INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard twice deflected questions Saturday about his relationship with several team owners, citing his desire to focus on the series' biggest race of the year.
There's been an undercurrent of negativity since Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened May 9 for preparations for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. Chevrolet team owners have been upset since losing a pair of appeals protesting a component of rival Honda's turbocharger. The anger spread to other manufacturers when IndyCar last Sunday levied fines throughout the garage that, when all said and done, had reached $300,000 for 19 infractions among 13 different teams.
"I've been involved now in racing for 28 months, and what I've seen is this unbelievable amount of passion to win, desire to win, not only from drivers but mainly from team owners," Bernard said. "When a call is not made in their direction, of course they're going to be upset."
Asked about rumors that team owners have banded together to make a case to IndyCar's Board of Directors to have Bernard removed, the CEO smiled and stayed on message.
"You know, I'm not going to really take away from the Indy 500," he said. "I think that the Indy 500 is why we're here. I think, again, the team owners, their passion to win, there was a very upset team owner and still is. But I think it's very clear that IndyCar is not going to play favorites.
"I think what you saw with penalties this week, it wasn't one-sided. If there was an infraction, it was given. We reported those. That's the new IndyCar."
The "very upset team owner" is powerful Roger Penske, who stopped speaking to Bernard sometime after Chevrolet's first appeal was denied. But Bernard and Penske met on Friday at the speedway for their first conversation in about a month.
Bernard inherited a huge mess of a series when he was hired to replace league founder Tony George. Despite a dramatic reduction of series-accumulated debt, increased attendance and television ratings, the introduction of a new car, and multiple engine manufacturers, many team owners remain unimpressed.
One issue is costs — the new Dallara DW12 is more expensive than owners were led to believe, and exclusivity contracts with the manufacturer means teams can only purchase replacement parts from Dallara. There also seems to be a disconnect in how information is being disseminated to the teams, and criticism toward many of Bernard's top series officials.
"We have a very competent IndyCar tech team," Bernard said. "I think I'm going to stand behind their decisions."
OTHER LEAGUE NEWS: Bernard continues to look at the 2013 schedule, and is still trying to make a race in Ft. Lauderdale happen.
He's also had conversations with Phoenix and Richmond, and at least one meeting with officials from Pocono. Bernard would love to get all three ovals on next year's schedule. IndyCar is also committed to helping Michael Andretti's promotional group put on this year's events at Milwaukee and Baltimore.
But the CEO has cooled on Road America, in part because of Andretti's attempt to keep Milwaukee on the schedule.
"I think we owe it to Michael Andretti, who is laying out a lot of money to make that event successful. He has asked us not to rush Road America right now," Bernard said. "We have a responsibility to try to help Milwaukee every way we can, and we are. We put a lot of money into this, too. I think it's important for us to keep the Milwaukee Mile on our race series."
As for this season, Bernard said it's currently all-systems go for August race scheduled in China. He flew to meet with city leaders directly from the April 29 race in Brazil, and said there are no plans at this time to cancel the event in the seaport city of Qingdao.
"They were all very appreciative of us flying over there. They want a race," he said. "The new mayor wants to get his arms around it, understand it and make sure that he is fully involved in this so he doesn't want to have a black eye in his first year of office, which is a six-year term.
"We're continuing on with that event like we've planned. We have a signed contract. It's just a matter of working on the details. We want to be very respectful to that city and the country. And I think I made it very clear, we're not interested in dates, we're interested in marriages. We want this to work for many years."
Lastly, in response to a lack of presence of late by series title sponsor Izod, Bernard said management changes have led to some internal evaluations.
"They are the same partner. I think there have been some different management changes. How they're spending their money is a little bit different," he said. "They're evaluating, we're evaluating, to see if they're getting the same bang for the buck. In today's world, you start with marketing, advertising, figuring out what works and what does not work.
"I think, hopefully, they're assessing it right now and determining what is in the best interest of them and IndyCar."
Izod has four more years on its contract with IndyCar.
MATERNITY FIRESUIT: ESPN pit reporter Jamie Little is pregnant with her first child, and needed some alterations to her ABC firesuit to be able to work Sunday's telecast of the Indianapolis 500.
Little, who is expecting a boy on Aug. 8, will be wearing a firesuit that has expandable material down both sides of the top. The bottom part is similar to maternity pants, complete with a stretchy belly band.
"I've been lucky with my pregnancy," she said. "I feel normal and everything seems normal. I'm making a conscious effort to eat and drink more, especially when I'm on pit road and it's hot. But other than the firesuit being a two-piece and not a one-piece and having to get alterations every week to make it more comfortable, it's been normal."
Little's last race will be the July 8 event at Toronto, and she'll take a two-month maternity leave and return for the September NASCAR weekend at Richmond.
Highs in the mid-90s are expected Sunday. The hottest Indy 500 took place in 1937 when the thermometer hit 92.
IT AIN'T CHOPPED LIVER: Guy Fieri, host of the Food Network's hit show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," is an admitted car freak with a bunch of treasures in his personal collection.
That doesn't mean he's not nervous about driving the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. The 2013 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is the fastest production car ever offered by General Motors, with a top speed of 205 mph. And Fieri found out about speed during practice for Sunday's gig with three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.
He said he took the car for a few laps and then Rutherford took over.
"We came out of the pits at about 80 and I'm stuck to the window and I wasn't sure we were going to make the first turn," Fieri said Saturday. Then came the fourth turn at "125 mph to "135 mph" before they stopped.
"He looked at me and said, 'That's how you do it.' Amen," Fieri said.
As for the local food, Fieri said he had steak Friday night at Indy's St. Elmo Steak House, along with its famously spicy shrimp cocktail. It must have been good; he said he was going back for more Saturday night.