• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Happy Year-End News for motorsports marketers -- TV numbers for NASCAR's Chase, IndyCar, NHRA, sports car and Formula One in America increased in 2014. One year wonder or a trend?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

UNTENABLE

Preamble: Out of respect to the family, friends and fans of Dan Wheldon, I have waited until now to fully comment on his death in IndyCar's Las Vegas season finale. Until now, I politely declined several invitations to speak my mind. Unlike the chatroomers, my name is on this blog, and my experience is there at the left, for everyone to consider and evaluate. Unlike many who have spoken/written earlier, I do not have the bias of the "born-and-raised in Indiana" mindset, which, in this sad case as it too often has, leaves the impression that they think the universe revolves around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is not a time for hometown cheerleading. Unlike many others who have commented, I have no direct or indirect financial interest in the success or promotion of the IndyCar series. Unlike at least some of those who have commented, I have no personal grudge with anyone I write about below. Randy Bernard once was a good guest on my old radio show. On the Thursday before this year's Indianapolis 500, Bernard told me he was going to call me after the 500, because he wanted to "rebuild" his series in the greater Phoenix area, my home. I never heard from him -- but I'm disclosing that information for your consideration. I am proud to say I knew Tony Hulman, he was nice to me and once did me the enormous favor of getting me an interview with A.J. Foyt, just minutes after Foyt had thrown a bunch of reporters out of his garage in Gasoline Alley. Bottom line: What you read below is not swayed by financial or employment conflicts of interest, hometown boosterism, or emotional passion. It is my true professional, experienced, analysis.


Last May, not long before the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, someone who has had extremely close ties with Indy 500 racing for many decades -- in fact, I'd say this person has in large part devoted his/her life to Indy -- said something to me that I found powerful at the time and even more so now. No, I will not reveal the person's identity, because I am certain to do so would cost him/her a job.

In sharing thoughts on IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's decisions on several matters, most especially double-wide restarts, this person said to me:

"The problem is Randy has never had to sit down with the family of a driver who has just been killed in a race."

That time came for Bernard the evening of Sunday, Oct. 16, with the family of two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, willingly accepted the risks of racing at Las Vegas at speeds around 225 mph. The following, however, are unalterable facts.

It was Randy Bernard who decided IndyCar needed a big end-of-season Showbiz Spectacular, even though it was questionable any positive momentum would last some five months into the start of the 2012 schedule. It was Bernard who decided the site would be Las Vegas, where he had business contacts from his days as head of Pro Bull Riders. It was Bernard who decided to lease Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- an oval Dario Franchitti, the only series champion Bernard has ever known, judged "not suitable" for Indy Cars of the configuration raced Oct. 16. It was Bernard who self-promoted the event. It was Bernard who decided to post a $5 million bonus for any non-IC regular who could win. It was Bernard who wanted Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in a crash and almost bled-to-death, to drive a high-horsepower open-wheel car for the first time in competition at high speeds since 2001 -- an invitation that legitimately can be described as irresponsible and exploitive. (Thank God wiser heads prevailed.) It was Bernard who decided, when there were no non-IC takers, to make Wheldon eligible. It was Bernard who decided to allow 34 cars to take the green flag -- one more car than in the Indy 500, at roughly the same lap speeds, on a track one mile shorter in length -- thus assuring the pack would be tightly compressed. It was Bernard who decided Wheldon would start last. And, no matter what good intentions were involved, Bernard's five-lap salute with playing of Amazing Grace only added to the Roman Coliseum visual and atmospheric spectacle of the whole, sad, event.

All of this in a season full of safety-related decisions that were a big and legitimate issue within Bernard's series. Examples: Driver concerns about making the Indy 500 the oval debut of the two-wide restart rule. Restarting a race in the rain on the New Hampshire oval. Starting a race with an emergency vehicle on-course at Baltimore. Drawing for starting positions for the second half of the Texas doubleheader.

This is not finger-pointing. This is a listing of the facts. As is this: With only two years of motorsports experience, Bernard was not in a position to properly judge the safety of his decisions. Entertainment-based decisions, yes. Safety, no. That does not mean he's responsible for Wheldon's death -- keep reading -- there are a lot of factors here.

Last week, I spoke with a senior representative of one of IndyCar's most important corporate participants. I asked what the company's response would be if Bernard again asked for increased support for another self-promoted IndyCar showbiz spectacular. I was told the answer would be a polite, but VERY firm, "No."

I ask you: How can Bernard now walk into any corporate office and try to sell sponsorship for his next big showbiz idea? At least, not to anyone who has done a minimum amount of due diligence.
There's no doubt Bernard injected much personal enthusiasm and energy into the series. In fact, I've often thought one mistake he made was trying to do too much himself -- but that, in fairness, was partly a function of the mess he inherited.

Now, however, Randy Bernard's position as CEO of the IndyCar organization is no longer tenable. I think he will be successful in other enterprises, but not IndyCar, and probably, not any type of motorsports.

Also untenable, going forward, is Brian Barnhart's job as the series' competition boss. Barnhart has shown himself to be like a bad baseball umpire: He calls a pitch six inches off the plate a strike for the pitcher of one team, but a ball for the other. Late season, Bernard defended the embattled Barnhart, and said the problem was a poorly written rulebook. That conveniently overlooked the fact that Barnhart himself is the rulebook's main author. Sadly, Barnhart actually came out of the Vegas disaster with a leg to stand on, as he's been opposed to Bernard's spice-up-the-show rules, including two-wide restarts. No matter -- his credibility has eroded, the confidence of the competitors destroyed, his position is no longer tenable.

Also untenable, going forward as it has been in the past, are the so-called public/media relations departments at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series. If there was any doubt -- and, to experienced PR professionals, there wasn't -- it was erased in the week after Wheldon's death.

I was writing formal crisis communications plans for CART teams and sponsors some quarter-century ago. If IndyCar even had one, it wasn't worth the computer file it was stored on. Failing PR 101, IndyCar followed a submarine commander's "Run Silent, Run Deep" approach at exactly the time a reassuring, comforting voice was needed. There was only a written statement -- that had to be corrected due to a factual error. As I've explained here before, the IMS Corp. PR (I combine here both the track and the series) mentality has focused on the Indiana media cheerleaders, at a loss of good, solid, professional relationships with the national media. As Jim Chapman (and others) knew, having such one-on-one relationships is nice in good times -- but ESSENTIAL in bad times. The IMS Corp. PR Department hasn't bothered to develop such relationships -- and the negative coverage reflected that fact.

Also untenable, going forward, is the position of certain segments of the Indianapolis-region news media. The lack of critical (by which I mean bothering to cover all sides of the issues) reporting and informed analysis of Bernard's moves has been clear all along and even more so in the Vegas aftermath. It was just journalistically sad to see some who cheerleaded Bernard the whole year immediately say after Wheldon's death that racing on 1.5-mile ovals is "too dangerous." That was nothing more than "journalistic" butt-covering. Certainly one of Bernard's achievements has been to co-opt some of his series' media critics and others, including some in the NASCAR media community, who were charmed by his attention and wrote favorably, in part out of a desire to tweak the Powers-That-Be in NASCAR.

But where was the reporting to verify Bernard's statements? The best example of which was Bernard's on-going talk of opening the 2012 season at Phoenix International Raceway. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one to actually interview Bernard, PIR President Bryan Sperber, and ISC President John Saunders on this subject. There was no chance it was going to happen -- it would be the kind of financial failure experienced at Milwaukee and Loudon. Those who have been compromised with track and series PA and broadcast jobs simply can't be relied on for balanced reporting in their other media outlets -- that has been shown repeatedly.

And, finally: Also untenable, going forward, is the Hulman-George family's ownership of the Speedway and the series.

I find it sad I have to write that. But that is my experienced, professional, analysis. Tony Hulman literally saved the I500 and, thus, the overall series with his purchase of IMS and work to elevate it to an American sporting institution. He was a strong leader. When the AAA withdrew from racing, Mr. Hulman was key in the founding of USAC, to govern a series. This, however, is true: The family's leadership after Tony's death has never reached his level. Tony George was put in charge at a relatively young age. He was smart to bring NASCAR to the Brickyard, gave Formula One an honest try, improved facilities, but bled the family's bank accounts with the ill-conceived and arrogant creation of the IRL (supposedly an all-oval series for the benefit of American drivers.) His sisters finally had enough and pulled off a family coup, which ultimately led to Bernard's hiring.

Randy came in as the sisters' man. How do they now, with credibility, go out and find another leader? No doubt they would have been happy to sell-off the series years ago, but who would want to buy it? Not without its most significant asset -- the Speedway itself. Honestly, it wouldn't make biz sense for the H-Gs to dump the series off to someone else, which would only put them back in the pre-IRL mode of having to deal with an independently owned and managed series (CART).

Yes, I know, Mari George has said (reported to have said) she won't sell the track, that it's for her grandchildren. The names most often mentioned of the next generation to run the place are Jarrod Krisiloff, Tony George Jr. and even Jesika Gunter. None are close to being ready -- remember Tony George was given the authority at age 29. And, even if they turn out to be the greatest businesspeople since retired GE CEO Jack Welch, the Speedway, the series, and the sport cannot wait for them. Their family business is in deep crisis -- there is no luxury of time.

There are simply too many problems to be solved, too many conflicting staff relationships to untangle, too much politics to be sorted out, too little credibility, too little leadership, not the correct "Vision." Whatever IndyCar will be in the future, it will have to be vastly different from what it is today, and those crucial and most difficult decisions can only be made now by new ownership, unburdened with its past choices and relationships. The roots of the problems run too deep to be fixed by those who did the planting in the first place.

Some potential bidders are obvious: International Speedway Corp., Speedway Motorsports Inc., Roger Penske (who I assume would unload the series and sign a very long-term contract of cooperation binding the Speedway to the series), John Menard, and an investment group including Tony George. There are other possibilities: The Walt Disney Co. (ESPN), some form of state of Indiana-private sector partnership, the group that owns Formula One's commercial rights, one of the private equity firms interested in sports/entertainment, maybe even Donald J. Trump.

The merits of those, or other, bidders can be debated later. For now, of this, I am certain:

Tony Hulman showed great leadership in buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mari Hulman George now must show leadership of equal greatness, and realize her family's time has passed. And I say that with true respect.

I see no other way. The situation is untenable.


[ more Nov. 7, when I'll announce the recepient of the 2011 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports Public Relations . . . ]