By Jenna Fryer
INDIANAPOLIS — Randy Bernard knows there are people who blame him for Dan Wheldon’s death, who say the IndyCar CEO pushed the series over the edge.
In the 24 hours after the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in a fiery 15-car accident in the season finale, Bernard wondered if perhaps all the hate mail accusing him of sacrificing safety for the show was right.
“The last week was probably the most horrific week of my life,” Bernard told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.
It’s been open season on Bernard since the accident, and his silence all last week only intensified the scrutiny on his leadership of the open-wheel series.
Now, nine days later, Bernard is able to publicly talk about Wheldon and the day all his work toward building a spectacular finale went terribly wrong minutes into the race. He still becomes emotional about it, taking a deep breath in his office at IndyCar headquarters as he recalls the controversial decision to cancel the race.
Bernard is focused on moving forward and helping IndyCar through this dark period. He says he never once considered resigning but admits IndyCar is now “in crisis, and we have to get answers.”
“In tough times, that’s when you have to be focused,” Bernard said. “You have to lead, and I know this is a time I have to make sure I am going to be very decisive, very articulate and be a leader. In tough times is where you build your character; it’s not in good times.”
The second-year CEO was hired to revitalize the series despite no auto racing experience, and that’s contributing to blaming Bernard for creating the circumstances that led to Wheldon’s death.
He allowed a season-high 34 cars on a high-banked oval, where a field of mixed experience levels had enough room to race three-wide at over 220 mph around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And he offered a jobless Wheldon the chance to earn a $5 million bonus if he could drive from the back of the field to Victory Lane.
All those elements created a buzz around the race, where Dario Franchitti and Will Power would end their championship battle and superstar Danica Patrick would run her final event as a full-time IndyCar driver.
It was everything Bernard had been hired to do when IndyCar lured him away after running Professional Bull Riders for 15 years. He was so confident of improving on the poor TV ratings from the year before that he promised to resign if ABC’s broadcast drew anything less than a 0.8 rating. That would have meant that fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s homes with televisions watched the race.
Bernard insists he did not sensationalize the inherent danger in auto racing.
“I think anytime we are on any track it’s always dangerous — we do as much as we can to make it safe — (and) our storylines were never, ‘Come watch this dangerous event!'” he said.
“Our storylines going to Las Vegas were first and foremost ‘Come watch Will and Dario fight it out for the world championship.’ The No. 2 storyline was Dan Wheldon competing for $5 million starting at the back. Our third storyline was Danica Patrick. … Our fourth storyline was 34 cars in the race.
“I think none of those, looking back on it, had any type of connotation of any danger. If the race was tomorrow, it would still be the same storylines.”
Compelling competition, yes, but with a happy ending.
IndyCar now must look at making sweeping changes. And Bernard is prepared, even eager, to do that.
He called a three-hour driver meeting Monday, and Franchitti, a four-time champion, said there was no sense of anger toward Bernard as the drivers all had a chance to speak. Franchitti also said the CEO earned an immeasurable amount of respect by canceling the race after Wheldon’s death when grief-stricken drivers were unable to decide if the show — per tradition — should go on.
Bernard, with such limited auto racing experience, wasn’t tied to that etiquette. Instead, he went with his gut.
“I felt that I didn’t really care about tradition on this,” he said, becoming emotional for the only time in the hour-long interview. “I felt like no driver in their right mind could have a clear head knowing that one of their friends had just died, and I felt this is where I needed to make a stand and say ‘No.'”
Bernard called instead for a five-lap tribute. Drivers, including Tony Kanaan, Franchitti and Patrick, were seen sobbing as they climbed back into their cockpits.
Bernard took Wheldon’s death extremely hard and essentially isolated himself in Las Vegas after the race. “I was numb. I didn’t, I was, just numb,” he said.
But he went to work immediately. The first step was the driver meeting, followed by a three-hour strategic session with a small focus group to discuss the 2012 car that’s supposed to be a tremendous upgrade in safety and technology standards.
“It’s been an unfair beating on Randy because nobody singlehandedly makes decisions. I just don’t understand the criticism I’m seeing. It’s from people unaware of this industry and aiming with the buck-stops-here mentality,” said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage. “But there’s no doubt Randy’s got his hands full, and it’s an ugly situation.”
Bernard is hesitant to discuss specifics about Wheldon’s death, citing his desire to see what comes from the ongoing investigation. A team of series safety and competition officials is evaluating the data and will use independent experts and consultants for analysis before it’s turned over to a third-party group for validation.
“I think everything is premature right now,” Bernard said. “I want to see the investigation.”
But the questions remain, especially about the $5 million bonus. Without it, Wheldon never would have been in the race.
Originally, the promotion was designed to lure someone from outside the series to the season finale. Bernard had hoped that would be someone such as NASCAR stars Tony Stewart or Juan Pablo Montoya, but in the end only XGames star Travis Pastrana seriously tried to put together a deal. Then Pastrana broke his foot and ankle two days before his scheduled debut in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series in Indianapolis, where he was to sign an agreement to run for the $5 million IndyCar bonus.
That left Wheldon. Out of work all season except for his victorious one-off in the Indy 500, Wheldon met the spirit of the promotion because he wasn’t a series regular.
He wasn’t a slouch, either. Las Vegas was his 134th career start, and he had 16 career victories — 15 on ovals — and on the morning of the race, Wheldon had made a deal with Michael Andretti to replace Patrick full-time next season.
“On the bonus, if you are a professional race car driver, whether you are (ranked) 33rd, 23rd or first, your job is to win,” Bernard said. “That’s why they race. Every series has bonuses attached to winning, so I am not sure why people say that played a role.”
But what if it had been Pastrana? With so many questions swirling about the level of experience in the field, how would Bernard have justified letting Pastrana race at Las Vegas?
“I am not confident Travis Pastrana would have passed the testing required to compete in that race,” he said.
According to the contract Pastrana had been presented, a copy of which was obtained by AP, participation in the $5 million challenge required at least three two-day test sessions at Las Vegas and Kentucky Speedways supervised by IndyCar competition director Brian Barnhart and a designated active driver serving as a mentor. If he had passed testing, Pastrana still would have been subjected to a vote of approval from the current IndyCar drivers.
“The drivers themselves had to give him the thumbs up,” Bernard said. “If Travis Pastrana didn’t pass the test, that doesn’t make IndyCar look bad or him look bad, it shows you how difficult it is to be in one of our race cars. Dan Wheldon was experienced in our race cars.”
Bernard has a lot of serious issues to address in the six months before the 2012 season opener in St. Petersburg, and he won’t speculate on what could be coming until the investigation is complete. There could be changes to the new car, and the 2012 schedule has yet to be fully announced, so he has no idea how many ovals IndyCar could visit next year.
Las Vegas already had been announced as the 2012 season finale, but a return is undecided.
“It’s premature to answer anything related to that,” Bernard said, “but it’s part of IndyCar to race ovals and mile-and-a-halfs.”
Franchitti said ovals need to remain on the IndyCar schedule, and the focus should be on making the car more compatible with the tracks. He appreciates Bernard taking a wait-and-see approach. “We need, going forward as a series, we need to improve the safety of the cars vs. the tracks,” Franchitti said. “Randy has done a good job for us. I think there’s definitely some parts he still doesn’t understand, but he’s got other people here who understand racing.”
Bernard faced criticism this year when some of his ideas — double-file restarts and a random drawing to determine starting position for the second of two dual races at Texas — ran into resistance from the drivers. But he believes he can move the series forward.
“I look at this is a crisis, and I think we have to put this as our top priority,” he said. “We have to focus on first the factual determination and second the remedy. That’s how we have to look at this.”