Wow, I go on vacation for a little over a week, and it seems like just about everything that could happen to IndyCar racing does happen.
The Indianapolis 500 produces one of its best races in recent memory and television ratings and revenue go up, gasp, all while Danica Patrick is racing in NASCAR.
All is rosy, right? Wrong.
IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard steals the spotlight—or at least shifts its location—with one of the most ill-timed tweets in the history of the sport, moving the focus from a great race to an overblown owners revolt.
Then IndyCar puts on one of its worst shows in recent history with its track-crumbling display in Detroit, which cost the series valuable exposure on network TV. When repairs to the track red-flagged the race for two hours, the race was shuffled from ABC to the ESPN News channel deep on the cable dial.
While the series hopes to leave its problems behind with a race this weekend in Texas, it now can’t. Whispers have surfaced that a race set for August 19 in China is on the rocks.
It’s difficult to say how much of the series’challenges are Bernard’s fault. But there are some things we do know. Bernard has lifted sponsorship numbers and done much to promote the series. He’s ushered in a new engine and chassis program and brought in new suppliers—which in turn promote the series. And there have been other positive developments under Bernard's watch.
He’s also come up short in keeping expenses down for teams. If Bernard is going to be credited for bringing Chevy into the series he also has to take responsibility for the Lotus mess. The effort to usher aero kits into the series has been anything but smooth. Bernard has brought in more than one race promoter with less than stellar financials.
You could spend all day picking Bernard and his decisions apart. The same could be said for just about any CEO in sports or otherwise.
We also know this: Bernard is roughly at the half-way mark of his five-year contract. I imagine there will be an earnest discussion about his future with IndyCar following this season.
But who will lead that discussion? Who will have the most influence in deciding whether Bernard will be retained or fired?
We know it won’t be IndyCar Series team owners. They may have an opportunity for their opinion to be known, but their days as puppet masters died with CART and Champ Car.
I think the answer might surprise quite a few people in racing.
Bernard a couple weeks ago said he answers to the board of directors. That’s only partially right.
Bernard reports to Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus. And that’s who will most likely determine his future.
It’s been explained to me more than once by IMS higher-ups, including Belskus himself, that Bernard answers to Belskus.
Was Bernard hand-picked by a particular Hulman-George family and board member? Yes. But things have changed since Bernard’s hiring.
Don’t let Belskus’ low profile fool you. He has plenty of sway in IMS and IndyCar matters. While Bernard technically reports both to the board and Belskus, the IMS boss is much more likely to influence the board than Bernard when it comes to overarching issues that are likely to affect the cash-cow track. And the series' future health has major ramifications on the track's financials.
Remember, in the three years since Belskus was tabbed to replace Tony George as Speedway CEO, he has made a number of savvy moves and further gained the trust of the Hulman-George family. He’s increased sponsorship and revenue for the Indianapolis 500.
He’s made bold moves to improve the revenue stream for the struggling Brickyard 400. He’s been willing to cut costs at IMS that his predecessor would not, and as a result, the ledger improved significantly. This year Belskus, who was the track’s long-time chief financial officer before ascending to CEO, was paid the ultimate compliment by the owners of the tightly-held Hulman-George company. He was added to its board of directors.
Tony George, also a board member, might not love him because Belskus, his long-time friend, took his job. But, rest assured, the other board members do.
It was Belskus, not the board of directors, who decided to put ads on the track’s walls for the first time, as well as on the infield grass and other virgin territories. The board has given Belskus broad directives to increase revenue and cut expenses and the latitude to make that happen.
And, I believe, Belskus has been given the power to determine Bernard’s fate. And more importantly, he’s been given the power to determine IndyCar’s future.