INDIANAPOLIS - JULY 14: Randy Bernard IZOD IndyCar series CEO speaks to the crowd at the chassis strategy announcement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on July 14 2010 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
For nearly as long as I've been alive - and probably longer, if I bothered to ask older fans than myself - the go-to policy for assigning blame for INDYCAR's and its predecessors' woes is a simple one.
Blame the CEO.
This is otherwise known as "scapegoating." The term itself refers to the ancient, stupid practice of symbolically loading evil onto an actual goat and either expelling it from town or actually killing it, because screw personal responsibility, right? In smaller-brained times, this was a way for people to feel better about themselves and hopefully avoid the wrath of their deity or deities of choice by blaming it on something else.
As ridiculous as this sounds to supposedly civilized folk as ourselves, the impulse behind it is something we definitely have not outgrown. People just don't seem to be capable of understanding that things sometimes just happen and that there may actually not be any sort of intelligent or comprehensible reason why. So people invoke God or Fate or karma or kismet for the good stuff (or the bad stuff that happens to other people who don't have the right faith credentials), and then blame Satan or the evils of a certain subset of their fellowmen when things go to shit.
It's deflection of blame, and it's a coping mechanism because the alternate answers may be too disturbing or uncomfortable for people to face.
It is also an injustice, because bad things that happen that aren't a matter of random chance (and let's be honest, there are plenty of those) usually happen because of a chain of related events, not because of the actions of one single person or cause.
But it's become a sick tradition of sorts to name the CEO of INDYCAR (or CART or USAC or the IRL or whoever) as the ideal fall guy for everything bad that happens. Andrew Craig, Tony George, Bobby Rahal, Chris Pook... the list in the fans' Hall of Shame is long and distinguished. Some of these gentlefolk have been more culpable than others for failures in open-wheel racing, but none of them operated alone or in a vacuum. Yet they are often and mercilessly singled out for vitriol when others who could and should share the blame go unrecognized.
The scapegoating process, however, has reached its clear nadir in the wake of Dan Wheldon's death with the attacks on Randy Bernard.
Media and fans like have been on the prowl for someone or something upon whom to pin the horrifying 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Bernard has become the easy target for a small but vocal group.
Under Bernard's watch, the critics say, danger in IndyCar racing is at an all-time high. Double-file restarts! Five million dollar gimmicks! 34 cars starting a race at a 1.5-mile track! Who won't he kill to get better ratings??? Okay, so that last part hasn't been said by anyone out loud. But I'll bet you Danica Patrick's annual earnings that many of these critics have thought it.
Here's the thing about Randy Bernard that these people don't care to understand: he's a salesman. That's about it. He's a relatively young guy with graying hair and probably not the best public speaking technique who spends nearly every waking moment - and since he doesn't sleep much, there are a lot of those - trying to figure out ways to get more public attention to the company with which he's been entrusted.
Prior to taking the CEO job at INDYCAR, he knew almost nothing about racing. Basically, what he knew was that INDYCAR was a property that was in desperate straits and needed promotional punch. So he went about doing that as best as he could, learning as quickly as he could on the job.
His first task was a nightmare that nobody sane would touch with a ten-foot pole - figuring out whether IndyCar should have a new car or stick with its aging Dallara IR03 fleet. Bernard was faced with the Delta Wing lobbyists on one side, penny-pinching team owners on another, and vocal fans on a third. Everyone wanted something different, and everyone was threatening to bolt if they didn't get what they wanted.
What did Randy Bernard do? He gathered the brightest minds he could find together into a committee and asked them to make sense of the mess for him. Once they presented him their findings, he came up with a solution - a new "baseline" car designed by Dallara that would be modifiable by third party builders with aero kits, and a new engine formula that piqued the interest of manufacturers around the world who had politely, but firmly, ignored INDYCAR for years.
Given the incredible political pressure from so many different sides, the ICONIC process was a masterstroke of compromise. It was the closest thing to letting everyone have their cake and eat it too that anyone could have expected, and it was accomplished on short notice. INDYCAR would have a new car, new engines, a new factory in Speedway that would create jobs, and a formula that encouraged future interest from outside manufacturers.
For a guy who had spent the previous decade trying to avoid bull droppings (literal and figurative) while building Professional Bull Riders into an improbable success story, it certainly was a tremendous first step into racing. But then, it wouldn't be INDYCAR without people criticizing the whole thing, whether it was the Delta Wing group complaining that Randy was not far-sighted enough, fans saying they preferred Swift/Lola/BAT concepts, or media lambasting the hologram used at the ICONIC rollout presser.
Still, over the course of Randy Bernard's tenure, the conventional wisdom has been - at least until two weeks ago - that he's done more to help INDYCAR struggle back to relevance than anyone since the Split. He was INDYCAR's everyman spokesman, acquiescing to being the public face for the owners' suggestion to implement double-file restarts, communicating with fans as if they had a voice in the process, and tirelessly globetrotting to drum up partners for the series.
The punsters were right - Las Vegas was going to be Randy's biggest gamble. Bernard knew Las Vegas and loved it - the city was one of the cornerstones of his PBR success story. Vegas was a place where he knew he could make a splash, and he had the connections to make it happen. So he drew up plans for what he hoped would be an unforgettable weekend - a weekend that would catapult INDYCAR into the national spotlight.
Many of Randy's slow-fuse deals would come to fruition at Las Vegas - the introduction of the Ascot Cup as the sanction's new historic championship trophy, for one; an unprecedented field thanks to the surplus inventory of race cars and owners willing to put drivers in them; even the $5 million GoDaddy Challenge, which he saved from the trash heap by calling an audible when the original idea hit unsurmountable obstacles.
He staged lavish parties. He wined and dined sponsors and media. He even got the famed Strip shut down so that the IndyCar field could take laps in front of thousands of curious spectators. In other words, he expended every effort, called in every favor, and put his entire career on the line to make sure that this would be the biggest event outside of the Indianapolis 500 that INDYCAR had ever staged.
From a salesman's perspective, it was nothing less than a coup. The specters of Gene Simmons and Dr. Jack Miller seemed banished by this aggressive promotional campaign. The stage had been set in grand style. Now it was time for Randy Bernard to sit back and hope that the show would deliver on the promise.
And then... disaster.
Suddenly, the enthusiasm with which Randy's promotional efforts had been met turned overnight into second-guessing and finger-pointing. Randy mortgaged the drivers' futures to chase ratings. Randy's irresponsible promotion goaded the drivers into taking more risks. Randy... Randy... Randy.
All of this ignoring the one glaring truth that is the linchpin to everything - Randy, like all of us, became a spectator the minute the race cars hit the track. He had controlled everything that he could control; but his sales pitch did not - could not - affect the actual product. That was in the hands of the drivers, the teams, the track surface, and Fate.
At the end of the day, Dan Wheldon was dead and the INDYCAR world was in mourning. But the groundwork for this tragedy had been laid years before Randy Bernard turned in his cowboy hat for an IZOD cap. The product Bernard had been exhausting himself to sell had been built seven years earlier under the watch of an entirely different group of people.
This, therefore, is the injustice - that Randy Bernard is now somehow culpable for the result of actions and events over which he had absolutely zero control.
The fact that scapegoating is a natural human instinct in times of tragedy does not excuse those doing the scapegoating. It is irresponsible. Ridiculous. Even insulting. Those who are scapegoating Randy Bernard are trying to make themselves feel better by creating a false construct.
In truth, we are all to blame for forgetting one thing - that motor racing is dangerous, and that the sport will never be completely free from this kind of tragedy. The death of MotoGP racer Marco Simoncelli a week after Wheldon perished should have proclaimed this truth in giant letters created from stone.
Of all the injustices, perceived or real, having to do with that fateful weekend in Las Vegas, the worst would be if Randy Bernard is pressured into leaving INDYCAR. And I promise you that Dan Wheldon, were he still with us, would be at the head of the line to defend Randy from these ludicrous scapegoaters.
There are many things to learn from what happened in Las Vegas - I hope that one of them is that others should not suffer needlessly as the displaced focus of our grief... or guilt.