The series that runs the famed Indianapolis 500 and other races featuring Indy-style cars this year enjoyed one of its most exciting seasons.
It was capped by a dramatic finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, where the title was decided on the final lap in favor of driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, the series’ first American champion in six years.
But six weeks after the season ended, all that is being overshadowed by the drama, yet again, within IndyCar’s leadership.
The directors who control the Izod IndyCar Series on Sunday parted ways with the series’ chief executive, Randy Bernard, whom they hired nearly three years ago to reinvigorate the struggling sport.
Neither they nor Bernard explained why he left, they haven’t commented since then and a permanent successor was not immediately appointed.
But in the eyes of many IndyCar observers, Bernard effectively was ousted after the Californian lost the support of the series directors, who are led by the Hulman-George family that owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and some of its team owners.
Also stirring the pot was IndyCar’s former chief, Tony George, who reportedly was preparing what amounted to a hostile takeover bid to acquire the series, one the series so far has rebuffed.
So with five months until the 2013 IndyCar season opens, it’s not clear who will take over the job of trying to resurrect the circuit’s popularity, which had been battered by years of political infighting and rival factions within the sport.
A good number of IndyCar pundits and fans, using Twitter and other social media, this week harshly criticized IndyCar’s directors for the way they treated Bernard, 45, and for not being clearer about why he left or the sport’s plans.
Bernard, who ran Professional Bull Riders Inc. and had no motor racing experience before he was hired, had made strides to boost IndyCar’s presence.
They included introducing a new race car and a second engine manufacturer that enhanced competition this season. He expanded next year’s schedule to 19 races from 15 this year. Three of those races are in California: Fontana, Long Beach and Sonoma.
But in three seasons Bernard struggled to bolster IndyCar’s attendance and television ratings, which badly lag those of NASCAR stock car racing, making it tough to attract major new sponsors.
And only days after a highly touted Indy 500 in May, Bernard helped fuel the controversy over IndyCar’s leadership by disclosing that some unidentified team owners were trying to get him fired.
Roger Penske, among the sport’s leading team owners with a record 15 Indy 500 victories, told the Associated Press this week that he was “very disappointed” with Bernard’s departure and that IndyCar’s directors showed “poor judgment.”
Their judgment will be tested again when IndyCar selects a chief executive, and how soon it does so.