Monday, May 17, 2010

Q&A Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard

Like most people, Randy Bernard likes to put the pedal to the metal. "Who doesn't like to drive fast?" says the freshly minted CEO of the Indy Racing League. Like most CEOs, Bernard knows all about marketing, brand building, wall-to-wall meetings and 24/7 workdays.
Oddly, what he doesn't know much about is Indy-style open-wheel car racing, where daredevil drivers zip along at speeds of up to 225 miles per hour.

For the past 15 years Bernard, 43, was CEO of Professional Bull Riders, where he learned the business from the ground up. He transformed a cowboy pastime once reserved for rodeos into a mainstream, made-for-TV, sponsorship-rich sport. He boosted the number of PBR events from eight to 400-plus, and increased sponsorships from $360,000 to $26 million.

So why not just coast and keep working at a gig he aced? Why start from scratch — again? Why take a job in an industry you know nothing about? It's a league that's fighting to win back fans, is lacking in brand-name icons such as hoops star LeBron James, is losing ground to NASCAR, and is still trying to recover from a nasty 12-year split with a rival open-wheel racing league, despite a highly publicized "reunification" of the sport in 2008.

In an era when jobs are tough to come by and workers need to reinvent themselves to survive, Bernard offers tips on how folks can break out of their comfort zones, avoid complacency and take a calculated risk to succeed at a new gig. He'll also get you up to speed on his accelerated learning curve at his new job and what's next for Indy, which is gearing up for its 94th Indianapolis 500 race on Sunday, May 30.

Q:A former PBR rider said, "There always comes a time when a man needs to saddle a new horse and go in a different direction." Is that how you felt about your decision to join Indy as a newbie to the racing game?

A: It is really important in all of our lives to embrace change. When you step outside your boundaries, you grow in another way. It's no different than folks that take classes their entire life and want to learn more. I had security at PBR. I had an offer to stay until 2012, but I believe 15 years within a single sport is a good time to leave. If you are at a place too long, you can get complacent. I saw so much opportunity at Indy Racing League, and that is what really excited me the most.

Q:What was your biggest fear before taking the job?

A: I never had any fear. It was strictly if I would be accepted in a world I did not come from. That was my biggest anxiety. It was important for me in the due diligence process to meet with the influencers in the racing industry — team owners, corporate sponsors, boards of directors — and look them square in the eye and make sure they would accept me. It was refreshing to see they would stand behind me. That relieved my anxiety.

Q: Bloggers have voiced concerns about Indy hiring a guy like you with no background in racing. Does coming in stone cold make your job harder — or easier?

A: There are pros and cons. One of the pros is I have no background in the politics of the sport, especially with the reunification, where there are deep-rooted issues, such as what side of the fence you were on. I don't care. My goal is to take Indy back to the top. The con is you do have a blind spot. The difference is not knowing the sport, the tradition, the culture. But if you can't teach the CEO about a sport, how are you going to reignite America on Indy racing and bring new fans in?

Q: In your first Indy press conference, you said you would do what it takes to learn the sport. What have you used as learning tools, and what have you learned so far?

A: I knew I would bust my butt to learn the sport. I have been spending two hours a week for the past four weeks attending a class about the history of the Indy 500 at a high school in Speedway, Ind. Donald Davidson, an Indy 500 historian who teaches the course, is brilliant. Tonight, I am going to watch sprint car races in Bloomington, Ind. It's not even an Indy event. It's a dirt track. I just want to learn more about racing and other facets of the sport. I want to see the fans of that form of racing. I want to take it all in.

Q:I heard you never saw an Indy race until you took the job. Was it similar to a kid going to Yankee Stadium for the first time?

A: My first one was the São Paulo Indy 300 in Brazil back in March. My first impression was: the speed. I was blown away by how fast these cars go. It was a street course, and they were traveling upwards of 180 miles per hour. And then there was the danger element. On the very first lap between turns one and two, there was a wreck involving Marco Andretti, and another car ended up on top of him right in front of me. My first comment was, "Oh my God! Not even one lap into it." I was praying to God, let him be all right. I didn't realize how much danger there was.

Q:Every sports league needs stars to promote. At your last job, you "humanized bulls" to the point that people wanted to know what they ate and how much Gatorade they drank. I know Mario Andretti and the Unser and Foyt names from my childhood, but no other current drivers come to mind, other than Danica Patrick, mainly because she is female. Who is Indy's LeBron James or Sidney Crosby— and do you have to promote them more?

A: We have stars. There's last year's Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, a Brazilian who was the winner of Dancing with the Stars in 2007. (Scotland-born) Dario Franchitti. Tony Kanaan. And then you have Danica Patrick. In my opinion, we haven't created good enough story lines for fans to follow and understand and appreciate our drivers as athletes. Fans have had a difficult time connecting with our athletes except for Danica, who keeps pushing the limit as one of the greatest drivers in the world, which people respect. Our drivers have phenomenal personalities, and we have to promote them more. How? The best example I can give is this: I could care less about watching the Winter Olympics — until they start. And once they start, and I sit down and watch those feature stories about the athletes, I am invested in following through to see if the star wins gold.

Q: As a new CEO, and an outsider at that, what's the secret to gaining the trust of your new employees?

A: The most important thing I can do is to listen. I want to listen to everyone. Not only the best driver in the world but also the 24th-best driver. The No. 1 team owner and the smallest team owner. It is my job to make sure I can understand all their concerns, while at the same time do what is right.

Q:To learn what PBR fans were thinking, you had all e-mails to the website routed to your personal e-mail. Are you doing that at Indy?

A: Not yet, but I will. I want to get a pulse of America. The fans that will send you e-mails are purists and traditionalists. They have great ideas. And getting feedback from them is invaluable. At PBR, I was looking for e-mails (that highlighted problems or ideas). If I saw a complaint from one or two people I would listen. But when I saw 25, 30, 50 or 100 e-mails on a certain issue (that needed to be addressed), I would forward it along to the appropriate department and get a response on how we could fix the problem.

Q: The mid-1990s split between Indy and CART hurt the sport, and despite the 2008 unification with the renamed Champ Car, open-wheel racing is still trying to regain its mojo. Why?

A: At the time of the split, drivers had to choose what way they wanted to go. Most of the stars went to CART. So you no longer had all your stars competing in the same races week in and week out. A perfect analogy would be if Tiger Woods and his guys created their own golf tour, but the Masters stayed in Augusta, Ga. (and went on without them). A lot of fans got frustrated and left the sport. Once you lose someone, it is much more difficult to get them back.

Q: Are you still trying to lure fans back, including those that defected to NASCAR?

A: Yes. You have to walk a fine line, because what you learn with 99 years of history is you have purists and traditionalists that see the sport in one way. These are the people that can tell you exactly what year they watched their first Indy 500, and what kind of chassis and engines were used and who was driving. Then there is the core fan, the people that just love cars. We have to reignite the core.

Q: Your old boss said you have a tireless work ethic. Are you an all-work, no play, 24/7 kind of guy? Is that what it takes to be a CEO?

A: I'm not sure about most CEOs, but from my standpoint, I need to eat, sleep and breathe it. Two months ago, racing became my life, and my family has an understanding of how I operate. Thank God they accept that.

Q:What's a typical day at your new gig?

A: I'm up at 5 a.m. and at the gym by 5:30. I do 30 to 45 minutes of cardio using the elliptical and treadmill. Then I do a very light weight workout. Typically, I'm at the office by 7:30 a.m. I check e-mails and phone messages. Then it is wall-to wall meetings. I take my own notes and have three or four notepads that are completely full right now. I never get home before 10:30 p.m. But I love being a CEO. I have a spring in my step. I enjoy what I do. I'm excited to get up every morning.

Q:What's the most important thing you learned at PBR that you will bring to Indy?

A: The importance of brand and the perception of the brand. We have a great sport. We need to let the fans know that the best drivers in the world are competing in Indy races.

Adam Shell, USA TODAY

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