INDIANAPOLIS - 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.
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 positive to the series and was popular with fans, Belskus had 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.
It's not clear what's next for the troubled series.
"Well, I have been named interim CEO," Belskus told AP. "We're going to conduct a search. We haven't established a specific timeline for a permanent replacement. It's all part of a planning process that we'll address."
It didn't sound very promising to Zak Brown, founder and CEO of the motorsports marketing agency Just Marketing International, and the man many believed would run IndyCar under George's offer to buy the series. Brown has said he has no interest in running IndyCar.
"It all appears a bit strange and kneejerk to me," Brown said Sunday night. "I don't understand why Jeff Belskus hasn't communicated a longer-term plan. Unless there isn't one, which as CEO, I hope he has. The industry needs to know the plan."
So do the weary fans, who seemed overwhelmingly in support of Bernard and had been threatening for weeks via social media to turn their backs on the series for good if the CEO was let go.
Belskus said he's unsure what reaction will be to Bernard's departure.
"It is change and we recognize that different people deal with change differently, and with people differently," he said.
Engaging and energetic, Bernard had bold ideas in his attempt to revitalize a racing series clinging for relevancy outside of the Indianapolis 500.
But Bernard was stymied by a combination of his own missteps, the same old drama and dysfunction that weakened open-wheel racing and allowed NASCAR to surpass it as the top racing series in America, and the massive mess left behind by George.
And even if Bernard had been flawless
at his job, it likely wouldn't have been enough.