IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard Steps Down; Jeff Belskus Named Interim Successor
Izod IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard yesterday resigned, ending his leadership of the series with two years left on his five-year contract. Bernard’s announcement followed an emergency meeting of the BOD of Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) Corporation, which owns the series. The board named IMS President & CEO Jeff Belskus interim CEO of IndyCar, but did not set a timeline for finding a permanent replacement. Belskus said that the process for selecting a replacement will be done in discussion with The Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm that IMS hired to assist in reviewing and helping improve the company’s operations and strategy. Bernard’s resignation came less than three weeks after IMS board member Tony George approached the board about acquiring the IndyCar Series. George, who sources said put together a group that made a seven-figure offer for the series, last week resigned from his position on the board because his offer to acquire the series represented a conflict of interest. Belskus reiterated that the IndyCar Series is not for sale. Belskus: “The organization remains completely committed to owning and operating IndyCar.” Bernard, who will continue to serve in an advisory role with IndyCar, did not return calls seeking comment. His resignation came just three days after a report in the Indianapolis Business Journal (which is not affiliated with SportsBusiness Journal/Daily) said he had been fired. It followed a rocky year for the series, which suffered double-digit decreases in TV viewership, had a race in China canceled and began searching for a presenting sponsor that potentially could replace Izod as its title sponsor before the apparel brand’s deal ends after the '15 season. Bernard, the former head of the PBR, joined IndyCar in '10, taking over as CEO for George (Tripp Mickle, SportsBusiness Journal).
WHAT WENT WRONG: In Indianapolis, Curt Cavin writes Bernard "was wildly popular with IndyCar's fan base, starting with the distribution of his e-mail address to all who sought it." Bernard "helped bring a new equipment package and new venues to the series, but he was criticized for his handling of the Dan Wheldon tragedy and for a financial deficit increased by the lucrative China race not being held in August." IndyCar "got nothing" from an estimated $8.75M agreement with the Chinese, and the signing of several race events to lower sanctioning fees "also hurt the bottom line." Bernard "often found himself at odds with IndyCar’s team owners, and that was never more evident than in June when he posted on Twitter that some were out to get him fired" (INDIANAPOLIS STAR, 10/29). ESPN.com's John Oreovicz wrote despite a "generally satisfactory performance since he took over," Bernard's power base "weakened over the past six months as a group of IndyCar Series team owners waged a behind the scenes campaign for his ouster." A conflict over the cost of spare parts for the series' new car "served as the focal point for the unhappiness between the teams and IndyCar management" (ESPN.com, 10/28).
WHAT NOW? SPEEDTV.com's Marshall Pruett reported Bernard "is not expected to be involved with the series during the final two years of his contract." With "enough bad publicity built around Bernard's name since the season ended just six weeks ago in Fontana, and with a noticeable lack of public support for Bernard from his bosses, it appears the board had the justification it was looking for -- mounting negative sentiments regarding IndyCar's CEO -- to call its second emergency meeting in less than two weeks in order to cut ties with Bernard" (SPEEDTV.com, 10/28). The AP's Jenna Fryer wrote IndyCar is "coming off arguably its best season in series history." Bernard introduced the first new car in nine years this season, and the on-track product "was perhaps the best in auto racing." IndyCar "had eight different winners, its first American champion since 2006 in Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Chevrolet won the engine manufacturer title in its return to the series after a six-year absence." Belskus "had no answer" when asked "how it was in IndyCar's 'best interest' to part with a CEO who brought such positive to the series and was popular with fans." It is "not clear what's next for the troubled series." Motorsports marketing agency Just Marketing Int'l Founder & CEO Zak Brown said, "It all appears a bit strange and kneejerk to me. I don't understand why Jeff Belskus hasn't communicated a longer-term plan. Unless there isn't one, which as CEO, I hope he has" (AP, 10/28).
IN HINDSIGHT...: In Milwaukee, Dave Kallmann writes, "The IndyCar Series isn't in good shape. It wasn't two years ago, or four or six." But Bernard "brought hope." He came "without a history in the sport and therefore without an agenda, beyond making the sport better. He was tireless, eager to learn and accessible." Kallmann: "If for no other reason than the risk of alienating a significant portion of an already too small following, the removal of Bernard seems like a mistake" (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, 10/29).