A 'league' to call their own: Bernard hopes to make IndyCar noticeable on racing radar.
NEWTON, Jun 20, 2010 (The Hawk Eye - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Randy Bernard helped turn bull riding into its own sport. Now he's got to figure out a way to ride the IndyCar Series into a battle with the bucking behemoth named NASCAR.
While the Sprint Cup Series splits its TV time among three major networks, the IndyCar Series gets some face-time on ABC, but a lot on a cable network called Versus.
While sponsors flock to Sprint Cup and help build 43-car fields, the IndyCar Series scrambles to put more than 20 cars on the track.
Everyone knows the names of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, and buy anything with the Earnhardt name on it.
Go to an IndyCar race, and Helio Castroneves is asked more about "Dancing With the Stars" than he is about winning three Indianapolis 500s. Dario Franchitti just won his second Indy 500, but on a recent teleconference, he was asked if his wife, actress Ashley Judd, would be accompanying him on this trip.
What Bernard wants to do is make open-wheel racing just as popular because of what happens on the track.
Bernard, who has been on the job as the IndyCar Series CEO since March 1, has some interesting ideas on how to build the series into something bigger than it is now.
He wants competition in engine manufacturers. He's embraced new chassis designs, some more radical than others. He wants to mine the open-wheel circuits around the nation -- finding the sprint car drivers and karting competitors who could be the stars of the future.
He knows the time frame is more than the eight seconds that a bull-ride gets, but he knows the competition is stiff.
"You always want to see growth," Bernard said at Iowa Speedway on Saturday, right before qualifying for today's Iowa Corn Indy 250. "We have a short-term business plan, we have a long-term business plan. And we want to make this work."
Bernard helped grow the Professional Bull Riders organization, separating the riders from being part of rodeos around the nation and making it their own event.
Now he has to bring IndyCars into battle with NASCAR, a thriving organization that dominates the nation's auto racing talk.
Bernard, on a couple of occasions while talking with reporters, called IndyCar drivers "the best drivers in the world." That kind of talk can make Earnhardt Nation bristle a little bit, but it's easy to see Bernard's point.
While NASCAR is primarily an oval sport, the IndyCar Series -- once a fully-oval schedule when it was the Indy Racing League in its infancy -- has a balance of ovals and road courses.
One of the first things Bernard did was put together additional championships. Besides an overall season championship, there's going to be a separate oval champion and a road-course champion.
"We give them equal weight," he said. "You look at the series -- we go from (the road course) at St. Petersburg, the road course at Barber (Motorsports Park in Alabama), then to the Indianapolis 500 and then here. That shows the versatility of these cars, it shows the versatility of the drivers. That's what we want to emphasize."
What's coming in the next few weeks, though, will shape the future of the sport. At the end of the month, a decision will be made on the new chassis to be used beginning in the 2012 season. Some of the designs are similar to what is used now, one looks like a car Batman would drive.
Bernard has heard the fan feedback.
"Oh yeah," he said. "But I really want to hear what the fans think. Whether you love one or hate one, that's how it should be. And we're interested in what they think."
Bernard is interested because the only way to grow open-wheel racing is to draw the fans.
He did that with cowboys who ride bulls. Now he has to do it with drivers who might be behind the wheel of something that looks like a car that a superhero would drive.
He was asked if there would be more tracks like Iowa Speedway on the schedule.
"Our fans have indicated they want that," he said. "So ... stay tuned."
Given Bernard's track record of turning things around, staying tuned might be the wise choice.
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