The news lately out of IndyCar is that CEO Randy Bernard is swinging the ax. Some people got shown the door a few weeks ago, and last night the rabble rousing Roy Hobbson set off a Twitter froth by breaking the news via tweet that long-time Commercial Division President Terry Angstadt had resigned.
Instantly Twitter went on a Brian Barnhart Resignation Watch. Not much later Robin Miller reported that Barnhart, Competition Division President, had been pushed out of his duties as chief referee in race control (the Iron Hand of Justice), and will assume new, unspecified duties within IndyCar. Read it here.
Both Angstad and Bernard were hired by Bernard's predecessor, Tony George, who was ousted by the board of directors in favor of Bernard at the start of the 2010 season.
This all reminds me of a head coach who has a spotty won/loss record sacking his assistants for one last shot at making it work. There's some logic to that -- a new boss (head coach) is going to want to pick his or her team. When the new boss inherits a bunch of senior people, inevitably the ax falls on those the boss does not want to work with.
Mind you, none of this should reflect on the man personally, and maybe not even professionally. Very few people are fired because they are assholes. Most get "let go" because they are not fitting with the team. I have been through this myself. The employee's product (labor) is not meeting the needs of the consumer (company), so the consumer takes his or her business elsewhere. It's just business. (Getting canned in this manner was the best thin that ever happened to me, professionally.) It's embarrassing for the guy or girl who gets "let go," as I know full well having been through it, but we shouldn't read more into it than that absent far more than we know for sure right now.
I also expect that Angstadt got a handsome parting gift (severance by any other name) to go quietly into the night. He's going to be fine.
As for Barnhart, the second he lost the support of most of the drivers and many of the owners, he was done as chief referee. Bernard expressed "full confidence" in Barnhart during some controversial moments mid-season, but I think that was kind of a fib. Or one of those "technically true at that very second" deals. Kind of like the technically true line Bernard ran by us when he said up to the second of the new car announcement, that ICONIC committee hadn't yet decided on a manufacturer.
Yeah, OK, technically true, and they all did their ridiculously over-dramatic faux voting on their Verizon Motorola Droids before IndyCar announced the winner complete with holograms. But, obviously, IndyCar knew how everyone was going to vote far in advance because they created all the props and holograms for the meeting. Personally, that head-fake of a deal left the bad taste of hucksterism in my mouth.
Regardless of the technical truth of Bernard's "full confidence in Barnhart" statement, you can't really fire your chief steward mid-season because 1) you need a chief steward to race and 2) nobody qualified will step in mid-season unless you pay them "f*ck you" money, which IndyCar clearly does not have. So Bernard, I believe, had to stick with Barnhart until the end of the year.
The upshot of all these maneuvers is it's more Randy's show than ever now. He's got all his people. Can't really blame anything on "these people I inherited." When you get rid of your assistant coaches and key players, bring in new ones that YOU hire, and the team doesn't perform, well, the buck don't stop at Angstadt's old desk.
Randy Bernard has done several good things so far. First, he's been about 1000% more accessible and visible than his predecessor ever was. Tony George's big issue was his complete aversion to "doing media" (giving interviews, etc.). That only let his detractors paint the picture as they wanted it. I think it was a personality issue with Tony. Bernard understands that he has to be out there, talking to people, getting interviewed to generate media, meeting fans, etc. etc. He gets that.
He also gets that it's ALL ABOUT TV RATINGS. It always has been, but people were in denial for a very long time. "Only a number" and "flawed sysetm" may be technically true, but they are also excuses. Like it or not, ratings are what drive sponsorship investments. Low ratings, low sponsorship investment. All kinds of sub-wrinkles and nuances, but that's still pretty much the law of the land. Randy gets that too.
Unfortunately, the 2011 season was pock marked with some debacles. The chorus wanted Milwaukee and New Hampshire on the schedule. We got them and they both flopped. Attendance was crap and they look to be one-and-done events. When Danica said "not my fault" at Indy she got booed. Randy said (without saying) "not my fault" for Milwaukee and New Hampshire. Buck stops at the promoters, apparently.
More bad news: oval tracks are no longer returning IndyCar's phone calls, because America ain't buying the IndyCar oval product, excluding the Indy 500. I don't believe anyone really thinks an all-street-and-road-course series will fair better than Champ Car did, but you can't race where you're not wanted.
Some of this falls on Bernard's decision to rent Las Vegas from his "personal hero" Bruton Smith. The second that deal was inked, Texas Motor Speedway's president Eddie Gossage was most likely thinking "and I'm paying $1.5 million in sanctioning fees ... why?" New Hampshire's track boss essentially said due to the dismal crowd that IndyCar is out unless they want to rent. If Texas goes away, that leaves Iowa and California. If Iowa gets an NASCAR Cup race, I wonder what date they will offer? Tension City on ovals.
Randy also spends too much time espousing the greatness of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. Yeah, they are great. Yeah, they are smart, but when's the last time Bernard said something about a small team? I'm sure he has, but they are tiny in proportion to his glowing comments about Roger and Chip. Teams are like kids. You talk about two of your 10 kids all the time, the other eight get pissy about it. Bernard needs to spend sometime and give some love to the little guys.
Personal bias -- Ed Carpenter's win at Kentucky, arguably the biggest oval upset in IndyCar in the last decade, seemed to be overlooked by the Vegas Hype. Story lines going into Las Vegas were established a month earlier, and the question of if Ed could repeat his Luke Skywalker act at Kentucky was not one of them. Mistake. That and the abysmal TV and low in-person Kentucky audience mean David fell Goliath but nobody was there to record it for posterity.
Vegas. Leaving the crash out of the equation, Vegas was iffy, in my view. Attendance was sparse despite the massive (for IndyCar) promotion. IndyCar also handled the post-crash poorly. They started off very strong and kudos to Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi for meeting the media at the track after having just heard of Dan Wheldon's death. That showed a lot of character and courage.
But then IndyCar inexplicably went dark for about a week. No voice in the media. So while everyone from The View to New York Times was spouting all kinds of crazy, IndyCar didn't respond. I realize everyone was grieving over Wheldon's death, but you can't let the crazy go unanswered for even a day. You can't let "Randy Bernard could not be reached for comment" happen in those stories. Get "outside PR counsel" on the job if you have to. Anoint someone else like PR VP Amy Konrath to be your spokesperson if you're not up to it personally. It's possible to be sensitive to Wheldon's family and still answer the crazy.
At one point Ashley Judd was the spokesperson for IndyCar. Not good. Thank heavens Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt and Sarah Fisher pulled it together to get on record and answer some of the crazy. IndyCar should also send a bouquet to the Associated Press's Jenna Fryer who got Bernard on record, even though IndyCar made her work far too hard to do it. She could have easily just stuck to NASCAR and let IndyCar remain silent. At least we eventually had the big AP gun pumping out some stories that included IndyCar's side of the deal.
Beyond that, IndyCar pretty much put all it's promotional eggs in one Las Vegas basket. That's going to create resentment and envy at other tracks as well. Track promoter question: Why do you have every driver in town at Las Vegas and I get two rookies for one day for media? Again, dangerous precedents.
So while Bernard seems much beloved by the bloggers (and I expect my excoriation to commence in the comments), and I give him credit for many positive things, I'd give him a "C" for 2011. Certainly Wheldon's death is not a mark against Bernard. The idea that he could see that coming is rot. But the PR reaction to Wheldon's death was poor, and that IS on Bernard. The communication of the progress of this accident inquiry is also lacking. We got the "inquiry is going forward" announcement, but that was more than a month ago. How long does it take? Slip us a memo, IndyCar.
Now that Bernard is clearing the field of players he doesn't support and replacing them with his people 2012 is all his. We'll see how he does. I hope it turns out for the best. But if we're right back here in late 2012, well, the buck stops ...