Highlights from the teleconference with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard on his announcement of a $5 million bonus available to an “outsider” winning the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Regarding the $5 million challenge, who would you like to see take this challenge up?
“We want to see anyone who thinks that they are good enough to compete with our drivers. I think that we threw it out there with the belief saying that, first and foremost, we believe our drivers are the best drivers in the world. They are the fastest, most versatile racecar drivers in the world. We have to gain credibility for these drivers, and there's not a better way than to throw a challenge out like this.
A couple of years ago, nobody could have imagined this coming out of IndyCar – such an ambitious challenge like this being thrown out to drivers outside the series.
You touched on it just now, but can you talk about the ambition that comes with putting out something like this to everybody in the country, every driver in the country?
“Let me tell you something: [executive vp of marketing for Phillips‑Van Heusen] Mike Kelly and I feed off one another. It's our job to grow this. We have to think outside the box. We sat down and created our plan and our objective.
First of all, we defined our sport. We said that we are going to be known as the fastest, most versatile racecar drivers in the world, and I think that's very important. And the second thing; we are not going to run from danger. Our cars are fast, superspeedways, short tracks, road and street courses which shows the versatility, but let's not forget, these are some of the fastest cars in the world and we need to showcase that and what better way than to create a World Championship where we are really putting the money out there where our mouth is.”
It's been over a decade since IndyCar has come to Vegas and the last time, there were attendance problems (LEFT). With the track and SMI, what do you feel they have learned in the past decade since IndyCar has been in Vegas, and what do they have to do in order to make it succeed this time around?
“The last time they were here was during the split, and I promise you, if the NBA split tomorrow, they would have the same problems; or if the NFL split they would have problems. I think it's very important that it's reunified. This isn't Champ Car. It's not CART. It's not IRL. It's IndyCar, and this is the IZOD IndyCar Series and it's about the world's best. That's what we have to deliver.
“In our ‘State of IndyCar' [teleconference] we talked about giving our fans a great experience: entertainment, competition and value. I mean, entertainment, you can't get any better than Vegas. Competition, it's going to be some fantastic racing as you heard today from all of the drivers out here, as well as value. We want to make sure that we thank our fans. The economy is great right now and by offering a free ticket to anyone who goes to another event we think gives our fans great value.”
The Las Vegas race will be the day after the NASCAR race in Charlotte. Do you have any sense yet or feeling, has there been any reaction from the NASCAR community that a driver or two on the Cup side might come?
“We are not going to speculate on who is going to come over, as much as we would love to. I think definitely it was planned to have it on Oct. 16 because Charlotte is on that (Saturday) night live on ABC, we are on live on ABC on Sunday; so there should be great cross‑promotional opportunities there. We think it's going to give a great opportunity to increase our viewership coming out from last year at Homestead on Versus. So this was thought out on why we picked Oct. 16.”
The fact that this thing is happening during NASCAR's championship playoff Chase, was that considered at all? Do you think that might impact if guys come over or not?
“The challenge was made, and we don't want to separate out NASCAR, F1 or any other series in the world. I mean, it could be someone from Rally Car who comes in and wants an opportunity.
We want to see the best drivers in the world who think that they can drive an IndyCar and want to give it a shot. First, they are going to have to test and then they are going to have to qualify and then they are going have to win. Basically it's those types of steps in order to win the money. It's not going to be an easy task, that's for sure.”
How are you going to pick? I've already heard from three guys who have a ride for the Indy 500 only and are asking, “Will we be eligible because we don't have a full‑time ride?” Let's say you get 15 different people from rally and sports cars, how will you select? And will you help them with a special test session?
“Yes, first of all, we will have to provide some testing out here in Vegas. Secondly, we will create a selection committee. Don't forget, we are also dealing with the integrity of our drivers, and we want to make sure that we choose the selection committee that selects racers who are great and have an opportunity to win. It won't be for one‑off type of Indy drivers.
“This is a challenge to showcase the sport of IndyCar to other motorsports around the world, and try to attract a new audience and some new drivers and showcase how important, how tough it is to be an IndyCar driver.”
This ticket promotion idea [buyers of tickets to other 2011 IndyCar Series races will be entitled to a free ticket for Las Vegas –Ed.] – I've already gotten a lot of e‑mails from people saying that's great; how does [LCVMS owner] SMI handle this? Does IZOD help pick up the bill for all the tickets or how does that work?
“This is a sponsorship model – our business plan for this event was designed off of sponsorship models, not ticket revenue. We have about 44,000 tickets we plan on selling but the remaining tickets we plan on giving to our loyal fans. I think that it's going to be a complement of one, IZOD signed up to be our title sponsor, and it's our job to deliver them great value to the sport. I hope at the end of this year, that when Mike [Kelly] meets with his shareholders and PVH Management, he can look them in the eyes and say the IZOD IndyCar Series gave great return on their product.”
What kind of commitment have you made with Vegas for future years?
“This is a one‑off deal with Vegas. I've had a 15‑year relationship with LVCVA, and I'm a firm believer, you start with a date and it becomes a marriage, and we want to grow this just like we did the PBR. By doing a long‑term deal, I think we're leaving money on the table. I want to prove to them first that we can deliver.”
Did you put out any feelers to potential or hopeful candidates for the $5 million challenge before you put yourself out there? And, if so, please feel free to list some names.
“That's a great question and no, I didn't. I wanted to keep this so confidential.
“We have thrown a lot of ideas out there. I wanted to do some other big promotions, and this one, I wanted to keep it between IZOD and the executive management of IndyCar until now so that it could be a surprise. And I think we did a really good job of maintaining the confidentiality and now it's up any driver out there who thinks they have a chance.
Anybody who takes you up on a challenge is going to need cars and equipment and engines and a lot of other expensive things. Could you give us a ballpark on what it could cost to race the one race, and is there any thought to giving potential participants turn-key operations?
“Well, I can't talk about the costs per for car this race, because I think that would be better left to a Roger Penske or a Chip Ganassi. But what I can talk about, it will be the very last (race) of this chassis, so I think there's going to be some opportunities where those cars will be – it's their last race. So I think we can find quite a few complete cars out there for drivers.
And crews and things like that? Where do you suppose those would come from?
“Those top drivers are going to expect to have a great team, so they are going to have to talk to the Roger Penskes and the Chip Ganassis and the Michael Andrettis and on down and make sure that they feel that they have a shot of winning this race.
Who actually is the promoter of this event? Is this a track rental deal and IndyCar is the promoter, or is this an SMI/Las Vegas Speedway promotion?
“IndyCar owns this event. We were able to work a deal out with [LVMS vp and general manager] Chris Powell on a straight rental, and we wanted to do it that way. From my original background, I like being the promoter. I have control. We can take care of our sponsors in a better way and we can take care of our fans. We own all elements. It was very important for us. If I was going to try and do this, the only place I want to start it would be the city of Las Vegas, because I am so comfortable with the city and confident of its marketing ability.”
Have you heard feedback from other track promoters?
“We've heard quite a bit from a lot of tracks, but no, not on the rental. All the track promoters love the idea of giving a free ticket to the IZOD IndyCar World Championship if they purchase a ticket for their event. They are very excited to hear we are offering that to our fans. I don't think they have anything to worry about. Our goal and we've made it clear, we want to go from 17 races to 20 or 21 races. But it has to make financial sense not only for IndyCar but also our team owners and sponsors. We're not trying to take away our business. We want to have the best events in the world, period. If we have to promote them, great, but we have great promoters as well.”
So it's $5 million for an outside driver to take a shot at Vegas, but there's also been talk of offering $20 million for any NASCAR driver to try to win the Indy 500 and Coke 600 in the same day. With the Indy 500 start time moved back, do you think you will have any takers?
“That's a great question and I may have let my mouth overload my thoughts on that. We're trying to work through a few of the hurdles on that. And I hope I don't have to eat my words because I'd rather do things. If I say it, I want to do it. It will be a disappointment if we can't. This is an important place where we can accomplish the same thing. If you look at the history and tradition of open-wheel racing, it's about having the best drivers in the world. And that's all we're doing here. We're saying, ‘Hey we want the best drivers in the world. If you're one of them, come on.'”
To follow up to the $5 million bonus, it would seem in that way not only would you need to get drivers interested in that sort of thing, but you would need the cooperation of fellow sanctioning bodies and series. There was a NASCAR executive who Tweeted there is no double [bonus] but the 600 can stand on it; how do you feel about that? Does there need to be more cooperation in motorsports to have events like this and have that sort of crossover, and are you discouraged that you haven't gotten a warmer reception from other series on that front?
“I'm a firm believer that all boats rise on a high tide. I thought it was great that it was called a Cinderella story last weekend at the Daytona 500. I thought it was great you saw viewership up by 17 percent. We have already defined our sport as the fastest, most versatile racecars and drivers in the world, that differentiates us from NASCAR and F1 and everyone else and we have our own genre.
“We think we reach a different demographic with our ovals than road and street courses. We are going to provide our sponsors great demographics and certain genres that we think are very powerful and from a fan base, we all have to have the same mission, whatever series you're involved, whether it's NHRA or rally – you have to entertain, you have to give them great competition and you have to give them great value. If they deliver on all three of those things, I'm a big believer that you'll grow.”
How would you characterize the relationship of IndyCar to NASCAR since you've taken over during your tenure and the relationship of IndyCar with other series? Is there a sense of cooperation that is growing that you're trying to foster?
“That's a great question, and I like to be transparent; I've had several conversations with [NASCAR president] Mike Helton. I was with [NASCAR chairman and CEO] Brian France down in Texas when they did our twin race announcement. I always wish there was more communication. I want to work with them, whether it's SCCA or NHRA or USAC. I think it's important that we all try to work together and grow motorsports. That's first and foremost and I think that one of the things that we have all failed on for the past 10 years is to grow our audience age; it's continued to increase over the past 10 years and it should be all of our responsibilities to figure out ways on how we deliver more youth and bring our age back.”
Has the distance of the race been decided?
“200 laps, 300 miles.”
Let's say we have got a couple of teams that are battling for the championship – they are going to want to focus all of their energies on having their driver win the title, so how difficult will it be for them to maybe make a car available for somebody to do this challenge?
“Well, great question, I know Mike wants a shot at this, too; but what I'm going to say is that last year we saw a rating at Homestead of 0.3, 0.4. There wasn't one team owner who was happy with that. It's the best‑kept secret in motorsports in my opinion. It's our job – we have to get our ratings up. This year being on ABC, we need to focus on that.
“We know in the mid 1990s, we lost 15 to 20 million fans during the [IRL/CART] divorce, and in my opinion, that's low‑lying fruit. They were once passionate about open-wheel racing. We must get them back.
“I think by offering things like this, it's really showcasing our sport and saying, ‘Hey, we're back.' What Mike and IZOD have been able to do, their lifestyle of pop culture, how they have been able to focus on the 18‑ to 34‑year‑old, it was very impressive to see Versus up 40 percent on that demographic and we were the only sport on their network with double-digit growth. We have been able to see what the power of a great title sponsor can deliver to the series, as well.
“So I think that it's very important that we keep our overall mission intact and we have to be very articulate on our strategy. I think this is right in line with what we need to do in order to grow our audience.”
MIKE KELLY: "You know, I have heard this [why would teams make cars available?] in the conversation. It's the end of the season, the teams will know where they stand in equipment, $5 million does cover a lot of problems, and it's tempting for those to know that they can win.
"More importantly, though, Randy was just hitting on it – we do understand the business of marketing. This is a business model, what's good for the series is good for the teams is good for the sponsor is good for the drivers is good for the teams is good for the series; they are all connected.
And Randy has taken a step out here – you are not going to have all the answers when you are innovating and doing things new for the first time. But he's taken a step out there and is saying, 'Listen, this will draw traffic and fans and improve ratings and that will improve your chances of building sponsorship,' which all teams badly need. It's teams that are clearly below Roger and Chip that need the sponsors to drive even greater competition, bring new blood into the sport. It's good for everybody. So I think they understand their responsibility in that whole mix and I think they take it very serious."