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.