Sports

Bernard takes long road to head of IRL

Indy CEO Randy Bernard talks with media during practice of the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the Barber Motorsport Park on Friday, April 9, 2010, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Indy CEO Randy Bernard talks with media during practice of the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the Barber Motorsport Park on Friday, April 9, 2010, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) AP

It may not have looked like the most natural career move for Randy Bernard, but he’s already immersed in his new challenge.

Bernard, 43, a Cal Poly alumnus and King City High grad, spent the past 15 years overseeing the Professional Bull Riders association.

Today, about four months after being hired as the CEO of the Indy Racing League, he’ll walk into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to oversee his new sport’s premier event, the Indy 500.

“Growing up in San Ardo, a town of about 500 people, it’s pretty amazing to think that (today) I’m going to be there with 350,000 people (in attendance),” Bernard said in a phone interview Thursday.

“It has been a pretty dramatic adjustment,” he said of transitioning from the PBR. He regularly returns to the Central Coast, calling it one of his favorite areas in the country. “Coming from a Western lifestyle to motor sports, it’s a significant change.”

Bernard studied agricultural business at Cal Poly prior to leaving the school before graduating in order to work full-time at the marketing and entertainment department of the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, where he endeavored for six years.Those travels served as an apropos launching pad into the bull riding arena.

Coupled with what has come to be widely described as a tireless work ethic, his background made him a savvy fit as the CEO of the PBR. A year ago, its attendance jumped 12 percent (and had increased by 23 percent through five events this year), while TV ratings rose 30 percent.

“Randy is an experienced, successful CEO,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Jeff Belskus told the Associated Press at the time of Bernard’s hiring. “He’s been in the sports and entertainment business. He’s a sports marketer; he’s a promoter. He’s had a lot of success with the professional bull riders. We hope he can duplicate that here.”

The IRL’s national appeal has dimmed a bit of late compared to the strides made by the commercial juggernaut that is NASCAR.

Furthermore, the outfit took something of a perceived hit in recent months when Danica Patrick, arguably its most iconic driver, began moonlighting in NASCAR.

Bernard, though, not only said he isn’t deterred by NASCAR’s ever-increasing popularity but has reason to be encouraged by what can be construed as overall mainstream appeal of racing, whether open-wheel or stock-car.

“I think all boats rise on a high tide,” he explained.

In line with competing against NASCAR and other outlets, Bernard said, one of his primary goals is to enhance “driver affinity” on behalf of fans — the visibility and marketability of IRL racers’ individual personas.

Bernard has already been running ragged meeting with team owners and sponsors, gathering input on the future. A detailed, “multi-layered” marketing strategy will be outlined by September, he said.

“I’ve been drinking water from a fire hose,” Bernard said of becoming acclimated to his new surroundings. “I’m truly blessed to have been able to do this. I think a lot of people would dream to have this job.

“This sport has so much culture and tradition,” he continued. “In 1995, it was the largest racing league in the world. That’s our goal — to grow the sport to new levels. That’s my job. That’s what I want to do.”

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