula One with three or four stewards discussing it,”
”Obviously not one person can do it. Decisions are sometimes
being made too quickly, within 10 seconds of the accident and
without a review,” Dixon said.
Bernard has given no indication he’ll replace Barnhart at the
end of the year, and not all drivers think he has to go.
”Who else would do the job? It’s a totally thankless job,”
Franchitti said. ”The easiest fix is to rewrite the rule book and
eliminate all the room for inconsistency.”
The Barnhart issue is just another sideshow to what the drivers
believe is still a good product. The wheel-to-wheel race to the
checkered flag between first-time winner Ed Carpenter and
Franchitti two weeks ago at Kentucky was the sixth-closest finish
in series history, and with Milka Duno no longer in the field,
”there’s nobody out there massively struggling. The racing is
good, the fields are at an all-time high, the cars are
competitive,” Power said.
Now everyone waits to see if Bernard can deliver in Vegas. He’s
said more than once he’ll offer his resignation if the race is a
failure, which he defines as anything below a .8 rating for ABC’s
nationally televised Sunday broadcast.
He’s got a lot to look forward to in 2012, though.
Although Danica Patrick will leave IndyCar for NASCAR after this
weekend, the series is welcoming a new car with improved technology
and safety features, as well as competition from three different
engine manufacturers. Bernard also said he’s willing to address
complaints that the current tire is too hard.
There’s also hope that the planned rebranding of Versus to NBC
Sports Network in January will spark television ratings.
”Next year can be a critical year for IndyCar and a lot of good
things are happening,” Bernard said. ”My only goal has been to
make sure our momentum is really, really strong leaving Las Vegas
and we’ve got something to build on.”