Interim IndyCar CEO Jeff Belskus insisted Thursday it was business as usual for the series after a week of upheaval that included sharp criticism over the abrupt and awkward end of a three-year run by CEO Randy Bernard.
Belskus, who is also the Indianapolis Motor Speedway chief executive, ran IndyCar after Tony George’s resignation in 2009 until Bernard took over in early 2010. He said again that the Hulman-George family, which owns both the speedway and IndyCar, is not considering selling the money-draining open-wheel series.
“Because we are bullish on its future, we think the future is very bright,” Belskus said. “I spent this week in a deep dive over at the IndyCar Series offices, I met with the leadership team and the staff and the team is energized, I’m energized by what I am seeing. We have a bright future.”
Belskus spoke at length for the first time since Bernard’s run as CEO came to a messy ending Sunday night. The move was panned by team owner Roger Penske, who accused the IMS board of showing “poor judgment” and not having a “future plan,” and fans who believed the energetic Bernard had the series headed in the right direction.
Asked if there was anything that could have been done differently over the last week, Belskus simply said: “I wish I could have gotten more sleep. It’s been a busy time.”
That’s probably not the answer anyone was looking for after four days of waiting for any sort of indication from IMS that the Penske was mistaken and that IndyCar will be just fine as it moves forward. Whether they agreed with Bernard’s departure, few fans have praised series owners for their handling of the situation.
One reader even suggested to the Indianapolis Star that the Indianapolis-based series should be renamed “IdiotCar.”
In an open letter posted on the IndyCar website, Belskus admitted the past week has been challenging and called on fans to “harness the energy and emotion of this time for the good of the sport we all love.”
“Without you — your eyes watching our races, your social media reminders to your friends as to why you are passionate about our drivers and events, your financial sacrifice to travel to and purchase tickets to our races, and your passion to stand up, be counted and tell us your likes and concerns — we will not succeed,” he wrote.
Belskus said he planned to reach out to “series stakeholders,” including fans, but wasn’t direct when asked what impact the handling of Bernard’s departure might have on a series desperate for fans.
“Change is hard and I get that, and I understand that. We’ve come to a mutual decision to separate. Randy wasn’t fired and he didn’t resign and that’s what we all think is in our best interest,” Belskus said. “It created some uncertainty, and anytime you create uncertainty I don’t think that’s positive. But I tell you, that we are moving ahead and we are focused on the future and 2013 now.”
Bernard has not commented publicly.
Belskus also disagreed with Penske’s criticism of the move.
“This is a complicated situation with a lot of moving parts to it, so I don’t agree with it,” Belskus said. “We have a replacement in place, and that’s me. I am the CEO of the IndyCar Series now. We intend to conduct a search, and that process hasn’t been defined real well at this point. As we put some better definition around it we’ll move ahead.”
It all comes roughly six weeks after IndyCar concluded one of its best seasons in series history. Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win the championship in six years, and Chevrolet won the manufacturer title in its return to the series after a six-year absence.
There were eight different on-track winners and IndyCar debuted its first new car in nine years. Bernard also unveiled the 2013 schedule on Oct. 1 that brings back Pocono after 23 years, and resumes the “The Triple Crown” promotion, an IndyCar tradition last done in 1989.
But those inside the industry have complained the uncertainty of Bernard’s future and the mishandling of his departure have taken the focus away from all the positives, and several owners and drivers who attended the annual SEMA Show trade show in Las Vegas this week complained IndyCar was the laughingstock of the industry.
IndyCar will have to bring some kind of closure to the sales rumors. George last month submitted an unsolicited bid of $5 million to reacquire the series from his mother and three sisters, but the Hulman & Co. board did not consider it. George resigned from the board Oct. 19, citing a conflict of interest in holding a seat while trying to purchase the series he created in 1994 and ran until he was stripped of power by his family in 2009.
Bernard, the former head of Professional Bull Riders, was brought in by George’s sister, Josie, in 2010 to revitalize the series. He generally was praised for his stewardship, some owners aside, right up until Sunday’s emergency meeting of the 11-member IMS board called with two years left on his contract.
Asked what message drivers and team owners should offer to sponsors and fans, Belskus said it was one of moving forward.
“The message is we’ve got a bright future for the IndyCar Series, and I see a lot of opportunity,” Belskus said. “The plan for 2013, we are continuing to execute it. Parts of it have been executed already, for example. The schedule, it’s an exciting schedule, and we look forward to good competition for the series. We had good competition in 2012, and I believe we’ll have good or better competition in 2013.”
Belskus said the immediate goals include increasing the fan base, which begins by redirecting marketing and promotional dollars.
“We want a healthy IndyCar Series,” he stressed. “Our fans are extremely important to us. We need to grow that fan base.”
He was less direct when asked about a SpeedTV.com account of Bernard’s firing that indicated team owners plotted his dismissal all season. It portrayed the owners as having all the power in the series, and the ability to overrule Bernard’s decisions by going above him to Belskus at any time.
The owner-led coup had been common knowledge inside the paddock all season, and Bernard even tweeted about it two days after the Indianapolis 500. Belskus said he was aware of, but had not read Wednesday’s SpeedTV.com account of the plot against Bernard.
“We have a lot of important key stakeholders in the IndyCar Series. Car owners certainly fall into that category. They are very important to us,” Belskus said. “But there are others who are very important to us as well. The drivers, the drivers are our stars. The tracks, the promoters are very important to us as well. The fans, they are the most important group to us. You’ve got to balance all of those and try to do what is in everyone’s best interest. You’ve got to listen to all of our stakeholders and balance their needs and desires.”