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Chevy teams grow restless with Bernard

30 May 2012

Pretty much everyone agrees that the Indianapolis 500 was a complete all-round success for the IZOD IndyCar Series, with many drivers and pundits calling Sunday's event the best motor race of the year in any series - and certainly the best Indy 500 in at least a decade.

You'd think that this would leave the series, its teams and organisers walking on air after such a success. But instead, reports have gathered pace in the last few days that the team owners affiliated with the engine manufacturer Chevrolet are anything but happy - and are seeking the removal of the CEO of the IndyCar Series, Randy Bernard.

The Associated Press reported on the signs of discontent before the weekend, but those stories were somewhat lost in the build-up to the Indy 500 and only reignited on Tuesday when Bernard himself admitted in a tweet that "It is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired."

He added: "I have had several owners confirm this. Disappointing."

It's not clear exactly which Chevy-badged team owners are actively involved in this campaign, but SPEED TV correspondent Robin Miller specifically stated that Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team principal Dennis Reinbold was not one of those supporting the initiative.

"It's real easy: full-time Chevrolet team owners, how's that? Can I condense it anymore? [But] don't include Dennis Reinbold in there," said Miller when asked for his view on who was involved in the move to oust Bernard, during a telephone interview with Indianapolis radio station 1070 The Fan. "There's always this under bed of unhappiness in auto racing, and it usually starts from the car owner, then permeates to fans and drivers. Everything is never good enough, it's always bad news.

"Is it perfect? No, but it's a helluva lot better than it was three or four or five years ago," Miller insisted. "If the car owners are unhappy because they're not getting their way or because they don't have their yes-man little puppet in there, then I suggest they go and find something else to do."

Many had assumed that it would be Roger Penske leading the charge to have Bernard ousted, as he was the prime mover in coaxing Chevrolet back to IndyCar after seven years away. But although Penske and Bernard had reportedly stopped speaking some weeks ago, the latest reports suggest that there was a rapprochement over the Indy 500 weekend and that diplomatic relations between the two men had resumed, with Penske publicly recommitting his support to Bernard's leadership of the series on Friday.

Asked on Twitter if Penske was the owner that he had referred to as calling around, Bernard responded unequivocally: "No its [sic] not."

A number of issues seem to be behind the growing dissatisfaction of the Chevrolet stable of teams with the present IndyCar management, the most high profile and fractious being the decision by the series to allow rival manufacturers Honda to make improvements to their turbochargers to upgrade their engine's performance relative to that of Chevrolet.

Chevrolet objected but was overruled by the series' vice president of technology, Will Phillips. Chevy pursued the appeals process to its fullest extent which included two independent appeals adjudications, and duly lost in every round. But that did little to assuage their feelings of having been hard done by.

"I think it's very clear that IndyCar is not going to play favourites," said Bernard last week. Saying that he was fully aware of "the unbelievable amount of passion to win, desire to win, not only from drivers but mainly from team owners," he conceded: "When a call is not made in their direction, of course they're going to be upset."

While it initially appeared that Honda's upgrades had done little to narrow the gap in race performance that Chevrolet evidently had over Honda in the first four races of the current season - with Chevy cars also going on to dominate Indy 500 qualifying - the sudden improvement by the Honda camp on Carb Day and the eventual 1-2 finish by Honda-powered Ganassi cars in the race itself has apparently reopened the festering wound.

To the Chevrolet camp, the Indy 500 outcome has vindicated their original protest and 'proved' that the turbocharger decision was biased against them. There were mutterings that Honda had been 'sandbagging' during the turbocharger appeals process to get the ruling that they wanted - and even that they had brought in special new upgrades for their Race Day engines and for Ganassi in particular.

Will Phillips denied those suggestions on Tuesday. "The manufacturer does not pick who gets what engine, IndyCar does that," he said. "The Honda engines for the race were already allocated prior to qualifying." He added that there were some areas for overall engine development and that all of Honda's Race Day engines could have had improved mappings and calibrations, but that this was also true for Chevrolet and Lotus.

However, other sources - even in the rival engine camp - questioned whether Honda hadn't found someway to be able to play favourites. Driver Townsend Bell, for example, tweeted after the race: "Happy with finish given B league motor treatment. Wish I had the new spec to fight at the front."

But it's not only 'turbogate' that has team owners up in arms.

The unusual extensive raft of penalty fines levied on teams after qualifying weekend also hit teams where it most hurts - in the wallet. The IndyCar Series netted $275,000 in 18 different levied penalties on 13 different car teams for pre-qualifying technical violations. There was a further $25,000 post-qualifying fine subsequently imposed on the KV Racing Technology car of EJ Viso, after finding that the team had added internal components to retract the brake callipers and reduce friction between brake pads and brak discs.

Although retracting callipers is clearly against the IndyCar rulebook, such tweaks have been a common practice in the series for years and suddenly getting handed fines for it this year has clearly caught many teams out. They appear unhappy that they weren't alerted in advance to a new hard line being imposed, and cite it as another example of allegedly poor communications between Bernard's newly appointed senior series management officials and the teams themselves.

"I know a lot of teams are upset at the fines, and it might sting a bit right now," said race director Beaux Barfield last week. "But we want to make sure the big prize - $7 million in total prize money on Sunday and $3 million to win - is earned fairly."

This extra $300k 'sting' on teams came on top of heavy costs for buying the new Dallara DW12 chassis and the costs for engine deals with Chevrolet and Honda for the 2012 season. With the performance failure of Lotus meaning that the engine supply situation has become a de facto duopoly squeezing unit supply and driving licensing deals up, added to the monopoly in car bodywork spare parts for Dallara, the 'lower cost' new series specification is proving a lot more expensive than team owners feel that they had been led to believe going in.

Despite the signs and rumours in recent weeks, most fans of the series will be amazed that Bernard's position could be under threat. He has successfully steered the series through a major technical overhaul and the introduction of multiple engine suppliers, delivered increased TV audiences and race attendances and now a very successful Indianapolis 500, all while making big in-roads into the series' previous crippling financial debts and ongoing losses - and all in just 28 months in charge.

"I'm not saying Randy Bernard knows a whole lot about auto racing, but he's learning," said Robin Miller on 1070 The Fan. "He's honest, he's the hardest-working person I've ever been around. He listens to people. He spends all his time on air planes trying to save race tracks, trying to find new race tracks, trying to work on the TV deal that he inherited and trying to make it better."

But the even bigger fear for many fans and observers is that the series may be taking its first steps down the path to another catastrophic schism, as happened in the 1990s when half the team owners opted to split from CART and set up the new Indy Racing League with then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George - now co-owner of Ed Carpenter Racing, and believed to be interested in retaking the reigns of IndyCar should Bernard be ousted.

That split devastated fan support for US open wheel racing and basically handed NASCAR the opportunity to takeover the entire motor sports scene in the US, and there is still a long way back for IndyCar to anything like its former heights. Another split in the meantime, however, would more likely jerk it backwards and take it over the edge into the abyss for good.


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