Commentary

Question for INDYCAR: Now what?

Originally Published: October 29, 2012
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indy car racing's 30-year reign as America's most dysfunctional sport continues unabated.

After decades of angering or alienating just about every one of its key constituency groups, what was left of INDYCAR's already dubious credibility took another big hit Sunday when CEO Randy Bernard was forced out by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. board.

[+] EnlargeRandy Bernard
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenINDYCAR will head in a different direction after the removal of Randy Bernard as CEO on Sunday.

Bernard had been on shaky ground since early June, when he drew attention to his plight following a spectacular Indianapolis 500 by taking to Twitter to announce that a group of Izod IndyCar Series team owners was out to get him fired.

Since then, rumors of Bernard's fate dominated Indy car news. And even though those team owners didn't orchestrate his departure, he was essentially a dead man walking for the past few weeks after news leaked that Tony George -- the man who founded INDYCAR in 1994 and stepped away from it in 2009 as the result of a power struggle within the Hulman-George family -- was trying to buy "his" series back.

When George was compelled to resign from the board of directors of Hulman & Co. on Oct. 19, it became apparent that his attempts to acquire INDYCAR and Bernard's tenuous employment status were, in fact, completely separate issues.

But when Hulman and Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. management failed to provide Bernard with a public vote of confidence, it was obvious that his days were numbered.

IMSC CEO Jeff Belskus, who is taking over Bernard's responsibilities on an interim basis until a new leader for INDYCAR can be found, made that point in the statement that was issued Sunday after the board's second emergency meeting in the last 10 days:

"Once again, INDYCAR is not for sale, and the [IMSC] organization remains completely committed to owning and operating INDYCAR."

Crisis? What crisis?

Have no doubt, this is indeed a sport in crisis. It has been for the past 30 years.

And if it is now obvious that the Hulman board isn't about to put Tony George back in charge of INDYCAR, the sport's future leadership and direction is anything but clear.

Bernard joined INDYCAR in March 2010, nine months after George's ouster and two years after the so-called unification that was supposed to restore the sport's luster and popularity.

Formerly the CEO of the Professional Bull Riders tour, Bernard tried hard to recreate USAC racing's relevance to the IndyCar Series and to regrow the sport's oval-racing roots, but he recognized that street races brought in bigger crowds and international events had the potential for bigger profits.

He managed to finally introduce a new chassis to Indy car racing for the first time since 2003; he convinced Chevrolet and Lotus to join Honda as engine manufacturers; and he supervised a housecleaning of the race management and technical departments that was respected by competitors and fans alike.

His lack of racing knowledge hurt him when dealing with the sharks within the IndyCar paddock, but his accessibility endeared him to the people paying for tickets. Bernard connected with racing fans on all sides of the Indy car racing spectrum better than any of the sport's past leaders.

He took a lot of heat after Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 season finale because of an expanded 34-car field and a $5 million promotion that was his brainchild. But that criticism was unjustified.

The real damage to Bernard's credibility within the INDYCAR community came in the ensuing four months, when he essentially disappeared from sight. And the quality of racing that resulted during the 2012 season from the implementation of the DW12 chassis and turbo engine formula -- Bernard's real contribution to the legacy of IndyCar racing -- basically didn't matter.

Because despite making the most of the circumstances he inherited, Indy car racing remained resolutely stuck in neutral. And with Bernard now out of the picture, moving backward is probably a more accurate assessment.

The IndyCar Series is coming off its most competitive and compelling season of racing in many years, yet the focus down the stretch, as the championship was decided in thrilling fashion on the track, was instead thrust upon controversy over the management of the sport.

A form of motorsport that should be celebrating its first American champion (Ryan Hunter-Reay) in a unified series since 1994 is instead dwelling on the latest change in leadership.

And make no mistake, fans are upset. Cutting ties with the guy who has appealed to the fans and expended more energy and effort in running the show than anyone else in the past 30 years emphatically sends the wrong message.

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Everyone remotely involved with the IndyCar Series -- drivers, sponsors, manufacturers, suppliers, promoters, fans -- needs to have confidence that the sport has a leader and a plan for the future.

The way Bernard was left dangling in the breeze, and ultimately cast aside, has every one of those groups concerned for the sport's long-term prospects.

Ever since Bernard went on the offensive on Twitter and made clear his position was under fire, the question that went unanswered was: If Randy isn't going to run this rodeo, then who is?

That's still a legitimate question. Because there are no obvious candidates on the horizon.

The bitter irony in all of this is that the reason George formed INDYCAR in 1994 was to ward off the power base of the team owners. His attempts to preserve Indy car racing's oval-track base instead managed to weaken the sport's appeal to that segment of the audience.

Meanwhile, nearly 20 years later, it is abundantly clear that the team owners still wield more power than the supposed managers of the series.

For decades, NASCAR and Formula One have benefitted from solid, stable, unassailable management, to the point where they are the uncontested No. 1 forms of motorsport in America and around the rest of the world.

Indy car racing, in the meantime, can't decide exactly what it is, and the struggle for control of the sport has been the overriding story of the past 30 years.

More than ever, INDYCAR is a rudderless ship, without a captain. And those last remaining, long-suffering passengers are losing confidence and jumping.