On the eve of his State of IndyCar address, series CEO Randy Bernard talked with RACER editor David Malsher about some of the major topics brewing in the IZOD IndyCar Series right now.
DM: It's caused a lot of controversy, so tell us, how were the Leader Circle allocations decided this year?
RB: We said from the start that the top 22 in points last year would qualify. So, at the end of the year, those 22 were guaranteed a slot. When Newman/Haas Racing decided to throw in the towel, we decided that, with interest in the series meaning we might have 28-29 cars, what we'll do with those other two Leader Circle slots, will be to invite all teams to tell us why we should choose them – what are they going to do for the series to bring fans in? Why do they deserve that $1.1m? And they came back with some compelling stories and information. Jay Penske promised 50 million impressions from all his Internet websites committing to IndyCar. His presentation was head and shoulders above everyone else's. And then Ed Carpenter came in with a sponsor that was committed to creating four-week, three-week and two-week marketing strategies in every IndyCar market to help the promoters sell tickets as well as helping us with other areas of promotion. Then we considered also that Sebastien Bourdais is a hell of a driver who deserves to be in the series, and Ed Carpenter won a race last year. So those were the two we chose.
But after that, Lotus DRR [formerly Dreyer & Reinbold Racing] and Andretti Autosport told us they were going to give back one Leader Circle each as they cut a car from their lineups. So we've interviewed everyone – Jay Penske wanted another one, as did Ganassi, and then there was Bryan Herta, Michael Shank (Alex Tagliani at Herta and Paul Tracy, potentially at Shank, BELOW, RIGHT), Eric Bachelart and Bobby Rahal. But they were so on a par, we didn't feel it was fair to, for example, choose Herta and Rahal over Ganassi and Shank. It was too close to call, it would get political – and it shouldn't be about politics. So if no one was head and shoulders above the others, how do we make it fair for everybody? OK, we could have just taken that $2.2m and put it into our bottom line, because we don't owe anybody anything, but we said “Let's put it into prize money.”
So there are five places for non-Leader Circle entrants eligible for payouts in each race aside from the Indianapolis 500. The highest finishing non-Leader Circle entrant will get $80,000 through to the fifth non-Leader Circle car getting $26,000. Then, additionally, all entrants in the starting field get bonuses of $35,000 for first place, $25,000 for second, $20,000 for third, $15,000 for fourth and $10,000 for fifth place at each race [not including the Indy 500]. So if you finish first of non-Leader Circle cars, you can do a lot better than you could from the Leader Circle program, and come in second all the time and get the equivalent of a Leader Circle. So I think that what we did was the best thing for the sport going forward because it's created another storyline. Paul Tracy is a great driver, so if he's good enough and Michael Shank Racing is good enough, then they'll win a lot of money.
DM: Why have the Leader Circle scheme at all? Why not scrap the scheme and use the money to substantially boost the prize fund for each and every race? The rich would get richer but so would the poor. Wouldn't that encourage teams to a) start the season and then accrue further funding by doing well and you'd have a race-by-race meritocracy?
RB: Right, and I think that may be the way to go. If you're not prepared to race for success and its rewards, what are you in the series for? Are you in it to make a profit or are you in it to win? I read Eric Bachelart's comments about how he's been loyal to IndyCar racing for 16 years, but to my mind, there are two things he should be saying to himself right now: 1) “Am I in IndyCar to win?” and 2) “If I am and I'm not in the top 22, then I have a problem.” And if he's in it just to make money, then I have a problem with it. We're not just about making money: we have to create a great product and show credibility to our fans.
DM: What's the situation with the engine contracts? Six weeks to go before the first race, and there's been nothing confirmed engine-wise from Ed Carpenter Racing, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Michael Shank Racing or Conquest Racing.
RB: The biggest problem was last summer, when the OEMs got together with the IndyCar Series and we sat down to determine the rules together. We asked, “What's in the best interest of the series?” We thought there would be 25 or 26 cars in the field this year, and in the contracts with the OEMs, it said they would have to supply up to 40 percent of the field. So at that point, they built into their financial plans for 10 engine supplies. Then, all of a sudden, we start seeing the influx of interest in December, they were asking – quite rightly – “OK, how much of this is real, and how much are these teams all chasing the same sponsors? Are we going to be left holding the bag on this if we build too many engines?” And, let's not forget, they hadn't started testing so they weren't yet knowledgeable about what was working and what wasn't. Naturally, they were very nervous about building enough parts to supply 12 cars but parts that might be scrap if their engine development programs led them in a new direction mid-test.
So, while it was an incredible compliment that we had so many teams wanting to be in, I also understand the OEMs. It's not their fault. Now, Lotus is supposed to provide up to 40 percent, too, but because their program started later than the others, they have been honest and said that supplying 40 percent of the teams might not be possible until the Indy 500.
However, I think you can be confident that both Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher will have engine contracts in place soon.
DM: Looking further ahead to maybe 2014 or '15 – would you envisage there being another manufacturer joining?
RB: I wouldn't rule out anything. We're always trying.
DM: There have been hopes expressed – not founded on much, I suppose, just hope – that Fiat-Chrysler would want to get involved on the back of Fiat and, longer term, Alfa Romeo, re-entering the U.S. road car market. Obviously, you'd welcome that but do you see it as a possibility?
RB: I've met with Sergio Marchionne and Harold Wester and I wouldn't say it's a top priority in their racing program right now but, again, I'll never give up.
DM: Have you found that now that three manufacturers are in, it's harder to persuade a new manufacturer in because three rivals have gotten a head start, or is it easier because they see a good thing going on – the package is working, it's getting publicity, etc.?
RB: That's the exact question we need to ask ourselves this coming September, because if we do our jobs and grow our sport and potential new OEMs can see a significant amount of value to being part of the series, I think that will tip the scale toward them wanting to join us.
DM: In the fallout following Dan Wheldon's death, what extra precautions have been taken regarding the cars and the tracks?
RB: We had a meeting with the drivers a couple weeks after Vegas, and we asked them about their concerns. So we've instilled a new track inspection policy with the promoters and IndyCar as well as with the drivers. We've met with engineers and discussed what we can do short-term and long-term with our current formula on the 1.5-mile banked ovals. We created a new track-condition radio built into the new cars, so Race Control and officials, individual entrants or the entire field can communicate track conditions, warnings or other information. The yellow light will be in a consistent place in all cars. We've brought in Instant Messaging. We're evaluating the driver qualification credentials and we're evaluating whether we need to bring in a spotter's qualification. We've also had our track safety team meet with some of the drivers to help them understand what we're trying to do, so they're more knowledgeable about them. And we're creating a single head-surround mounting that is consistent – in the past there have been seven or eight.
DM: Obviously, the running on ovals has been one of the reasons Rubens Barrichello may not enter the series. Do you consider it a priority to get him on the grid this year?
RB: I think Rubens would bring a huge amount of credibility to our branch of the sport. Some have asked, “What if he wins?” and I think that's fine, because I've heard other drivers say how great it would be to have him in the series. Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, and so on – they're licking their chops to have Rubens in the series because it will show the quality of their driving, too. They know he's good, they know he can win, but they know they're good and they're going to win, too.
DM: But would you be prepared to massage certain deals to make sure that Barrichello does have the funding to join IndyCar?
RB: I think the job of a sanctioning body is to be there to help. If Rubens needed me to go and meet with his sponsors and educate them about IndyCar, I'd be on a plane to Brazil tomorrow. But I have to be very careful. We're paying out $39m this year – a significant amount of prize money in my book. We have to maintain that IndyCar stands on its own, so though I'd do anything I can to help him, I certainly can't guarantee any type of contribution.
DM: You've taken a very hard line on ovals – if they're not economically viable, they won't be on the schedule. What's going to work for Milwaukee this year that didn't work last year?
RB: There are no guarantees. But Michael Andretti and John Lopes will be great promoters and I believe a 12:30pm start time on Saturday is good. There's been a lot of press about Milwaukee and I think a lot of people understand that if they want it, it's going to have to be a successful event. The most important thing we must remember about Milwaukee is that it's such an ingrained part of IndyCar's legacy, and if we walked away from it again, it could be mothballed or become non-existent. I don't want to see that happen. We have to protect our heritage and give it every opportunity to succeed.
DM: Will you be doing special ticketing packages so that, for instance, if you buy a ticket for the Indy 500, you'll also get a ticket – or a discount – for Milwaukee?
RB: That's a Michael Andretti/John Lopes question. They have shared their ideas on how to promote it, and some of the ideas are very good. I'll stand behind them.
DM: What's the situation regarding Baltimore? Will that definitely be going ahead, as suggested by our story on RACER.com?
RB: Yes it will.
DM: And can it be made financially viable? It was such a huge success as an event last year, it would be terrible to lose it…
RB: Agreed. It still has tremendous potential. I walked around that event a lot last year and the fans were having a great time, and that type of event is part of the future of our sport. We want IndyCar to attract, create and feature the most versatile drivers in the world, so, as well as ovals, we need road courses and also street races. And we need to keep the best of all those, and keep that appeal to a broad demographic.
DM: Is China definitely happening? As soon as a calendar features a new flyaway event on a temporary circuit, I'm afraid Champ Car taught us to be very skeptical about it actually happening until we saw a pack of cars take the green flag.
RB: Tony Cotman was over there two weeks ago and he came back saying that things were going ahead just as planned. So I'm confident we have our 16-race calendar.
DM: So Fontana will definitely be the IndyCar finale this year. Mid-September is very early in the year to be concluding your season – two months before NASCAR's finale, and more than that before Formula 1's.
RB: I think putting more races back to back will only help us with our ratings. When we've had races every other weekend, we've lost a lot of momentum. After Toronto last year, there was tremendous buzz and excitement, but in Edmonton two weeks later, although that was still one of the highest viewing figures for a race on Versus [now the NBC Sports Network], we still didn't capture all the energy we could have if Edmonton had been the weekend after Toronto. So I think tightening our schedule – we now have five races back to back and a couple months later we have three more back to back – is a good thing. And I think the fewer events that have to go up against the NFL is a good thing.
DM: OK, but surely whatever momentum builds up this year, in what should be the most intriguing season in a decade, will disappear in an elongated off-season? Or are you planning an earlier start to the 2013 season?
RB: Well, to address the first part of the question, I believe that this off-season there has been a lot of talk about the series, we've seen a lot of things happening, and this time next year there will have been a similar amount of excitement with the aero kits. I think we'll keep the momentum. Will we look at next season starting earlier? I think we're always evaluating opportunities and we can't rule that out.
DM: But still, NASCAR and Formula 1 will be ending a lot later than IndyCar this year, and one of the seven F1 races that's held after the IndyCar finale will be in America. Was it a deliberate ploy to not compete against the publicity of the Austin F1 race?
RB: It wasn't deliberate and I'm still a big believer that F1 neither helps us nor hurts us. I think it's been proven that F1 doesn't have a big following in the U.S.
DM: Will there be progression of the TV package, including internationally?
RB: We saw tremendous growth in viewership internationally last year and that's great, but we don't want to take our eye off what we're doing here in the U.S. I have to be optimistic about what NBC Sports Network can do for us, but I want to see it. They've had a fairly good start – they gave us a couple of fairly good mentions in the Super Bowl and that's slight but better than nothing – so I think we can make some progress.
DM: As you'll have noticed, it's the fans watching the races on TV who are the most vocal. The ones at the track are always a little more forgiving because they're enjoying the event. Now, given the nature of many of the tracks IndyCar goes to – street courses, some of which are quite narrow, and natural road courses that only have a couple (at best) hard-braking zones for potential passing maneuvers – are you confident that the changes Beaux Barfield made regarding what's allowed as blocking won't turn the races into processions? The purist in me says that a driver defending by going to the inside line – so long as he adopts it before the braking zone, and doesn't weave – should be allowed to do so; Beaux's restored common sense to the rulebook, because a racer's instinct is to protect his position rather than step aside and say “After you, sir.” But the major flip-side is, had defensive driving of that nature been legitimate last year, there would have been far less passing. Are you OK with that?
RB: Obviously, you can go into that discussion with Beaux at the State of IndyCar conference on Tuesday, but I brought in Beaux to run Race Control and I have to give him every opportunity to succeed. I'll back his decisions and I'm confident that he'll make the right ones.
DM: I don't want to pre-empt your state of the nation address on Monday, but would you say IndyCar is where you projected it being this time last year?
RB: Yes. If you go back and look at the notes of our goals this time last year, and you see the progress we made in the ensuing 12 months, we hit almost every goal. We don't regard that as a “Hey, look at us.” It's just a steppingstone and it's now more important that we hit this year's goals. We have a solid marketing plan and believe we'll see great growth this year. Last year, everyone said it would be a lame-duck year with an 8-year-old spec car, and we saw a 28-percent increase in our TV ratings. I think this year, with three engine manufacturers, a new car and improved depth in quality of the driver lineup, I think we have a very exciting season ahead.