By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
Randy Bernard stepped down as CEO of IndyCar on Sunday, bringing an end to a three-year reign that was disrupted this season by several attempts by team owners to have him ousted as head of the series.
The decision was announced following an executive session conducted by teleconference Sunday by the 11-member Indianapolis Motor Speedway board of directors.
Jeff Belskus, the president of IMS and president and CEO of Hulman & Co., will step in as interim CEO of the IndyCar Series. Bernard, who has two years remaining on the contract he signed when he joined IndyCar in 2010, will stay on in an advisory position.
The decision was immediately criticized by Roger Penske, the most powerful owner in open-wheel racing.
"I'm very disappointed in this decision; the board continues to show poor judgment. There is no future plan," Penske said. "The series had momentum. New cars, new engines and new race formats, all brought about by Randy.
"No business can run with a senior management change every two years."
Both the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are owned by the Hulman-George family, which holds four spots on the 11-member IMS board and four spots on the 10-member Hulman & Co. board.
The decision for Bernard to step down was made by the IMS board, which felt a "mutual separation" was the only way to stop speculation over his job security.
Belskus, in a telephone interview Sunday night with The Associated Press during the final portion of the board meeting, gave few details about the split.
"Both parties agree that it's time to move forward separately, it's an amicable separation and Randy is going to stay on in an advisory capacity," Belskus said.
But IndyCar is coming off arguably its best season in series history. Bernard introduced the first new car in nine years this season, and the on-track product was perhaps the best in auto racing.
IndyCar had eight different winners, its first American champion since 2006 in Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Chevrolet won the engine manufacturer title in its return to the series after a six-year absence. Pressed how it was in IndyCar's "best interest" to part with a CEO who brought such positives to the series and was popular with fans, Belskus gave no answer.
"I'm not going to comment," he said.
It's been that kind of a month for IndyCar, which has been plagued by rumors of owner-led coups against Bernard all season. It reached a fevered pitch in the last month as series founder Tony George attempted to reclaim control with an offer to purchase the series from Hulman & Co.
It's long been believed that George, who was stripped of power in 2009 by his mother and three sisters, has been leading the charge to oust Bernard, who was hired in 2010 to re-energize the series.
Hulman & Co. has insisted George's offer was never entertained and IndyCar is not for sale. But George stepped down from the board nine days ago, citing a conflict of interest in holding a seat while trying to purchase the series.
It did nothing to quiet the uncertainty surrounding Bernard, who has worked for more than a year amid uncertain job security because he could never secure any sort of public support from the board of directors or the Hulman-George family.
The speculation was suffocating last week, and Bernard and an IMS spokesman both denied a report Friday that Bernard had been fired. It led driver Graham Rahal, one of the most recognizable names in the series, to plead for some sanity Friday afternoon.
"Come on people either keep Randy or fire him but this is foolish and embarrassing for this sport," he posted on Twitter.
After two days of silence and Bernard in apparent limbo, the IMS board called an emergency teleconference Sunday to figure out a solution.
In a statement, Bernard specifically thanked Josie George, who brought him to IndyCar and said the series is "better poised for success than it has been in many years.
"I have developed a passion for the sport of IndyCar," he said in the statement. "As IndyCar fans, we need to unify behind the sport in order to move it to the next level, and I look forward to providing input and being part of that unified voice along the way."