Commentary

Bernard charged with restoring IRL

Updated: May 28, 2010, 1:52 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- You might not have heard of Randy Bernard, but if he is up to his task -- which is mountainous -- the name should resonate more than Danica Patrick, more than any American Idol, more than any Dancer with the Stars. Donald Trump should apprentice to him.

He could wind up rated alongside Pete Rozelle and David Stern, men whose jobs, though monumental, were relatively easy -- revitalizing the NFL and NBA.

Randy Bernard, you see, has been charged with digging out of the deepest hole any American sport has ever gotten itself into.

The man anointed to redeem IndyCar racing will see his first Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

His motor racing background?

[+] EnlargeRandy Bernard
AP Photo/Butch DillRandy Bernard comes to motorsports after a succesful stint overseeing Professional Bull Riders to prominence.

"Zero," the new CEO of the Indy Racing League, the replacement for the fallen Indy heir Tony George, told a curious German journalist here Thursday. "Absolutely zero."

That's scary in a way. But when you think about it, Bernard couldn't possibly screw up American open-wheel racing any worse than the experts have.

Bernard, 43, is a blank sheet of paper rapidly filling himself with volumes.

"He's taking it slow and fast," Patrick said of the man who'll take the IndyCar marketing burden, get it off her back. "He wants to get all the information he can, but I believe he's going to make the right decisions when the time is right."

His résumé is all about taking one branch of rodeo -- rodeo, mind you -- uptown and onto mainstream television. In his 15 years as CEO of Professional Bull Riders, sponsorship revenue and scheduled events both increased more than 50-fold, to more than $25 million and more than 400 events, respectively.

Soon into this racing job, in March, "My wife asked me, 'What do you think?'" he said. "I said it would be like them telling me I'm going to Japan next week, and I have to learn Japanese, and I have to become a professional teacher when I get there."

Well, Japanese businessmen traditionally speak in what they call "belly talk," artfully noncommittal, and Bernard has mastered that.

Ask about the new cars he must ultimately choose by 2012, to replace the tired "spec" cars that have drawn no public imagination to IndyCar, and he defers to the advisory committee of owners and promoters.

Ask whether the traditional midget car and sprint car circuits can be restored into the ladder system toward Indy -- those series are now churning out NASCAR drivers -- and he says, "The great thing about being so new to this sport is that I can look at everything and ask many questions, and hopefully develop my own opinion. I haven't formulated an opinion on that, though."

He does go beyond belly talk on the crucial issue of resolving IndyCar's dearth of American drivers, the best of which have streamed steadily into NASCAR for nearly 20 years.

"I'm a firm believer that the credibility of this sport has to start with creating a very credible ladder system," he said. "I think we need to take it one step further and create a grassroots program with karting."

And now he kicks in with the rapidly learned information: "There's 80,000 karters in the U.S., with over 300 tracks, with 25 percent of those under the age of 21.

"Helio [Castroneves, who Sunday will be going for a fourth Indy 500 win] and Danica have to become heroes to those young kids in order for them to want to come up."

"Bloody good; really good," were the first impressions for Bernard of Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 winner who is arguably the male IRL driver best known to the mainstream, because he is married to actress Ashley Judd.

Dario Franchitti
Brian Spurlock/USPresswireDario Franchitti has seen racing czars come and go, and he says he likes what he sees from Randy Bernard.

"Due to my time in CART [with its several all-business, nonracing CEOs], I was kind of skeptical because there'd been a few bosses coming through there with the same story," Franchitti said. "The first time I met Randy, I thought, 'This guy's different from anything I've seen.' He seems to be driven.

"He asked me a couple of questions, and I told him what I thought, and he went away and did his research and then implemented what I talked about."

No commentator has been more critical of the misdeeds in open-wheel racing -- or more controversial for it -- for the past 20 years than Robin Miller, longtime columnist for the Indianapolis Star, now with SPEEDTV.com.

There would be no fluff and puff from Miller, I figured when I phoned my friend and colleague of 35 years.

"He's the brightest ray of hope I've seen around here in 20 years," Miller said. "When I met the guy, he asked more intelligent questions about racing and made more common sense in two hours than any of the CEOs in the last 20 years -- I'm talking about CART, IRL, USAC."

In Indy cars, "We've never had a Bernie [Ecclestone, czar of Formula One] or a Bill France [the late czar of NASCAR], and that's why we're stuck in the 1950s," Miller said, implying he thinks Bernard can be one of those.

Ecclestone's task from the outset is the most analogous. He pulled -- yanked, drove, steamrollered -- Formula One out of doldrums and chaos into world supremacy.

But my first impressions of Bernard leave me doubting he can, or wants to be, anywhere near that ruthless and calculating. Yet he'll have to be, if he wants to drag IndyCar out of this chasm and restore it to where it was -- alongside, or above, NASCAR in national prestige and interest -- before the great open-wheel civil war of 1996-2008.

His task, in conjunction with new major series title sponsor Izod, is to regain or replace what Izod executives reckon to be 30 million to 40 million fans lost during the IRL-CART wars.

"Whether all his decisions are gonna be right, or whether some of them are gonna be wrong, who knows?" said Indy fixture Bobby Unser, a three-time winner of the 500.

"But [Indy car racing] has to change from what it is," Unser continued. "Having a spec series is nooooo good. Until you get that done [fixed with new and innovative cars], you won't start bringing the crowds back. Talk won't do it. It has to be real."

Mike Kelly, Izod executive vice president of marketing, acknowledges that Indy "has not been a strong destination for some years now. Maybe a decade."

Helio Castroneves We just have to keep believing and giving him a chance, because no question, in years to come, Indy is going to be where it used to be.

-- Helio Castroneves

Try 14 years, since the powerful and glamorous CART teams began the boycott that would lead to their downfall and the enfeeblement of the Indy 500 itself.

"This sport's been dim -- I won't call it dark," Kelly said. "It's almost like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. There was a break, the egg fell apart, and with reunification, somehow [Indy traditionalists thought] that egg would be put back together.

"We think, 'No, times have changed ... what this requires is a new egg,' which requires some new thinking. I'm speaking from a marketing point of view, not in terms of operations."

So now the IRL starts over completely, as a new egg -- still very fragile -- with a blank sheet of paper at the helm.

"I came in very open," Bernard said. "I wasn't sure how difficult it was going to be."

But he saw the most important thing clearly:

"I did believe the demise started when the split happened. There's no question about it. And the reunification was only two years ago.

"I don't think there's been a great education, or people understand or really care, that there's been a reunification. Because when they split, they split.

"And I think now we have to reinvent ... and attract our fan base back."

"When a guy goes from bull riding to racing, you know it's a big change," Castroneves said. "We just have to keep believing and giving him a chance, because no question, in years to come, Indy is going to be where it used to be."

Should he accomplish that, Randy Bernard would immediately be a titan of American sports business history.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.