The Baltimore Grand Prix is coming Labor Day weekend, just four months after Indy Car racing celebrates 100 years of history, tradition and passion at the Memorial Day classic Indianapolis 500. The two events are not as far apart as they may seem at first glance. The open wheel sport is trying to rebuild and reinvigorate itself and Baltimore could be a key to that renewal.
Randy Bernard, who turns 44 Monday, is the Izod IndyCar Series CEO and the person in charge of its immediate future. He has been on the job for 11 months. This week he was in Baltimore to help the Baltimore Grand Prix promoters create a little buzz about the event.
Bernard came to the sport from Professional Bull Riders, Inc., where as CEO he took $20,000 in seed money and built the sport to worldwide popularity. Now, he is trying to re-establish IndyCar racing, a sport that took a beating for the last 16 years due to a fracture that broke the sport into two competing entities, Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Indy Racing League. The two organizations came back together in 2008, after long, rancorous debate and bankruptcy. Last February Bernard became CEO. The first thing he did was get rid of anything associated with CART and the IRL.
"When the sport split we lost 15 to 20 million fans," Bernard said. "They all hated the IRL or Champ Car [CART]. That's why I blew up the IRL and went back to Indy Cars. We're all back together after 100 years."
And now they're coming to Baltimore for an event Bernard said he believes "will be one of the top three events on our schedule within a year."
Question: Why bring an IndyCar race to Baltimore?
Answer: This is not my first trip to Baltimore. I've been here at different times over the years and I can see the city now compared to 10 years ago is not the same. It is such a beautiful city. It needs to be showcased. The people here should be so proud of the Inner Harbor. And the promoter here is very aggressive. I'm impressed by the due diligence. They wanted this race. It is a hungry promoter who wants to see it succeed for the city and for IndyCar. My first priority is to lay a firm foundation. This race goes hand-in-hand with that. And the track here, running through the Inner Harbor is absolutely beautiful as well.
Q: For those who may not know, what is IndyCar racing?
A: When I first came to this job I asked everyone on my staff and in management how to define the IRL.. Each person had a different idea of the meaning. They were all right, but they weren't in agreement. So we are now the Izod IndyCar Series. What that is the fastest, most versatile race cars and race car drivers in the world. We race [open wheel cars] on super speedways, oval, road and street courses and we race in the rain. No other series does that.
Q: What can fans expect at the Baltimore Grand Prix?
A: A great race. No driver has been able to drive this course. Everyone will be starting fresh and they will be driving unbelievable speeds. Going down Pratt Street, which will be our main straight, cars will be doing 185-190 miles an hour. In front of this hotel (The Intercontinental on Light St.), along the harbor, they'll reach 150 mph. The speed, the atmosphere will be terrific. You know, I come from a different place and I'd never been to a street race before I went to Long Beach last year. I was blown away with the atmosphere, the sounds, the big video screens that were all around the track — and will be here as well — the technology, the bands.
It's an all day event where there are so many things to do and it's all in the middle of a very competitive environment. The promoter here has great ideas. They're building for the future and they know if they do it right and produce the very best event for Baltimore, it will grow every year and that will be music to my ears.
Q: Give an example of one unique feature of this race weekend?
A: Our garages are open to anyone 9-years-old and up. It's in the garages where you hear and smell and see what racing is about. There is no doubt that when a young kid sees that it changes the way they look at the sport. There has always been the idea that kids can't come into the garage because of insurance. But we don't drive our cars in the garage. If our insurance agency won't insure us, we'll find different insurance agencies. We're building for the future. We have to make it entertaining, too, and attract new young fans. We're also planning a portable stage in the garage where crew chiefs, owners and drivers can walk up and talk.
Q: To get support for that you probably have to twist a few arms.
A: I can't tell you how supportive they've been. It's so remarkable. Everyone wants to see this sport grow.
Q: What has been the most impressive thing to you about this Baltimore event so far?
A: That after just six days of selling they'd sold 25,000 tickets. That's a big number. I think 100,000 [for the weekend] will be realistic.
Q: Will IndyCar help do anything special for this event?
A: I think the week leading up to the race there could be a Fan fest where we could have some of our best drivers come here to meet the public — Danica [Patrick], Helio [Castroneves], [Marco] Andretti. It's our job as a series to provide leverage [to get the named drivers to appear].
Q: While you may have to provide some pressure to get the best drivers here for an appearance before the race, will they all be here for the race?
A: You'll see the very best — Helio, Danica, Will Power, Andretti, [Ryan] Brisco, Simona [de Silvestro]. I took a lot of heat at our team owners meetings by saying there are certain drivers we can't have out there [on the race track]. I will not back down from that. If you're going to have fans play their good money for tickets they should expect to see the very best.
We have to have drivers who have talent. They have to be able to race. We have the 105 percent rule which is that a driver has to finish a lap within a percentage of the leader to stay on the race track. We had a program that paid $1.2 million to 24 leading owners. We've cut that to 22 team owners. We don't want our races to be a drive-by. You have to earn it. Fans have to understand how serious we are about presenting a great product.
Q: There have been a fair number of cities that have tried street races. Some, a few, like the Long Beach Grand Prix, have succeeded and become a fixture. Others have not. What makes a city street race work?
A: There has to be an understanding about the amount of money it requires to stage a successful race. It takes an investment of from $10 to $15 million before the first race. It's substantial.
I also think the failures have come because the tracks have not been wide enough to support plenty of passing. We have several events right now that have [troublesome] courses. I think it is my job to make sure if we can create a competitive, exciting race before we commit to it.
We have three goals to deliver to our fans: entertainment, a competitive event and a great value. We want to keep the general public interested. We feel if they come to one race, they'll come back to more.
Q: Do you have research or some facts that you've looked at that has persuaded you that a street race in Baltimore will be a success?
A: No. My research are blogs, the Internet, Facebook. Basically social media that tells me what fans want. And what they want is something on the East Coast. When I first heard I was coming here and saw the commitment the city, state and promoter have made I saw it as the perfect opportunity. The most important thing that goes in to making this work is their commitment.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun