Bernard has IndyCar back on fast track

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - As he was chauffeured around Texas Motor Speedway in a two-seater car by triple Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford at a scary 170 mph, Randy Bernard was struck by the realization that the racing driver's life was not for him.

While it seems odd that the new IndyCar CEO has no great need for speed, Bernard is quick to point out that neither did he feel the urge to climb on to the back of an angry, snorting bull during the years he spent as boss of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) circuit.

"I told Johnny Rutherford: 'In 15 years I never even got on a mechanical bull and in three months you have me riding in the back of car like this'," Bernard told Reuters. "I cannot believe I did it.

"I always thought: 'I could be a race car driver'. I just didn't realize I would be so fearful of speed, going that fast. It blew my mind. It put things in a whole different perspective for me."

Bernard had never seen an IndyCar race before moving into his Indianapolis office but says he is quickly getting up to speed.

After taking over a sport that is a tail-ender in a crowded and competitive North American marketplace, Bernard wants to steer IndyCar back to the front of the grid.

He plans to use many of the tools and lessons learned while transforming bull-riding from a cowboy pastime seen at country fairs into a mainstream sport with a worldwide television audience and millions of dollars in sponsorship and prize money.

When Bernard took control of the PBR in 1995 the total sponsorship and advertising was $360,000.

Before he left, the circuit had cowboys from across the United States and Canada, as well as Brazil, Australia and Mexico, competing for more than $11 million in prize money.

DYING TRADITION

"I came into (bull riding) and saw this little piece of coal and was able to work on it and hopefully it is a diamond," said Bernard. "The word rodeo became a dirty word for us. We wanted to be considered bull riding.

"To me rodeo was someplace you took your grandkids to show them a tradition that is dying. I wanted to make it rock-and-roll, cool and fun and entertaining and you couldn't do that with the word rodeo, it had too much negativity attached to it.

"It's a process that took time. It took us 10 years and it's going to be the same thing here."

Efforts to return IndyCar to its glory days in the U.S. have been slow.

The bitter, decade-long feud that split the sport into two warring series (Indy Racing League and Champ Car) until reunification in 2008 left deep scars among American motorsport fans, with many migrating to NASCAR for their high-octane thrills.

What emerged from the wreckage was a series filled with unfamiliar faces.

Long gone were iconic names of American motorsport, the Andrettis, Foyts and Unsers, who used to battle wheel-to-wheel against the world's best such as Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Emerson Fittipaldi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve.

Last season no U.S. driver won an IndyCar race and when the current season began only three Americans had full-time rides.

Before the split, Cars had a firm foothold in the U.S. market and eyed worldwide expansion.

The IndyCar threat was such that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone warned tracks and promoters against fraternizing with the enemy, threatening sanctions for those who did.

BEST DRIVERS

Bernard, in the job for less than a year, has gone on the offensive, boldly firing warning shots across the bows of NASCAR and Formula One, saying he plans to make IndyCar the destination of choice for the world's top drivers.

"Fans are not going to spend $50 to $75 on a ticket unless they are guaranteed they are going to be watching the very best in the world," he said. "We've got to make sure we can tell our fans that we've got the very best, fastest, most versatile race car drivers in the world."

Already this year, Bernard has unveiled the 'Car of the Future' designed to make the sport more competitive, affordable (slashing costs by up to 40 percent) and attractive to fans by bringing in new aerodynamic kits and designs.

"He's being as careful as he can but he's not wasting time and that's our style too," IZOD CEO Michael Kelly told Reuters. "We like IndyCar, we see it as a stock that is under-valued. We didn't like NASCAR, I felt it was post-peak. Fundamentally the product is good."

Bernard has quickly won the support of team owners, including influential heavy-hitters such as Roger Penske and Michael Andretti.

He will be judged, though, on whether he can win back fans.

"We know in the mid '90s we lost 15 to 20 million fans," he said. "In my opinion that's low-lying fruit; how do we attract those back and assure them Indy car is back?

"They all didn't die. They are out there somewhere."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)