Nearly three weeks ago, Randy Bernard began his new job as CEO of the Indy Racing League, taking over for the embattled Tony George. Bernard, 43, spent the past 15 years as the CEO of the Professional Bull Riders Association. His days begin at the gym at 5:30 a.m. in Indianapolis, then he's at the office by 7:30. He leaves around midnight. From two-hour lunches and dinners with team owners, drivers and "passionate" fans, to weekly two-hour trips to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum to learn the tradition and culture of the Indy Racing League, Bernard is doing everything he can to learn, then build the open-wheel racing brand. In advance of next Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Bernard talked with the St. Petersburg Times about his dedication to growing the sport, rejuvenating the worldwide fan base and the current television contract, among other priorities.
You weren't an internal hire. What did people who've been there for awhile like (IRL President of Competition) Brian Barnhart and others who have been in the organization tell you that made you believe it was something you wanted to be a part of?
Before I accepted the job I flew around the country doing quite a bit of due diligence. I wanted to talk to some of the staff and I also wanted to talk to team owners, as well as drivers. And I also wanted to talk to every board member and look them in the eyes and make sure they would support me 110 percent before I did this. The common denominator with everyone I spoke with was the passion that everyone had for the sport. Whether you were talking to Brian Barnhart, a board member or a team owner, everyone wants this to work. And that's a big step. I feel we have great momentum right now. Everyone is working together. Everyone wants this to work.
Are there specific things that you want to do differently than Tony George or is that an evolving process?
I think it would be premature to come in here and make significant changes. The things I can change right now wouldn't be things I would change, but possibly add. I believe that we need to build momentum and we need to build it now. So I want to create some opportunities that could bring more fan base to the Indy Racing League.
The IndyCar series has had just one engine manufacturer (Honda) and one chassis (Dallara) for a few years. There are more manufacturers vying to get into the series. Where do you stand on having more companies compete?
That is a fantastic question. I wish they had hired me in August after they made these decisions. It's kind of like being thrown into the kettle. I think this could be one of the most defining decisions that I'm a part of for the next decade. When you're having to first of all figure out whether you want an open source (multiple manufacturers) or a sole source, and then what type of engine, what type of chassis. These are huge questions. All I can tell you at this point is that I'm not qualified to answer one part of that. But what I am qualified to do is to create a very articulate process where we set a very strict criteria that allows us to take a recommendation to the board.
Are you satisfied with the TV deal with Versus? (Some races are on ABC, including the Indy 500 and St. Petersburg, but most are on Versus.) What direction would you like to see the series take in terms of TV coverage?
I want as many eyeballs on our sport as possible. I think Versus, when they did that deal, it was a long-term move. Anyone could see they (owner Comcast) are the largest cable company in the United States, they have a phenomenal cash flow … they were successful in acquiring 51 percent of NBC, as long as that acquisition is approved. I think Versus is going to be a smart move. I think we're probably a year or two away from seeing really big types of numbers, but hopefully we can see that by 2013 or 2012. I think Versus does a phenomenal job on their production and I think they'll give us 110 percent effort. My only concern right now is, how do we make sure we maximize how many people are watching us on a weekly basis?
How important is your marketing and promotions background for what you want to do with the IRL?
I'm very confident I can build this because of my experience. But it's not just marketing and promotions. I have very good relationships with network and cable network television. I have great relationships with promoters. I'm not convinced that sanction agreements are always in the best interest of the league and I would like to see possibly co-promotions and I'd like to see possibly the bottom two events dropped every year so that we continue to make sure that we are bringing better value every single year to our fans. I'm sure promoters are not going to like to hear that, but those are the types of things that are very important to me. If you've ever been to a PBR event, I'll put that entertainment value against anything. … To me, (fans) are going to leave with about two or three impressions. And you want to make sure those impressions are great impressions.
Will you attend the St. Pete Grand Prix?
I can't wait to see that event. Everybody tells me how great of an event it is.