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.
DM: What would you say you've learned from this season? Presumably, “Don't announce a race in China before a mayoral election” and, “Don't rely on Lotus.”
RB: In the case of the Chinese race, we'd been working on it for three and a half years, and couldn't have foreseen a new mayor coming in and flatly saying “no” to the race.
As for Lotus, the timing of them being taken over was massively unfortunate because it froze their assets at a time when Judd needed to invest and make the most of it. When the engine turned out to be behind the eight-ball, they released three of the teams from their contract and I sympathized with those teams because they had commitments to sponsors and didn't want to be stuck at the back all season.
DM: Was it important that you had three manufacturers in there? Were you pleased that HVM Racing continued with the Lotus unit?
RB: I think that HVM, Entergy and Simona [de Silvestro] showed remarkable loyalty in the face of adversity. I feel very sorry for them; they deserved better.
DM: The schedule for 2013: have you decided on double-headers, etc.
RB: My goal is to have 19 races. It's imperative that we build the exposure and the brand of our series and get more eyeballs on it. I would like to see us try a few double-headers. We've talked to drivers, team owners, sponsors, OEMs, promoters about this and invited them all to try and poke holes in the idea or offer us constructive criticism on how to better it, and we've taken their advice on board.
Right now, we have a pretty stout plan to try a couple of double-headers, and there are promoters out there who like the idea and who think it would really bring value to their race weekends. And it works for fans, too, in terms of value for money per distance traveled. If I'm a fan in Indiana who gets to see one other event other than the 500, I'm going to choose the one where I get to see two races. It won't be the same price as a ticket for just one race, but there will be a special deal for those who want to see both.
DM: And what will the ratio be for ovals to road/street courses next year? As long as the power/downforce levels are like Texas again, presumably a lot more ovals are available to you now, because you know it won't turn into a stupid pack race where the best engineers win rather than the best drivers.
RB: Well you're right to highlight Texas because there was so much division about whether we should race there because of the potential for pack racing. And Will Phillips and his team did a remarkable job of working on the aero package to make sure it was a car that needed to be properly driven and we had ourselves a fast but not unnecessarily dangerous race. We saw how the good drivers liked it, how the fans liked it, and I hope to see that the tech team does a similar job on the Fontana package.
In answer to your question, you will see another oval on the schedule next year.
RB: Maybe! It's not a done deal, but we're really shooting for that. I'm really trying to ensure that tradition plays a big part in the IZOD IndyCar Series. We saw great attendance or attendance improvement at all of our races this year. Fontana is our biggest concern, but we knew that going in, so we've been realistic and actually, you'll see a decent crowd there; we're exactly where we targeted it to in our first year back and the team out there has worked really hard. We need to build a fan base there and give it a chance to improve over three years.
You see, as soon as you start building tradition, you establish it as a go-to event. That's how Long Beach worked, and I believe that's how Baltimore and Sao Paulo could work too. I remember my first two years at PBR [Professional Bull Riders], there were events where you could shoot a cannon into the stands and not hit a fan…even with flying debris! And our guys would say, “Why are we going to these big, empty venues?” but what we were building was equity, tradition, and it turned around and became a success.
Milwaukee this year saw crowd numbers go up compared with last year, and they will go up again next year.
DM: With the sports car merger in 2014, do you foresee more or fewer double-headers with….Grand-ALMS or whatever the merged series is going to be called?
RB: Good question. I don't know enough about it to know all the dynamics involved, but I think it should be a positive. We've worked well with sports car bodies because we each bring different types of fans and different demographics to an event and they've been successful weekends. So I hope we'll continue to work together with the merged series.
DM: What's the situation with you, the team owners and the IMS board? Do you feel your future is secure heading into the off season?
RB: I have a contract, and I believe I have the backing of the board. I am working on a new business plan which I am very excited about for the future. If you look back at everything that's been done over the past couple years, it was to try and halt problems and reverse trends, stop the issues that were hurting IndyCar, say, four years ago. Now we have to take it to the next step.
It's really important that we focus on selling ourselves as the fastest and most versatile series in the world that offers the most exciting racing in North America. We must maximize what we have in North America and Brazil and not worry about international races. Our Brazil partners and our Canadian partners are fantastic, but going looking for European countries who may or may not want us? That should not be on our agenda.
But I suppose if a promoter approached us with a $20m offer to race on the other side of the world, I'd be proud to make a liar of myself!