In the world of Randy Bernard, the former head of the Pro Bull Riders circuit, there are no sacred cows. That’s because the IndyCar Series CEO can’t afford any.
In the wake of the July 4 Watkins Glen race, there’s talk that the open-wheel series may not return to the historic New York venue. I don’t think that’s a hollow threat from Bernard and his posse. I think it’s a smart realization by Bernard about how much things have to change for the IndyCar series to be viable long-term.
I was surprised to hear from series sources that Bernard is seeking higher sanctioning fees for IndyCar races going forward. I pondered how he might make that demand. But after considering the state of the series, I realized, Bernard has no choice.
He needs partners that are all in, and this is why. The IndyCar Series isn’t like stick-and-ball sports that enjoy numerous hometown fan bases across the country. It’s more like a traveling circus (no disrespect meant), and its success depends on the promotion of the owners and operators of the venues it visits.
If track owners aren’t willing to get behind the IndyCar Series 100 percent, Bernard can no longer afford to keep them on the slate, no matter how historic, or beloved by the racers or teams or the media.
Watkins Glen is a good example. The race drew a fair crowd last weekend, with lots of campers as usual. But it could have been better, and Bernard knows this. One of the chief complaints by IndyCar officials for several years is that Watkins Glen International doesn’t do enough to sell the event locally and regionally. That has to change.
And I know that there are team owners that are lobbying Bernard to put certain tracks on the slate for various reasons. In the end, I don't think Bernard makes those moves unless they make very good financial sense for the series.
Bernard knows that every single decision he makes has to be made with one thing in mind; gaining this series fans. From a business standpoint, that sounds like simple logic. But for far too long, this series has done things with team owners (and maybe sponsors) in mind first, with fans as an afterthought.
That’s the worst kind of wrong-headed logic. Even the part about putting sponsors’ interest before fans. Can’t do it. Won’t work. Hasn’t worked.
So when Bernard talks of increased sanctioning fees, his immediate concern isn’t cash into IndyCar Series coffers, although that demand will come. He’s looking for a commitment from track operators—financially, through manpower, whatever—to heavily promote the series and the local race in the weeks and months leading up to that event.
Simply put, Bernard needs to build the value of this enterprise’s properties. The IndyCar Series needs 17 or 18 strong races that have fan appeal and ticket-buying demand. That in turn, and it won’t happen overnight, will give him leverage to demand cash in addition to promotional muscle from track operators in the future.
Having committed track partners is the first baby step to building attendance and television ratings. And those are the numbers that will sell series and team sponsorships.
For many years, this series has operated under the false notion that the teams are the most important component of the series. Don’t get me wrong. The teams are important, but they’re not the singular element that will make this series go.
Series officials’ under Bernard’s leadership are realizing it’s the races that have to stand strong.
And everything else will follow.