I recently had the chance to take a few minutes to pick the brain of IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard. Rather than single out just a few bits and bobs for a story, I think that in this case the replies are the whole story. Bernard is quite insightful and candid in his replies as he details the trials and tribulations of rebuilding the IndyCar brand.
Q: Think back to that day when you went in for the interview and (the Indy Racing League, as it was then known) said “we have this job opening...”
Were you made aware of the extent of the challenges that you would be facing?
RB - That’s a great question.
I was actually asked if I wanted to be a consultant at first and I loved that idea but when they called me back a day later and asked me if i wanted to be a CEO, I saw so much potential and opportunity....
I knew there were going to be a lot of challenges, I don't mind challenges. I love challenges. The potential and opportunity for the 100 year of history that IndyCar had, I wanted to give it a try.
I took 30 days to go meet with the big teams; Penske and Ganassi, the drivers, manufacturers and the sponsors to make sure they would be committed to me, too, if I did come in. I didn't want to come into the sport where they didn't want someone coming in from bull riding.
Q: And that’s one of the problems - you’ve been complimented by the owners for your marketing savvy - but how difficult was it to translate that marketing (style) you’ve done in the past to auto racing, which is a pretty staid sport in general?
RB: What I like to go back to the foundation and develop what is most important. We knew it was called IRL when I got here, and IRL had a negative connotation with a lot of fans because of the split and the divorce. We knew that we lost 15 to 20 million fans, so we knew the first thing we had to do was change the name.
We had to go back to IndyCar. That’s what everyone knows us as around the world and it didn't have that negative connotation that the IRL had.
The second thing was take all of the statistics from 1911 until today and compile them in one statistic book so that AJ Foyt is no different than Dario Franchitti....whether it was ChampCar, CART, IRL or USAC, it's all open-wheel racing and its all under one book, and that's IndyCar.
And the last was, like I said, redefining our sport.
We have to differentiate ourselves from NASCAR, as well as F1, and our definition has to be about the fastest, most versatile race car and race car driver in the world. And to me, now that we have that in place, it allows us to go out and start reaching out and showcasing our sport; developing the credibility of our drivers and team owners. It's a long road to go, but I think we're making progress.
Q: Getting into that, how has the response from sponsors and potential sponsors changed over the last year and a half?
RB: We see a tremendous amount of sponsors and manufacturers intrigued with what we're doing.
Back in July 2010 I recall one manufacturer when we called and asked if we wanted to participate with an engine in 2012, and the exact words and quote was “Hell no.” And last December, that same manufacturer I ran into and he said “Hey, we're having a change of heart. We like what we’re seeing right now, come see us in Detroit and we'd like to see what you're doing with it.”
So we're making progress, we see momentum.
We've seen our network ratings increase by about 25% and we've seen our cable ratings increase 14% and that’s with one rainout (Brazil) we had to have at six in the morning. We've seen double-digit growth and that's all we can expect right now. We can't expect miracles in one year. I think that next year with the new car and three manufacturers, it's going to really allow us to expose our sport and show what IndyCar is all about. And it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Q: What about some of the personalities involved? How difficult has it been; in the ownership you have guys like Eric Bachelart that are living week-to-week with their teams, then you compare that to a Roger Penske. How do you get that balance, and get those guys into some sort of consensus?
RB: That’s a phenomenal question because I ask that to a lot of people.
It has to be our job; we can't be a socialized sport. I think it's very important for us to be able to reward winners, and losers have to figure out a way to win or get that exposure.
In the US especially, fans want to see a winner and that's really what we have to focus our attention to, those winners, for the PR efforts. We need the smaller teams, of course, and we need to figure out a way to keep them in the series, but we don't want them worrying about how they stay 22nd or 21st, but how they can become 12th, 10th, 8th, fifth, up to winning the world (championship.)
Q: I guess the last thing, then...this has been a whirlwind for you. You’re on a plane every day, you’re working who knows how many hours per day, where do you see yourself involved in this sport in the future? That famous interview question: where do you see yourself five years from now?
RB: Well, if we don't do a .8 at the championship, I'll be fired, I'll be quitting (laughs).
That answer lies in my ability and my performance, I think I should be held accountable, just like every driver, just like every team. If a team doesn't win, they don't get sponsorship. If a driver doesn't win, hes going to be cut.
I'm a big believer. If I can't create my own performance at a high level, I shouldn't be here.
Optimistically, I think we're doing really well and I think my goal is I want to stay here another three or four years.
Q: Is it ever hard to maintain that optimism sometimes when you turn on your computer and see (media and fans) piling on? It does seem to have abated just a little bit...
RB: That's a great question. I think one day you do something and you think you have a great day and you think you're on the top of the world and your problems are behind you, then the next someone just pulls the rug right out from under your feet and you're back on your nose. Everything is so unpredictable and every decision from small to big will have a big ripple effect in this business, I think.
When I'm having a bad day, I think of the positives, and where we can be and where we are going, and the fact that we've seen our sponsorship activation continue to increase. That has to be a positive for us. The fact that we do have a new television deal.
The fact that we (now) have three manufacturers. I think Chevy will probably spend $30-40 million dollars on this new engine and their activation in the sport next year. So I think those are the things, in my opinion, that are taking us to the next level.
We just have to keep focused on how we're going to grow the sport.
And I push. I push every one of the people that work for me, but I push hard. If I'm expecting them to do it, I expect to do it.