IndyCar fans still waiting for Randy Bernard to work magic

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It’s been four months since Randy Bernard took over as CEO of the IndyCar Series. So it’s not too early to start grading his performance.

So far, I’d say Bernard gets a C, and depending on who you talk to, you could put a + or a – on the back end of that.

Bernard hasn’t been sensational just yet, but he hasn’t made any major blunders either, despite some serious heat from the likes of Honda and others to make hasty decisions on the series’ future.

What has Bernard accomplished?

First, he formed the ICONIC committee to help him figure out a path for the future. While it’s the world’s worst acronym (It’s so arcane I won’t go into what it stands for), it’s a smart move for this newcomer to bring in some additional brain power to go with his own marketing know-how and fresh approach. Besides, it shows he plays well with others and is willing to listen.

He unveiled a plan to crown an IndyCar oval and road champ. He added races in New Hampshire and Baltimore to attract more fans from the population dense Northeast and is flirting with Detroit among other markets to add races there.

Bernard came up with the $20 million Indianapolis 500 – Coca-Cola 600 challenge, trying to lure NASCAR drivers to Indianapolis. Unfortunately, the challenge hasn’t gotten much interest from NASCAR drivers, and I think the part of the plan to move the race to 11 a.m. (hardly prime-time) is a mistake.

It usually doesn’t get marked down in the progress column, but you can’t play down the work Bernard has done to placate current IndyCar Series partners like Honda—who want a decision on a future engine formula yesterday—and the likes of Izod and Apex who are not altogether pleased with declining attendance and television ratings.

Speaking of attendance and TV ratings, that leads to our list of things Bernard has not accomplished. In fairness, I’m not sure what you can expect in four months. But what the IndyCar series has gotten on those two fronts is essentially nothing—or worse yet, a little reverse movement. Unless there’s some foundation that has been poured for boosts during the back half of this season that I can’t see, Bernard deserves at least a little heat on the TV ratings and attendance fronts.

TV ratings for the Indianapolis 500 were 3.6, down 10 percent from 2009. That despite Helio Castroneves chasing a record-tying fourth Indy win and Danica Patrick fighting with her team and earning the wrath of the fans at Indianapolis. Only 4 million households tuned in nationwide, according to Nielsen Media Research, the lowest number since 1986. Some will argue that more are watching on the Web. And while that may be true, that explanation doesn’t sit well with series’ TV and sponsor partners.

It’s no secret either that live race attendance isn’t what the series would like to see. Earlier this month in Iowa, the crowd was especially sparse. And please, no more excuses. I’ve heard it all from the weather to World Cup Soccer. No more!

Series officials are crossing their fingers that things will improve at Watkins Glen July 4 and Toronto July 18. The importance of these next two races can’t be overemphasized. Both have been strong markets for open-wheel racing in the past and both races are on ABC.

There are three other major things Bernard hasn’t managed to accomplish in his first four months.

He hasn’t signed any major new sponsorship deals. I know these deals take time to consummate, but what this shows me is that there are no corporate properties out there so blown away by Bernard’s mere entrance into the open-wheel world, they’re willing to bet on this guy to succeed. There’s certainly a healthy dose of skepticism among sports marketers about Bernard's ability to turn this property around.

Bernard hasn’t raised any of the racers’ profiles. Not at least that I can tell. In fact, I don’t see much proof of a game plan for that. But again, maybe there’s a foundation being poured out behind their strip mall office in Speedway that I don’t know about. In any event, Bernard’s ability to lift the profile of these drivers will be a pivotal part of his success or failure.

And most critically, Bernard has failed to create any real buzz for the series. His road and oval championship announcement, his $20 million challenge, his committee formation and any other initiative I might be overlooking has gained little to no traction with the main stream media or sports fans. This is a guy who put a bull up in a luxury hotel to create buzz for the Professional Bull Riders circuit. I expected more sizzle from Bernard. I’ve been left waiting, and I’m not alone.

Luckily, for Bernard, there’s still time.

ABC and ESPN are in the second year of a four-year deal to air IndyCar races with no intention, according to network officials, of exiting early. Versus too appears committed.

Izod is in the first year of a six-year deal, and Apex also has a multi-year deal, with plans to increase its participation in future years. In May, series officials announced Sunoco, APEX-Brasil and UNICA, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, will team up to provide the series' 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol. Bernard said more deals could be announced soon. But rest assured, those sponsors have outs in their contracts if attendance and TV ratings don't hit certain marks. Sponsors are talking nice now, but that can change faster than the mood of a bull on a steroid bender.

Bernard knows he needs more fans and new sponsors to reach his goal of making this series profitable.

If he’s able to climb that considerable challenge, he could bump his score up a letter grade or two. But if Bernard falls flat, he will be branded a failure—and the series along with him.

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