IndyCar CEO, team owners not on same page

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IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard has done some good things in his second year as the head of the open-wheel series. His insistence on double-file re-starts and the overall success of the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix are among his biggest 2011 victories.

But arguably his biggest gamble—a bid to bring in an all-star cast to challenge IndyCar regulars at the season finale in Las Vegas—fell flat.

The idea gets an A, the execution gets an F. Trying to pass off 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon as an outside challenger for $5 million is a poor attempt to save a stunt gone wrong. Wheldon is a denizen of the IndyCar Series but doesn’t have a full-time ride this year.

The idea floated by Bernard was to bring in some of the best drivers from other series and offer them a pile of cash to take on the IndyCar drivers, which Bernard has been touting this year as the world’s best.

If Bernard had a do-over on this one, my guess is he might do a little more due diligence. The fact that two IndyCar team owners put the brakes on the promotion by not letting outside racing stars in their cars shows how disparate some of Bernard’s ideas are from the thinking of the owners in the series he leads.

Two-time CART champ Alex Zanardi was ready to enter in a Chip Ganassi car, and NASCAR star Kasey Kahne was prepared to jump in a Roger Penske-owned car, but neither of the owners wanted the distraction from the series championship. Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti and Penske’s Will Power are in a tight battle for the IndyCar title. The season-ending race in Las Vegas Oct. 16 will likely go a long way in deciding the series overall championship.

While I understand the need to win, I wonder about the wisdom of Ganassi and Penske’s decision not to field the willing newcomers.

While Bernard has inched up television ratings and attendance this year, the series is still in bad need of a jump start. And while I wouldn’t advocate a circus-like atmosphere, it’s difficult to imagine that Penske, Ganassi and Bernard couldn’t have put together something for the Las Vegas challenge that wouldn’t have been too big of a distraction for those two team’s primary drivers.

I have to believe that team sponsors would love anything that brings more viewers. Wheldon circling the oval in Las Vegas won’t do much to spark interest, even if the series is offering half his bonus to a fan in the stands. Here’s hoping that drawing goes better than the drawing for starting spots in Texas.

It should be noted that Bernard’s other top choice for the Las Vegas challenge, action-sports star Travis Pastrana, intended to compete until breaking his foot in the X Games in late July. But less face it: It was going to take a top NASCAR or Formula One driver to gain any serious publicity. And since securing a good F1 driver—even a recently retired one—would be next to impossible, Bernard’s big hope had to rest with landing a big-name good old boy or two. He should have had that commitment nailed down, along with cooperation from IndyCar team owners, before launching the doomed promotion.

Since Bernard has a history of being a top-rate promoter, I expect him to have solid, creative ideas. But to be an effective CEO and to grow the open-wheel enterprise, his execution has to be better.

Heading into 2012, when the new chassis and engine formulas are set to debut, there's no better time for Bernard to improve his own track record. If he's not able to do that, I suspect it might not be too long before he's back to the bullring.

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