With this weekend's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway serving as the last race of the 2012 season, RACER Editor David Malsher talks to IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard on the successes, challenges and direction of the series.
DM: What are your thoughts regarding the quality of IndyCar racing this year?
RB: I think it's been tremendous and a real endorsement of Dallara, of Will Phillips and of our drivers and teams. We've had great racing – the number of changes of leader and passes on track on all types of circuit is up by a huge percentage. If you mean the series as a whole, I'd say we've had a mediocre year – a great car, great racing and the credibility of our great drivers has gone up … but our downfall is still our cable TV ratings. I want more people to see how great our product is and so bring even more value to the sponsors and the manufacturers.
DM: Are you pleased that IndyCar is guaranteed a new champion, or would you have been OK with Dario Franchitti winning his fifth?
RB: I think Dario has been and continues to be a great ambassador for the sport, but it adds a great deal of credibility to our drivers when a four-time champion and three-time Indy 500 winner finally gets beaten. That's a story right there: the king has been dethroned…although he's still the Indy 500 champion. I think it's exciting for the fans.
DM: Would Will Power make a worthy IndyCar champion?
RB: Absolutely, he'd make a great champion, and I think a lot of people are rooting for him after the past two years of heartbreak. And I think he'd win a lot of people over if we get him more exposure: he's a very funny guy behind the very serious and professional outlook that you usually see from him. There's a lot of character there and I'd love for us to be able to show that off.
DM: And Ryan Hunter-Reay?
RB: He too would make a great ambassador for us, the all-American kid who's finally hitting his stride in his 30s after years of struggle and who has helped to raise his team's level to true front runner. Great job. Basically Ryan and Will are both very promotable and I have no worries about either of them being able to promote us to a wider audience.
DM: Is having an American champion important to IndyCar?
RB: Hmm…it may be helpful. But Penske is a very American-based brand, and I think the story of Roger having his first champion in six years is interesting, too. In fact, when was the last time an American won a unified Indy car racing series? It was Al Unser Jr. in 1994 – with Penske. So next Saturday we'll have a story: either the first time an American has won the unified series in 18 years, or the first time Penske has won the unified series in 18 years.
Anyway, I have always said that I want the best drivers in our series, and I've always backed away from someone who tries to sell himself just based on being American. I want great American drivers competing against great drivers from around the world. That's what Indy car racing used to have and I believe it's getting back there. What's important is to bring American drivers through the Mazda Road to Indy system and give them road racing experience. If they're only able to compete on ovals, they're not going to thrive in IndyCar.
DM: Right. Which brings me neatly onto another topic: Indy Lights currently has four decent drivers and a bunch of mediocrity, and a lineup that changes at pretty much every event. There needs to be more than just a new car here.
RB: I couldn't agree more and there will be a major rethink that coincides with the new car's arrival in 2014, otherwise IndyCar team owners are just going to try and get GP2 drivers, who have far more road racing experience and have been in the heat of really close competition. We must stop that and show that we can cultivate homegrown talent and take them all the way from junior single-seaters to the top and there compete with the best that Europe has to offer.
DM: Going back to IndyCar, do you feel that the manufacturers have activated enough this year?
RB: I think Honda has been very good, obviously after years of practice. I think we should sit down with Chevrolet and discuss how we can offer each other greater promotion – what we can do to help them and they to help us. I read that story you wrote and I think you're right – we need to make a far bigger deal of the competition between manufacturers. That not only keeps the current OEMs happy, it attracts others. And for the same reason, we absolutely must go to bodykits in 2014; it differentiates the manufacturers, gives them another marketing tool, gives us another marketing tool.
DM: I agree but considering this dispute about costs...
RB: Well, I don't believe that the dispute was all about the price of Dallara parts. After all, it's only a delta of $76,000 from the numbers the team owners gave us. I believe the underlying issue is teams wanting to make their own parts. That wouldn't save money: It would have made things more expensive because they'd have spent countless dollars on development. And for what? For a new upright, or a new wishbone – something that I couldn't appreciate, you couldn't appreciate, almost every fan couldn't appreciate. No one sitting in the grandstands wants to see the best-funded team leave the lesser-funded team behind because he's got a better-developed suspension part, or whatever.
The technology in the sport and the differences between teams need to be things visible, understood and appreciated, be it because they have better drivers, better pit stops, better strategies, and so on. Otherwise all that happens is that the big teams leave the smaller ones behind but with no explanation, which is what we had with the old car: it was spec racing but the cars weren't truly spec, because the tech regs had been too loose and inconsistently applied for too long.