In a way, it was good that very little notice was paid to our article on Friday, October 26, which said that INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard had been fired by the Hulman & Company Board of Directors. Having just a few facts from a reliable source, we chose to print it as a rumor with a promise we would follow up with some details and insight. But the facts we have are still rather slight but what now t is needed the context to understand what exactly happened to Randy Bernard during his 2.5 years as leader of the IndyCar Series, and the supporting ladder series’.
First, it’s important to remember that the INDYCAR is part of a family owned business under the auspices of Hulman and Company. They are not a publically owned company, so we have none of the details that are usually made public with a company that is traded on the Stock Exchanges. Much of what is known is conjecture or as I like to call it, an educated guess. Mari Hulman George, Chairman of the Board hates publicity and does not grant interviews so it’s not as if we can ask her. Her offspring, Tony George (up until Tony’s recent resignation), Josie George, Kathi George-Conforti, and Nancy George all sit on the board. Mrs. George has said all along that the Speedway and its related entities are not for sale and are “for my grandchildren”. If anything has transpired which has changed this situation, I am unaware of it.
With both of these things in mind, let us now examine the bad, the good, and the ugly regarding the tenure of Randy Bernard at the INDYCAR.
2011 Las Vegas Season Ender: Beyond a doubt, this race weekend alone may have cost Bernard his job under certain owners. Initially, Bernard offered a $5 million bounty to drivers outside the series who started at the back of the track and won the race. While that idea sounded great, it ended up as an embarrassment to the ICS because no outside racers entered. And, any of us could or would have told Randy that, because today’s professional drivers are subject to restrictive contracts which preclude them from participating without permission of their teams or manufacturers, few of whom would want to give free publicity to another series. Added to that, LVMS had been rebanked after the last open wheel race held at the speedway in 2005 and the changes were designed to encourage pack racing, something that is good for stock cars, and bad for open wheel cars. Many in the racing community tried to warn Bernard as they would try to warn him about other matters, but Randy did not realize the importance of their concerns.
Bad Hire: The only one that was public and noticeable was that of Chief Operating Officer Marc Koretzky who lasted less than a year at INDYCAR. Koretzky had some consulting experience in auto racing but the fact that he was on the job less than a year and was handpicked by Randy Bernard made the latter look bad regardless of the reason the hire did not work out. Once again, an executive with a strong racing background would have made more sense than an MBA wonk.
No Money for China Race: It really felt like déjà vu all over again when the 2012 China race cancelled weeks before it was to have taken place. I recall two consecutive years when the Korea race was on the Champ Car schedule and never happened. It just makes everyone look bad. And, that was not the worst of it. The worst was that there was apparently no deposit collected from the promoter and no cancellation fee, hence no money. Hence a loss for the year for the ICS.
In summary, the chief weaknesses in Randy Bernard’s performance stemmed from his lack of racing experience. This was particularly evident with the failure of the 2011 Las Vegas Grand Prix. His strengths were thought to be in promotion. Yet, his bounty idea went unclaimed so was a promotion fail and attendance at the race even with giveaways was abysmal. He might have mitigated his deficiency by surrounding himself with executives with racing experience, yet he did not.
Best Racing: The 2012 IndyCar Series featured some of the best car racing in the world. The championship came down to the last laps in the last race. The Indy 500 was like an Indy of old, and was decided on the final lap. In overall excitement it had every other major series beat.
Good Hires: The best was moving TGBB to a place where he could do less damage and hiring Beaux Barfield to replace him as Race Director. Barfield edited the rule book and removed use of the Ouija Board as a method of deciding penalties. Tony Cotman was brought in to figure out the 2012 car and Will Phillips as Technical Director.
Accessible Leadership: Bernard made a point of giving out his email address rather widely and was genuinely interested in what fans, drivers and owners had to say. Sometimes.
Return of the Manufacturers: Manufacturers bring money and money brings fans to the track either through promotions or to view their product. Both the IRL and the CCWS suffered from lack of manufacturers and their numbers suffered all around as a result.
To many, the good accomplished by Bernard far outweighed the bad. A consummate showman, in time it’s possible that those grandstands would be full again, but we’ll probably never know.
Team Owner Revolt: No matter the reasons why, over time, many of the team owners became visibly unhappy with Bernard and this would have made it difficult for anyone to resolve the problems that they or the series had with Randy. And it is clear despite denials that there was a “get Randy fired” movement in the paddock that ultimately succeeded. The veneer of civility worn by the team owners has been ripped away and shown to be false. No one looks good in this, and that’s why it’s ugly.
Bernard Goes Public: Much business is done by building alliances between people and groups. There is at least a façade of friendship between business people if not real friendships. People often confide in one another and these communications are kept quiet in strong professional relationships. Nothing is more destructive to this process than betraying confidences. So what did Bernard do? He told everyone the team owners were trying to get him fired. And when Randy did this, it got very ugly for everyone very fast with little chance of going back to civility.
Randy Gets Fired: This is how corporations work. If an executive gets fired, everyone says they resign, and their termination agreement actually spells this out. The remainder of their contract is either paid out over time or in a lump sum. For the time during the payout is going on (or if the corporation wants to keep the person off the market), the former executive is called a “consultant” or an “advisor”. Except they are not really working. Everyone knows this but no one says that the executive was fired. But it is understood that they are. And, that’s the case with Randy Bernard. Jeff Belskus can say Randy wasn’t fired because technically, he wasn’t. But he was. And what makes this particular firing ugly? Because of the way the board handled it. If they were working on a package for Bernard, or were making up their minds, they should not have said last Friday that Bernard “was not fired” and then fired him on Sunday. If they wanted to take their time to hire, say, a Scott Atherton first, they should have delayed the firing. Either they didn’t want to delay or they were put in a position of not having a choice about it, which would be very interesting, no?
In sum, while Randy Bernard in many ways did a good job, his had some undeniable performance deficits which he did not fully mitigate. He made some bad moves any of which could have justified his dismissal. But it was the ugliness that ultimately made his tenure come to an end the way it did. People can really treat one another horribly at times and in this, no one ends up looking pretty.