Open-Wheel Wednesday · Toni Montgomery · Wednesday October 31, 2012
So after a terrific season of racing for the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, with a mostly optimistic outlook for 2013 and even bigger possibilities for 2014, the powers that be at INDYCAR finally decided to do something about the persistent rumors concerning the security of CEO Randy Bernard’s job. The decision was the only thing marring a series that finally seemed to gain forward momentum and was slowly but surely winning back some lost fans. Did they finally step up Sunday and offer Bernard their unwavering support, showing strength in unity and their faith in his leadership, while making it clear to restless car owners and delusional family members that Bernard was their man, his plan was their plan, and anyone not on board could find the door? Nope. Instead, they got out their cannon, because they are far beyond just a simple gun, and blew the proverbial foot off of what is supposed to be the premier open-wheel racing series in America.
The board, coming together in their proverbial wisdom decided the best way to put an end to the rumors and speculation, quelling unrest was to fire Bernard. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting, if for no other reason than to see which Hulman & Company board member had their head furthest up their backside. I wish that someone could please explain the logic in this move to me; and so far, three days removed from the firing as of this writing nobody really has. Instead of just backing the guy you brought in to save your series, who was actually doing just that and who had the support of the fans, who are, in case you might have forgotten, the people you really need to be sucking up to, it seemed a better option to kick that guy to the curb and leave INDYCAR with no plan and no leader. Even better, Tony George is hovering like a vulture and everyone is wondering just how exactly this plays into his plans, which are no secret to anyone, to get himself back in charge. It’s a move that would be, in a word, disastrous for INDYCAR, a series whose top leadership position is suddenly back up for grabs.
But then, it seems to me that George has been hovering for quite awhile now. Certainly, Bernard did not do a perfect job in his time as CEO of INDYCAR. Part of that was working with the mess he inherited from George; admittedly, other parts were his own missteps in attempting to fix it. But along the way, it would seem, someone was just waiting to fuel the fire at every mistake. If you want to point at actual events that were the undoing of Bernard, there was the disaster at Las Vegas last year and the death of Dan Wheldon, done in the name of trying to promote the sport but gone horribly wrong; the rushing of Lotus into American open-wheel, just to have that third engine manufacturer, a move that ultimately proved embarrassing for Lotus and INDYCAR; then, an ill-advised contract with Dallara, one that resulted in price gouging of owners for replacement parts, followed by the race in China that never happened.
Where George comes into play, as has become obvious with his admission to being part of a group, along with some car owners that were attempting to purchase INDYCAR from Hulman & Company, is as chief pot-stirrer. I have no doubt that at every misstep Bernard made along the way, George swooped in and turned it to his advantage, agitating the situation and using it to gain allies in his bid to regain control. The guy is not even in charge and he’s wrecking INDYCAR!
Such negativity clearly overshadowed a long list of positives since Bernard’s arrival. He oversaw the successful debut of a sorely needed new chassis, stemmed the bleeding of red ink that led to George’s ouster in the first place (at least, until the China mess) and, most importantly, was beginning to win back some of the fans lost over the years. That last part was not going to happen overnight. It was going to take time and a lot of work to earn the trust of those fans, especially because they had been burned before. A big key to this year’s success was listening to them — through a public Twitter account, email address and unprecedented availability. Through his efforts, Bernard was finally making them feel like they mattered.
That was critical, as open-wheel fans in America have been through the wringer. Listen closely, Hulman & Company, to what I am going to say next. It’s the key to everything. Those fans are fed up and they’ve had enough with off-track politics and squabbling. They love open-wheel racing, and they want desperately to see a good product on the track. However, they are tired of investing their passion in it only to have the rug pulled out from under them, burned each and every time by a bunch of executives and car owners who have no idea what the fans really want. Even worse, they don’t seem to care as long as their own little agendas are satisfied. Fans want stability combined with strong leadership; you can only fool them so many times before they simply look somewhere else.
Don’t believe me? In this day and age, it’s not hard at all to find out how the fans feel and what they want. They are more than happy to take to Twitter and tell you. Consider some of these comments in the wake of the announcement of Bernard stepping down on Sunday…
Jim Van Tassel @jgvant: @marshallpruett – Randy was great for the series, but I can’t stomach this idiocy @IndyCar any longer. This fan is out of #indycar
Greg Zeboray @GregZeboray: @MarioAndretti @RBINDYCAR that’s it – I’m officially done with Indy Car racing and the 500. They’re going to have to bring me back. #IndyCar
Kelley @Kezzles: So #INDYCAR fired Randy Bernard and has basically no plan for the future? Why do they have to make this so hard? I’m trying to like you!
Richard Allen @RacingWithRich: #NASCAR has to be happy that #IndyCar exists. Their management makes NASCAR look like geniuses.
MVBN15 @MVBN15: Remember during Empire Strikes Back when Lando walked his friends into a trap with Darth Vader? Well, #Indycar fans, we’re the Wookie
Brice Craig @BriceECraig: As an #IndyCar fan I would like to thank @Jbindy4 and @kvracing among others for getting the BEST CEO indycar has had fired! @RBINDYCAR
Jerry Cruz @IndyCar_Raider: My sports weekend: Nebraska wins, Raiders win, #IndyCar LOSES!
Holly D @koshtoo: Really hoping #indycar still exists next year when it’s time for the St. Pete Grand Prix, and we’re not saying #RIPIndyCar
Kent Barber @Thummper08: @SPEEDWindTunnel #IndyCar Has finally kicked me in the Gut for the last time. Time to move on to #NHRA #ALMS/GRANDAM #NASCAR
Kristine Schroeder @Wiresculptress: Why oh WHY are these people bent on destroying the sport I love so dearly? #Indycar #ThankYouRandy
Andy M @morinap: It takes a lot to make a truly dedicated fan run away, but #IndyCar seems to know how. Rapidly losing me as a fan.
nascarcasm @nascarcasm: It is with sincerity I wish @RBINDYCAR the best – and a new job where improving the product isn’t somehow grounds for dismissal. #IndyCar
Shane Rogers @upshifted: @markwa1ker Bernard gave the fans ownership. The fans feel like they’ve lost that to a bunch of faceless men and women today. #indycar
Todd Michaels @OpenWheelTodd: First F1 coverage moves from SPEED, now #IndyCar fires the guy behind the best season since The Split, we just can’t have nice things here.
Tyler Harper @tyler_harper: I have an awful time trying to defend #IndyCar. Never known a sports organization that so badly wants to keep screwing itself.
In the interest of fair play, there were some fans who love open-wheel racing enough that, while still expressing displeasure, will continue to be punching bags for the car owners and the Hulman-George family.
Drew Allen @drewallennews: @KarbonMagazine I’ll keep watching as a lifelong follower of #IndyCar, but I will not feel any sympathy for any of its future struggles.
Scott Manifold @ScottManifold: Agreed RT @indy44: Just an FYI. I’m not going anywhere. Full 100% support of the teams and drivers in #IndyCar
Eric @ePurd: @RBINDYCAR Randy, you did a fine job. You will be missed. #IndyCar
IndyCarUK @IndyCarUK: A CEO is for a few years, not for life. But a fan can be, good times, bad times, if we care, we stick together #indycar
Of course, out of a sampling of over 200 tweets I followed over the course of an hour, those positives were few and far between. It was an hour that saw #INDYCAR trend nationally, a dubious distinction considering the circumstances and the nature of most of the comments. By a vast majority, impressions were negative and only the four above (roughly 2 percent, based on my sample) showed any measure of support for open-wheel racing. None of them also really showed support for INDYCAR itself; that’s an important distinction to make here.
There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that this move on the part of INDYCAR was ill-advised and unpopular. There’s no doubt fan reaction is scathing, paired with certain car owners (Roger Penske has been outspoken about the lack of the board’s future direction). What remains to be seen here are the lasting effects, not just as far as who the next leader of INDYCAR will be or what direction the sport will take now, but as far as what attendance and TV ratings look like next year. How many of those fans speaking out were serious? For a series struggling to find relevance and build a fan base, if any of them were, it’s too many. And for those car owners who were involved in this mess: even most dogs know better than to crap where they eat. Good luck with those sponsorship hunts.
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