In a city known for opulence, decadence and big risks, it takes quite a lot to cause a stir. But IZOD IndyCar series CEO Randy Bernard knew that his racing series needed a wager of epic proportions to push aside Wayne Newton and Celine Dion for a weekend, much less the NASCAR Chase and the pro football sportsbooks.
Bernard had to go high roller.
So he enlisted the ever-adventurous GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons, signed up the inexplicably unemployed 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, and laid down the Challenge. If Wheldon, starting from the back of the 33-car field, could make his way to the front and take the checkered flag at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, both he and a lucky fan would split the $5 million pot of gold.
For the man known in racing circles as "The Cowboy", it is critically important that his finale extravaganza draws viewers. Unusually, IndyCar is paying to use Las Vegas Speedway, and has assumed all promotional responsibilities. He's bet his job on big ratings for the race, and providing non-Indy 500 proof that IndyCar is real and is back in a big way.
Bernard certainly took the roundabout way to the Vegas oval. After a successful 15-year stint as head of the Pro Bull Riders tour, Bernard answered an executive search from IndyCar, then known as the Indy Racing League, which had just ousted founder Tony George (who had essentially inherited the reigns of the organization) in a convergence of family politics and unprofitability. Bernard figured to be brought in as a marketing consultant, but when the phone rang the day after his interview, he was offered the top job in the organization.
The lure was the century of history for the Indy 500 and the challenge of rebuilding a one-of-a-kind brand that once dominated the American racing--indeed sporting--landscape. A monumental opportunity, but an incredibly daunting one.
Bernard was handed the keys to a sport fractured by a long-running schism of owners and teams, held hostage by the politics of the auto manufacturers and waning participation of sponsors, and facing declining attendance and ratings. But not for the annual Indy 500, the series was pretty much running on fumes. All the while, NASCAR's continuing wild success gave proof that auto racing was more popular than it had ever been in this country and only served as salt in the wounds of long-suffering IndyCar fans. It wasn't the sport that was the problem... it was the B.S.
Bernard's first order of business would need to be to try and stop the hemmorhage of red ink, which had started when George took racing's marquee event, the Indy 500, and founded the IRL (Indy Racing League) in the mid-1990's. This created a rival alternative to the owner-controlled CART series, thus splitting the sport of open wheel racing in two.
"I took 30 days to go meet with the big teams, Penske and Ganassi, the drivers, manufacturers and the sponsors to make sure they would be committed to me too if I did come in. I didn't want to come into the sport where they didn't want someone coming in from bull riding," Berrnard said. "It was called IRL when I got here and the IRL had a negative connotation with a lot of fans because of the split and the divorce. We knew that we lost 15 to 20 million fans, so we had to go back to IndyCar, that's what everyone knows us as around the world."
Long time racing commentator and frequent George sparring partner Robin Miller suggests that the amount of money the Hulman-George family lost in establishing the IRL was staggering--possibly in the hundreds of millions. Despite literally being raised at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, George displayed precious little marketing or personal savvy. A variety of failed initiatives included fleeting or insolvent title sponsors (Pep Boys, Northern Lights and even several years without a title sponsor at all) and an absurd multi-year marketing contract with KISS bassist Gene Simmons that produced little in the way of dividends or exposure. Well, other than Simmons walking around everywhere in an ill-fitting IndyCar cap and an ill-fated attempt to stage a street race in the banana republic island of Turks and Caicos which served as a story arc on Simmons' Family Jewels reality show.
While Bernard had already convinced the Hulman & Company board of his worth as a marketing guru, he also had to broker a consensus among the IndyCar team owners, a crew that ranged from the win-at-all costs luxury outfits headed by billionaire Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi to the hand-to-mouth operations of HVM and Conquest Racing.
"The thing is, it's hard to change the culture when it's as far down as IndyCar has been... it's a five or six year project if everything goes right," Miller said. "I told him that he was dealing with a band of snakes when he's dealing with car owners; I don't care what you've dealt with before in bull riding, but you've never met a group like this. He doesn't understand why these people don't pull together to make the sport better and that's the biggest disconnect."
Bernard witnessed the discord firsthand this season with the original Vegas promotion he came up with. Originally, the five million dollar purse was floated as an effort to "bet" the best of the best from Formula 1, NASCAR and other forms of motor sports that they couldn't jump into the series finale and top IndyCar's "best drivers in the world." Essentially, he got no takers.
Motocross / rally car star Travis Pastrana wanted in, but an X-Games crash made that an impossibility. NASCAR, in an unsurprising cock-block, kept their superstar Kasey Kahne from competing in the event. Neither Ganassi nor Penske were keen to offer competitive cars to drivers that might detract from their focus on winning the championship, which took former CART champion and double-amputee Alex Zanardi out of the mix. And so on. Retooling his vaunted Vegas challenge was merely the latest hurdle for Bernard in his desperate efforts to re-build the brand.
"All the guy does is work and travel. He's on a plane every day. I've never seen a guy like it, he gets no sleep, goes back and forth coast to coast, talking to TV people, talking to potential sponsors, talking to track owners," Miller observed."I hope he hangs in there. I think he gets pretty frustrated at times with the way this thing is going and you can only be so optimistic..." Or tolerant.
In addition to cleverly re-tooling the Vegas challenge to take advantage of currently-unemployed-fan-favorite-reigning-Indy-500 champ Wheldon, Bernard has presided over the introduction of a new car, including a three-fold increase in auto manufacturer involvement; successfully presented the centennial extravaganza for the series signature event, the Indy 500; extended the series' television contracts through the 2018 season with ESPN and ABC; attracted several new sponsors; clearly established a ladder series for up-and-coming drivers (the Mazda Road To Indy); and beat down a variety of media brush fires started by those pesky team owners. Rock stars are no longer in charge of marketing. All that is left is to plug the hell out of Vegas and hope that a record number of fans tune in to see who will win the Championship and whether Wheldon can wrestle the big check and top the strongest single-race field in the modern history of IndyCar. Not a bad year.
"We've got an exciting sport, we've got a lot of different personalities in the sport and I think Randy's doing a good job to try to get it out there. I don't keep up with all the numbers all the time, but it seems like there's a buzz about IndyCar right now," said second-generation IndyCar team owner Larry Foyt, son of Indy legend A.J. Foyt and himself a former NASCAR driver. "I know friends of mine that were even NASCAR fans saying 'hey, 'I'm liking this IndyCar stuff' so that's a good direction."
The bold marketing initiative has also opened the eyes, and ears, of sponsors that previously declined involvement in IndyCar. With NASCAR seemingly having maxed it's ratings and costs increasing yearly, betting on IndyCar is starting to make sense.
"We see a tremendous amount of sponsors and manufacturers intrigued with what we're doing. Back in July 2010, I recall one manufacturer when we called and asked if we wanted to participate with an engine in 2012, and the exact words and quote were "Hell no," Bernard said. "And in December, I ran into that same manufacturer and he said 'hey, we're having a change of heart, come see us in Detroit and we'd like to see what you're doing with it.'"
That manufacturer is rumored to be Ford, and across the pond, Fiat/Ferrari recently hosted Bernard as their guest at a Formula One race. Still the business at hand remains selling IndyCar here and now, as well as for the future. The bold ratings proclamation remains a subject of conversation.
"We're making progress, we see momentum. We've seen our network ratings increase by about 25% and we've seen our cable ratings increase 14% and one rainout (Brazil) we had to have at six in the morning. We've seen double digit growth and that's all we can expect right now," Bernard said.
"If we don't (get the ratings) for the championship, I'll be fired, I'll be quitting," Bernard laughs. "That answer lies in my ability and my performance, I think I should be held accountable, just like every driver, just like every team. If a team doesn't win, they don't get sponsorship. If a driver doesn't win, he's going to be cut. I'm a big believer. If I can't create my own performance at a high level, I shouldn't be here. Optimistically, I think we're doing really well and I think my goal is I want to stay here another three or four years."
Asked about whether he has difficulty maintaining a sense of optimism, Bernard went super-candid: "That's a great question. I think one day you do something and you think you have a great day and you think you're on the top of the world and your problems are behind you, then the next someone just pulls the rug right out from under your feet and you're back on your nose. Everything is so unpredictable and every decision from small to big will have a big ripple effect in this business. I think when I'm having a bad day, I think of the positives and where we can be and where we are going and the fact that we've seen our sponsorship activation continue to increase has to be a positive for us. The fact that we do have a new television deal. The fact that we have three manufacturers...I think Chevy will probably spend $30-40 million dollars on this new engine and their activation in the sport next year. So I think those are the things, in my opinion, that are taking us to the next level. We just have to keep focused on how we're going to grow the sport., and I push. I push every one of the people that work for me, but I push hard. If I'm expecting them to do it, I expect to do it."
With the eyes of the entire world of motorsports upon them, what's about to happen in Vegas for Randy Bernard and his series will most definitely not stay in Vegas. And they are hoping to God that that is a good thing.
The IZOD IndyCar World Championships airs live on Sunday, October 16th, 3:00PM Eastern, on ABC.