- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Randy Bernard knows there are people who blame him for Dan Wheldon’s death, who say the IndyCar CEO pushed the series over the edge.

In the 24 hours after the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in a fiery 15-car accident in the season finale, Bernard wondered if perhaps all the hate mail accusing him of sacrificing safety for the show was right.

“The last week was probably the most horrific week of my life,” Bernard told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.

It’s been open season on Bernard since the accident, and his silence all last week only intensified the scrutiny on his leadership of the open-wheel series.

Now, nine days later, Bernard is able to publicly talk about Wheldon and the day all his work toward building a spectacular finale went terribly wrong minutes into the race. He still becomes emotional about it, taking a deep breath in his office at IndyCar headquarters as he recalls the controversial decision to cancel the race.

Bernard is focused on moving forward and helping IndyCar through this dark period. He says he never once considered resigning but admits IndyCar is now “in crisis, and we have to get answers.”

“In tough times, that’s when you have to be focused,” Bernard said. “You have to lead, and I know this is a time I have to make sure I am going to be very decisive, very articulate and be a leader. In tough times is where you build your character; it’s not in good times.”

The second-year CEO was hired to revitalize the series despite no auto racing experience, and that’s contributing to blaming Bernard for creating the circumstances that led to Wheldon’s death.

He allowed a season-high 34 cars on a high-banked oval, where a field of mixed experience levels had enough room to race three-wide at over 220 mph around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And he offered a jobless Wheldon the chance to earn a $5 million bonus if he could drive from the back of the field to Victory Lane.

All those elements created a buzz around the race, where Dario Franchitti and Will Power would end their championship battle and superstar Danica Patrick would run her final event as a full-time IndyCar driver. It was everything Bernard had been hired to do when IndyCar lured him away after running Professional Bull Riders for 15 years. He was so confident of improving on the poor TV ratings from the year before that he promised to resign if ABC’s broadcast drew anything less than a 0.8 rating. That would have meant that fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s homes with televisions watched the race.

Bernard insists he did not sensationalize the inherent danger in auto racing.

“I think anytime we are on any track it’s always dangerous _ we do as much as we can to make it safe _ (and) our storylines were never, ‘Come watch this dangerous event!’” he said.

“Our storylines going to Las Vegas were first and foremost ‘Come watch Will and Dario fight it out for the world championship.’ The No. 2 storyline was Dan Wheldon competing for $5 million starting at the back. Our third storyline was Danica Patrick. … Our fourth storyline was 34 cars in the race.

“I think none of those, looking back on it, had any type of connotation of any danger. If the race was tomorrow, it would still be the same storylines.”

Compelling competition, yes, but with a happy ending.

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