Brian France touts NASCAR's past
Evoking the past while focusing on the future, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France addressed the media Monday at NASCAR’s annual preseason press conference in Concord, N.C.
“I think 2008 promises to be a tremendous year and there are some great stories developing,” said France. “Our sport is strong and we are determined to make it stronger and maintain the intense commitment of our fan base.
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the NASCAR Research and Development Center and our annual event on the first day of the NASCAR Sprint media tour.
We have a full program for you that we hope you will find interesting, entertaining and useful.
This is a big year for NASCAR with plenty of historical implications, as illustrated by our opening video today.
THE MODERATOR: It's my pleasure now to introduce NASCAR's chairman and CEO, Brian France.
BRIAN FRANCE: Good afternoon, everyone. On behalf of everyone at NASCAR, thank you for being here.
This has become a pre-season tradition of sorts and of course a very important one. We're starting off this year, as that video illustrated, in strong fashion. NASCAR is celebrating 60 proud years in 2008. Think about that, 60 years. We've covered a lot of ground in six decades. The first NASCAR-sanctioned race was run on the beach road course in Daytona in 1948. That was just a few weeks following the famed Streamline Hotel meeting in which NASCAR was formed. Red Byron won in a Ford modified. In a 1949, the first strictly stock race, what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was held at the Charlotte fairgrounds. Jim Roper won that race and Red Byron was the season champion.
In 1949, there were a total of only eight races. Three were held in North Carolina, two in Pennsylvania, one in New York, one in Virginia, one in Florida. The sport then grew quickly after that. The number of NASCAR-sanctioned races more than doubled to 19 in 1950 and leaped to 41 events by 1951.
So right from the start, my grandfather, Big Bill, and my father Bill Jr. had a vision for this sport. It was an ambitious and forward-thinking vision. Both of them had fundamental principles they relied on to run NASCAR. One of those principles was improve the sport and build the fan base all across America. And we're proud of that and we're proud of our growth.
We certainly are proud we've been able to attract new fans virtually every year NASCAR has been in existence. But we're also proud of those fans who have been with us for many decades.
You know, I want to make a point about change because it's kind of nice to celebrate the future and all the things. 'Change' has been a hot button with the media and ourselves. Just so you know how we feel about it, while there's been a lot of change, most of it for the good, the Chase, all the things, there were a lot of changes that were made, had to be made, that were scheduled many, many years ago, like the Car of Tomorrow, which had an eight- or nine-year development cycle, or some changes that were frankly out of our control, the series entitlement sponsors coming or going or whatever. I think what I hope you'll take out of today is we're getting back to the basics, we're going to try to minimize the change going forward as best we can and focus on what we've always focused on, which is the best product in the world.
But we'll also continue to embrace the past and the rich heritage beginning with the biggest event, the Daytona 500. Next month, the 500 will run for the 50th time. It has an unbelievable history. The 500 holds a special place in the hearts of millions of fans, and mine too, and in particular Petty-Pearson, I remember as a young boy watching that. That memory always sticks with me.
Our fans will get to see 24 past winners of the Daytona 500 next month at the track. This takes me back to my earliest memories of NASCAR and the great drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough and many others.
The 500, of course, isn't our only tradition. Martinsville Speedway was part of our very first schedule back in 1948. Our Richmond races were run since 1953. We've always raced here in Charlotte. Starting in 1960, the event moved to what is now the Lowe's Motor Speedway, where another great tradition began, the Coca-Cola 600. And no single venue is more unique in all of sports than the Bristol Motor Speedway, a true modern day Coliseum.
We're also proud the very first NASCAR superspeedway, Darlington Raceway, is still on the schedule. Several years ago we took what was perceived as a gamble. We moved the Darlington spring race to Mother's Day weekend. As it turned out, it wasn't a gamble at all. It was a sure thing, thanks to the power of the Darlington tradition and the loyalty of our race fans.
That event has quickly turned into one of the season's highlighted events. In recent years, those long time venues have been joined by newer ones, Las Vegas, Chicago, Texas, California. All great facilities in areas of the country where there are many NASCAR fans.
You know, our drivers have always been the ones that have driven the sport's image and popularity. One aspect that I'm especially proud of is our driver's charitable efforts including childhood health, education, community development, animal welfare and the environment and many others. That's why the NASCAR Foundation now supports over 30 driver charities and more outside the industry.
So the one change we are going to make for 2008 is fines based on NASCAR's penalties will go to the NASCAR Foundation for its charitable initiatives. Now that NASCAR Foundation is well-established and supporting dozens of charitable organizations, it's the logical place for fine monies to be distributed.
We also want to welcome Garth Brooks this year with the fifth annual and very successful NASCAR Day. Garth will be seen in our promotional spots on behalf of the foundation. He's a big fan. He loves the sport. I know he'll do a great job.
On the topic of attendance, television ratings, you know, I think any racing series would be proud to say its average attendance is 120,000 per event. We're certainly proud of the fact that 17 of the top 20 highest attended events in 2007 were NASCAR events.
Also in 2007, NASCAR averaged approximately seven million viewers watching the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series each week. And while ratings are always going to fluctuate, we're proud of the upward trend over the last decade and NASCAR remains the No. 2 regular-season sport on television.
Last season NASCAR was No. 1 or No. 2 on television in 21 of 36 weekends, 21 of 36 weekends. On weekends, when all three national series race at the same track, NASCAR averages 12 million viewers. So by any measurement, these are great numbers. Our sport is strong when it comes to competition. I can tell you on the track it's never been better, and we're very excited about a full season of the Car of Tomorrow.
This is true for all NASCAR series, by the way, including our developmental tours. Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, two of our biggest names today, both came through the developmental series. A bit later on in the program, you'll hear more about our developmental series which they as well are in excellent shape. You'll also get the latest rundown on everything going on right here in the R&D Center. There's a lot going on on a daily basis to make our sport safe for the drivers, more exciting for the fans and more affordable for the teams. Projects such as the development of the NASCAR chassis now called simply the new car, which came to life right here in the R&D Center after many, many years of development.
One project our group is examining with help from Sonoco, our official fuel supplier, is the possibility of alternative fuel for race cars in the future. That's indicative of the kind of forward thinking we have going on right here at the center. And while any steps we take with regards to fuels would have relatively little impact on the environment, it would be an important symbolic move. It's more important than ever to help make sure this country becomes energy independent and take the steps where we can to protect the environment. And you've got my commitment and everybody at NASCAR, we're going to do our part.
Away from the track construction is underway in the NASCAR Plaza Hall of Fame in Charlotte. Our partner, the Lauth Property Group, is designing it to be a green building which will qualify for certification, including state-of-the-art energy management systems, low emitting building materials and more.
Today we also celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and our sport is working hard and making great progress in the area of diversity. Getting this done, as you've heard me say many times, will make every aspect of the sport better, from competition to increasing the fan base, and everywhere in between. Later on in the program, you'll be meeting this year's Drive for Diversity class. It's a talented group of young drivers which everyone is excited about.
2008 promises to be a tremendous year. There's some great developing stories. Everyone wonders how Dale Jr. will do driving for Rick Hendrick and the super team. Will Toyota have a breakthrough season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now that they've gotten together with Joe Gibbs Racing. Hendrick Motorsports, well, they're on their way of being the New England Patriots on wheels. Can they do it again? Can they keep their dominance? Will Jimmie Johnson be able to win three titles in a row? Will Jeff Gordon win a fifth championship? How about Juan Pablo Montoya, will he be able to keep his momentum up and his progress in his second season?
Plus we'll have a new name for our top series and a new sponsor for our No. 2 series, Nationwide Insurance. Meanwhile, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series continues to produce some of the most exciting racing anywhere.
Our sport is strong. We're determined to make it stronger and maintain the intense commitment of our generations of loyal fans. We'll continue to grow and evolve. We'll always be mindful of our past. And last month's season-ending awards ceremony in New York, our guest speak are Tom Brokaw called NASCAR the greatest American sport. That was one hell of a compliment. Of course, I agree with Tom.
All of us in the industry must live up to that compliment. So thank you very much for being here today. I'll look forward to visiting with you a little bit later on. Thank you very much.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Brian.
NASCAR's developmental series and short track racing program have never been stronger than they are today. We have a commitment to those areas, thanks to dedicated people like the man you're now going to meet. Please welcome NASCAR's managing director of racing operations, George Silbermann.
GEORGE SILBERMANN: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Today I'll provide a quick update about our developmental racing series and touch upon some significant enhancements we've made in this important area of the sport.
It all starts with our NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. This is entry level, grass-roots racing that occurs at individual local short tracks across North America every Friday or Saturday night. The series features races at about 60 short tracks across the United States and Canada, both asphalt and dirt ovals, in places like nearby (indiscernible) Stadium, Greenville Pickens, on up to Thompson International Speedway and Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, Irwindale Speedway in the L.A. basin, and Evergreen Speedway near Seattle. This is literally NASCAR in your neighborhood, the foundation of our sport.
This series features a long-term commitment from our series sponsor Whelen Engineering, racing that runs from March to September, with our new competition model, national, state and track championships. Many of you may have seen the NASCAR home tracks TV spot that ran during many NASCAR Sprint Cup telecasts and elsewhere during the 2007 season. Today we're going to give you a sneak peek at one of the new NASCAR home track spots that will be airing during the 2008 season. This spot will debut to a much wider audience during this year's Daytona 500 telecast.
First, we have our NASCAR Mexico series, which includes a 14-race schedule that runs March to November. Events are broadcast nationally in Mexico on Televisa and throughout central and Latin America on FX and SPEED.
Next is our NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. This features 13 events that run from May to September and those events are broadcast nationally in Canada with TSN coverage of every race.
Here in the United States, we have two tours for open-wheel modifieds along the East Coast. Both of our modified tours are sponsored by Whelen Engineering. They feature open-wheel cars and as Brian alluded to, it's NASCAR's oldest division. There is an East Coast series that includes 16 Northern events, 12 Southern events, and a combined event where North and South meet at Martinsville each year. Events run from March to October and two of the events are companion events with our Sprint Cup Series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
That brings us to our two remaining developmental series, the NASCAR Camping World Series. We're proud and excited that Camping World has entered into a multi-year agreement to entitle both the east and west championships of what had previously been known as our Grand National West and Busch East Series. For 2008 and beyond, both series now come under the national umbrella of the NASCAR Camping World Series. To be clear, east and west will remain separate and distinct championships.
So as we look ahead to this 2008 season, the NASCAR Camping World Series features 14 east and 14 west races, including the post-season NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown.
The series has a strong mixture of speedways, short tracks and road courses. The series includes Cup companion events at PIR, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Infineon and Dover, as well as race coverage on HD Net and SPEED.
This tour also features an optional spec engine and composite body both designed to lower the cost of competing and help level the playing field. In fact, new for 2008, the spec engine is also eligible for use in our Whelen modified tours.
Of note, we've also seen a steady increase in the diversity for these tours. In fact, six of the top 20 finishers in the 2007 NASCAR Camping World Series East standings were either women on minorities. We had our first oval win in the series by a Mexican-born driver in Nashville.
Many of today's NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series stars started at the local track level. But not just drivers, this is where crew chiefs like Greg Zipadelli, series directors like John Darby, and broadcast announcers like Mike Joy got their start as well as some of you in this room today. So it's an important launching pad for the entire motorsports industry.
Today NASCAR's developmental programs are strong, they're well-positioned, well-supported and represent an important part of NASCAR's future. Thank you and I'll be available to discuss details of the program later on.
THE MODERATOR: Before we go any further, I want to say a few words about our developmental series and our short track program. Number one, from the very beginning of NASCAR, the France family has always supported local racing, starting with Bill France Sr. to Bill France Jr. and now to Brian, who actually as a part of his early training operated a local track in Tucson, Arizona. Our president, Mike Helton, raced in Tennessee before he got into what he's doing today.
Times do change and we need to change with the times. There's one constant, though: the short tracks and the local tracks are still where our core fans hang out on Friday and Saturday nights. It is where our drivers, crew members and officials hang out on NASCAR Sprint Cup race weekends. If there's a NASCAR local track race anywhere nearby, you can find our officials in attendance.
I can remember Jim France and I driving seemed like all over the country 25 years ago visiting short tracks. Humpy Wheeler in his early days at Lowe's did the same thing. One thing in NASCAR that will never change is it all starts at the local tracks. It always has and it always will.
So now we're going to continue our program with an update about our ongoing diversity affairs. To open this segment, we have another video.
THE MODERATOR: Please welcome NASCAR's managing director of public affairs, Marcus Jadotte, who will introduce the 2008 Drive For Diversity pledge.
MARCUS JADOTTE: Thank you. At NASCAR we're focused on creating opportunities both on the track and off the track to increase diversity in our sport. To help us reach that goal, we've partnered with Access Marketing and Communications which manages the Drive for Diversity program. Joining us today is Malcolm Calhoun, who runs access. Malcolm, thank you for everything you do with the program. Thanks for your leadership.
We also should thank the NASCAR industry, teams, sponsors, racetracks for everything they do to support diversity initiatives across the sport. Together we're making progress in many areas. Of course, the area that always attracts the most attention, our on track initiatives, specifically driver development.
In the first four years of the D for D program, D for D drivers have won 14 races, posted 94 top-five finish, and finished in the top 10 235 times. Today we're going to introduce a group of drivers who plan on increasing those impressive statistics in 2008. Collectively this group forms the 2008 Drive for Diversity class.
First up is Kristin Bumbera. Kristin will race in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for Golden State Racing. She's the first female driver to win a late model race at Houston Motor Park and the first female driver in the history of Texas to lead a points standing in a late model series.
Next up is Michael Cherry from Tampa, Florida. Michael will race in the Whelen All-American Series for FDJ Motorsports. In 2007 he won the sportsman division at (indiscernible) County Speedway, with 17 wins, 19 top fives in 19 starts.
Next up is Mike (indiscernible) from Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Michael raced in the NASCAR Camping World West Series for RTD Motorsports. In 2005, Mike posted the program's first pole.
Next up is Paul Hiraga from New Jersey. Paul will race in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series competing for Bill McInelly Racing. Paul finished second in the points standings at All-American last year and will compete this year for the track championship.
Next up is Jesus Hernandez from Fresno, California. Jesus will run in the NASCAR Camping World Series East for DEI. Jesus finished 12th last year in the east standings and will return again this year.
Next is Lindsay King of Cherry Valley, California. Lindsay will race for High Point Racing in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Irwindale. Last year she finished 12th in the late model points standings at Irwindale, recording four top 10 finishes.
Next up is Lloyd Mack. Lloyd will race in the NASCAR Camping World Series West for Roadrunner Motorsports. He's won two national karting championships, a World Karting Association championship, and five California state championships.
Finally, Jonathan Smith. Jonathan will race again in the NASCAR Camping World Series East for TW Motorsports. Last year as a rookie, Jonathan finished 16th in the east standings.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2008 Drive for Diversity class.
THE MODERATOR: Now if I can get our chairman Brian France to join Marcus on the stage, we'll get a quick photo of the Drive for Diversity class.
Thank you, guys and gals.
Our next segment is designed to give you a comprehensive run down of the various projects we're working on here at the research and development center. The video we will now see provides a quick overview.
THE MODERATOR: Several years ago NASCAR was lucky enough to find the perfect individual to head our competition department. Welcome, please, NASCAR's vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Good afternoon. While NASCAR is celebrating 60 years of racing, it's hard to believe this will be my 30th year associated with this great sport. There's certainly been a lot of progress made since I first started in 1979 working for Petty Enterprises. We made strides in safety, we have made strides in competition, and we have made strides helping teams manage their costs.
NASCAR's role as the sport's steward is to make decisions that are ultimately best for the entire sport and most importantly for the NASCAR fans. The role of this R&D Center is to be the steward of safety, competition and cost containment, to keep ahead of the changes and to manage them when necessary.
I am proud of what the men and women in this building have accomplished. The on-track competition is the best and closest it has ever been. The side-by-side racing is what our fans have come to love and expect. While there are no major changes in competition this year, there are some that are important to mention.
First, we'll have a couple of pit road adjustments. Over-the-wall pit crews in our three national series will be limited to three pit box lengths when pushing their vehicles off. And, second, the outside tires that have been removed from the vehicles during a pit stop can no longer be free rolled from outside of the pit box to the pit wall. They must be hand directed to the inner half of the pit box before being released.
This year all of our three national series will run the same upgraded fuel cell, which is another safety feature and is the same fuel cell that was used in 2007 by our NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams.
We've updated the testing rules for 2008 for all three of our national series as well. The NASCAR testing policy continues to play an important role in helping maintain a competitive balance among our teams.
This year's teams will receive an allotment of tires to be used at non-NASCAR sanctioned tests. NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series teams will have access to 200 tires over the course of the year. Our NASCAR Nationwide teams will get 160 tires. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will get 120 tires.
Finally we are modifying the way in which teams not locked into the races qualify in the three national series. Beginning this year in all three of our national series, the teams that are not locked into the starting field will qualify at the end of their respective qualifying sessions.
As you know, NASCAR welcomes Nationwide as a new series sponsor this year. The NASCAR Nationwide Series, the second most popular racing circuit in America. As we continue to develop the new Nationwide Series car, we will always be looking further to distinguish this series.
Beginning this season, we are introducing new engine combinations in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. This will reduce rpms and horsepower which will help engine parts and pieces last longer, preserving the life of the engine, which can add to cost savings of the team.
Here at the R&D Center, 2007 was a very busy year and 2008 promises to be just as busy. We never stop working on safety, competition and cost containment. Some of the projects we will be focusing on this year at the R&D Center include working with the University of Nebraska on further development of the SAFER barriers, our continued develop of the SFI seating and performance specifications, and our continuing R&D support to maintain level and competitive playing field in the garage area.
I want to take a moment to thank and salute some of the key players here at the R&D Center. Mike Fisher, managing director of the R&D Center. Brett Bodine, director of cost research. Steve Peterson, NASCAR technical director. Bill Erskin, power train engineer. Daniel Honeycut, aerodynamics engineer. John (indiscernible), special projects engineer. Jerry (indiscernible), safety coordinator. Carl Wolf, officiating instructor. Mike Horton, shop foreman. And Don Kruger, senior fabricator. This team has certainly made significant contributions to our sport and I'd like to thank them for all of their efforts over the past years.
NASCAR anticipates a great 2008 season working with the teams and manufacturers. I'd like to thank you and look forward to meeting everybody and talking to them after today's program. Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: We're now going to begin our Q&A session which will run for approximately 25 minutes. If you have a question for our speakers, please raise your hand and we'll get to you as quickly as possible with a microphone.
Q. Brian, last year at Homestead you indicated NASCAR was going to have a renewed emphasis on working with core fans to try to energize the long-time fan base. Can you give us some specifics about what you're going to be doing in that direction in 2008.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, somebody once told me that you're good at whatever you talk about being good at and you focus on. It starts with me. It starts at the top.
What's important to what we talk about going forward is making sure we're not missing anything. This whole change item that I spoke about in my earlier remarks, we're fans, too. It's hard to keep up with all the moving parts and different things that are going on. So we want to just focus on -- it's one of the reasons we sped up rolling out the Car of Tomorrow, Car of Today, the car, for now, for every event, so we didn't have more gradual this, that and the other things to keep up with. It's one car, it's the car.
I think you're just going to hear us when there are initiatives. I think the 50th anniversary of Daytona, the 500, all those champions are going to be back at the Speedway, so we're going to be able to go back and recognize our history a little bit. That's important to our core fan. They like to reminisce and hear about that. We'll get an opportunity to do that.
And we're going to minimize change and we're going to zero in on the best racing in the world. That's what we're going to do.
Q. The possibility of an economic downturn, recession, how important is it for the economic health of your teams in terms of sponsorship, but more importantly, the fans to be able to maybe work with your promoters, make some value packages available for some of these people don't get hit quite as hard trying to attend your races when it may be tough for them to pay their bills at home?
BRIAN FRANCE: That's happening. That's happening all over the circuit. We're not obviously immune to any downturn in the economy. As a matter of fact, we may be more at risk than most in that our fans drive further, stay longer, where you guys know we're in the mega event business, not just a season ticketholder. So it is costly for our fans to get to the speedway.
I know our tracks are already trying to make sure they're offering the right amount of value. They're as aggressive as they can be. I've talked to many of them. They're on that very point.
Q. Robin Pemberton, concerning the Car of Tomorrow, I think you had quite a lot of development time for the Car of Tomorrow. The aero package, reconfiguration. Did you ever consider higher rear wings on the Car of Tomorrow?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: We've run through a lot of different iterations of wing placement, fore and aft, raising and lowering. Through working with our teams, which they have access to many wind tunnel hours, the placement that we have seems to be the best package, not just for going forward, not just for traffic, but also when the vehicle gets turned in adverse conditions. We did look at that over the course of time.
Q. Brian, one of the hot button issues here in the off-season, both among drivers and fans talking on the satellite radio stations, is drivers being allowed to express themselves, their personality. Would you agree that NASCAR has been a little too heavy-handed in administering punishments? Going forward, will you be perhaps less inclined to fine for points and money for transgressions like shoving or swearing?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I would certainly agree that we're relooking and making sure that our policies of enforcement don't make it where our drivers can't express themselves. There are lots of characters in our sport. There's lots of emotion flying fast and heavy at the events.
If you were in our position, what you're always worried about really isn't necessarily the specific incident, it's really escalation. That's what commissioners and officials in any sport are mostly concerned with.
But on your way to making sure things don't escalate, you want to be pretty stern with your penalties. There's no question it can put a cloud or restrict, rather, the drivers expressing themselves. We want to see more of that.
I think Mike, you should mention that, too, because you're going to enforce it week in and week out.
MIKE HELTON: Brian is right. The first thing is, we want the drivers to be themselves. Our sport has done very well on the character of the sport. The character of the sport is built by all the drivers that participate, as well as owners, the other penalties.
I think part of NASCAR's responsibility is for us to keep our hands around the entirety of the sport. So if we've seen things that seem to be moving in a direction that's not good for the sport, not unlike it might be on a street in a neighborhood you live in, if the traffic got real out of control, the local law enforcement may come in there and work on it to get it back under control then give it some breathing room.
NASCAR is in that same position, as is other sports. So when you see things escalating, you react in accordance to that until you feel good about the environment that you've got, you've got your hands around it, then you're able to give a little bit of breathing room.
I think you can point to several situations in 2007 where NASCAR did that. I think we accomplished what we wanted to in '05 and '06, and I think in '07 we were able to give up a little bit and let the breathing room take its place.
Q. Brian, there's going to be a lot of talk this year about the economy, the trends in the sport. As you talk to the senior people in NASCAR, at what level would you say your concern is? I don't know how you would do it on a scale. Are you guys in sort of I don't want to say in crisis, but what is your concern about the so-called lull or whatever? What is your level of concern about that?
BRIAN FRANCE: I would disagree with you on one point: there won't be a lot of discussion from my chair or anybody on our team. Look, the economy is what the economy is. I'm not an economist. I don't know if we're in a recession. Of course, it will have an impact. It has an impact on every leisure activity.
What you're not going to hear from us is statistics and worry about all that. We're worried about how good the racing is on the track. That's what we're going to be talking about in our internal meetings. We've got one starting tomorrow that we do every year with our senior staff.
We're talking about going back to the basics. We're talking about, is the Car of Tomorrow producing the best racing in the world. That's what you're going to hear from us, not statistics and downturns, upturns, sideways. That will take care of itself. We're getting back to the basics.
Q. Brian, I wanted to revisit the broad theme you alluded to of NASCAR reenergizing its bond with its core fan this season. Am I hearing in your remarks that you reached the conclusion that the pendulum went a little too far toward efforts to broaden NASCAR's reach and turn the casual fan into a NASCAR fan, and that you're short of shifting the emphasis back to the core fan? If so, could you talk specifically about what led you to that conclusion?
BRIAN FRANCE: No. Listen, our initiatives, you saw our diversity initiative, which is very important to expanding our fan base, we're doing more not less in those areas. We always need to reach out and be as aggressive as we can.
What I'm saying to you is this change issue, all the different things from the name of series to the format, different rules, the Car of Tomorrow, now the new car, whatever, all those things to our core fan, that's a lot to digest in a very short period of time. We know that.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of those things were on a track from many years ago. Some of those things were out of our control. It doesn't matter. They all happen. That's not helpful. Change is good to a certain point. We've got all the change we think the sport can stand and needs. Now we want to build on that.
When I say "get back to the basics," it means we want to zero in on making sure that we kickoff the Daytona 500, it's the best 500 that we've ever had, that our new car continues to do the three things that we want it to do. First is safety, but we certainly want the competition to be better. We've got some work to do. We're working on our tests now to make sure we accomplish that.
The verdict is in regarding cost. Cost is coming down for the teams. They're going to need less cars. They're already telling us they worked a lot less in the off-season than they ever have because they don't have to. We're pretty comfortable with the costs and we're going to be working on the other two.
Q. Brian, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is obviously a big part of the sport. I believe you've linked him to TV ratings in the past. If he comes out of the box and has a lot of success, what would that do for the sport? How important is he to the sport's success as a whole?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, he's the marquee driver that we have, no different than a marquee franchise that other sports enjoy. So when historically important teams like the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA do well, conversely the NBA does better, or Michael Jordan, the big figures in their past or present. We're no different than that.
If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help. He's got the biggest fan base. It will energize that fan base, no question. But we're a sport. He's got to earn that. I don't think anybody wants to have success any more than he does. If he does, it will benefit us.
Q. Brian, you just touched on, you said the sport has had as much change as it can stand. At the same time we all know you're not sitting back doing nothing. Long-term, five years down the road, what is your vision for where this series is?
BRIAN FRANCE: Listen, those kind of things are necessary to run the business side of the sport. What we want to focus on, what we want to talk about, most of our race fans, most of them could care less about any of the management moves or moves that we made. They may care in the end when we manage things correctly.
It's like I said, we want the story lines of the sport to be the focus, not changes, not management issues that we will always have one way or the other. If we do that, we'll be successful.
Q. Brian or Mike or Robin, I've heard a lot of talk about changing the minimum age requirement for driving in the Sprint Cup Series to 21. Is that something you're discussing? If so, why?
MIKE HELTON: Yeah, we continue to discuss it internally. Age has always been something we talked about. A few years ago we opened up the series, the Camping World Series, to 16. That helped us.
But we're continuing to look at the new drivers that are coming along and we're also looking at how they mature and how they can handle the pressures of racing in our top division.
It's not something that's been decided on, but it's just one of a lot of things that we talk about all the time. That's just something that's out there right now that people are eating it up.
Q. Brian, along those same lines, we just saw the new class for the diversity program in its fifth-year. There's a couple other diversity programs. It's a slow-moving situation. Are you satisfied with how it's coming along, the direction it's going at this point? Is there any way to speed it up or aren't you worried about that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Listen, I want to speed everything that's important, I want it to be as successful and fast as possible. But it takes time. It takes time for drivers to get opportunities. It takes time for them to prove that they have the skills and the talent.
But, look, if it's here today or last year's class, we will have a breakthrough, I'm convinced of it, a breakthrough in diversity at the highest level, at the Sprint Cup level. It will take time.
This is a long program. We never got into this thinking two or three years of jump-starting something would get us there. We know it's a long commitment. We're making the commitment and we're seeing the results.
Q. Brian, certainly the last year or so in other sports, officials have been questioned. There's certainly been some officiating issues. You mentioned the impact a special Dale Earnhardt, Jr. season could have. Some people could interpret that has helping him out in a way. What kind of assurances can you give the fans that some of these officiating issues you've see in some other sports won't creep over here with all the advertising?
BRIAN FRANCE: I'm not going to comment on other sports' challenges, that they've had. That wouldn't be appropriate.
I will tell you we have never felt better about our group of officials, about the regulatory arm of the sport, how we get at it. I think our officials have the toughest job in sports from an officiating standpoint just simply because of the mechanical side of the car that we have to deal with. I think they do a magnificent job.
One of the things you get over 60 years, you hope you get, by doing the right thing all the time, not that we're perfect, we're not, but doing the right thing with the highest level of integrity over six decades, people will either believe that it's done properly, and it is.
I think by and large there's a high degree of confidence that we're going to continue to be able to execute that. And obviously we always say of course it would help us if Dale Jr. wins. I also remind you and remind everybody else, he's got to earn that. This is a performance business. He either will or he won't.
Q. In the reorganization of the developmental series, it appears to me that some tracks have lost their sanctions now. One that comes to mind is Watsonville Speedway, Ocean Speedway, in California. What's the criteria for getting sanctioned as a track for the series? Going along with that, with NASCAR now having a number of their events on prime time on Saturday night, is that hurting our short track series?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: You're dating yourself a little bit because Watsonville has not been a part of the NASCAR program in a lot of years. The short from answer to your question is, tracks in our Whelen All-American Series are arguably amongst some of the best short tracks in America. We're looking for good, aggressive promoters. We're looking for modern thinking. We're looking for family-friendly environments.
The other question you asked about Saturday night racing. The short answer to that is that a successful, strong NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is not a bad thing for a NASCAR-sanctioned short track that's also displaying that logo very proudly.
The reality is for short track promoters, it's a difficult business. Depending on the region of the country or the time of the year, short track operators are competing with minor league baseball, college and high school football, the local cineplex, the Internet and, yes, Saturday night racing.
Creative entrepreneurial promoters find a way to compete in that environment and in some cases take advantage of it. I've been to more than one NASCAR-sanctioned short track when the Cup race is running at night at Bristol, they happen to be showing that on their TV sets at their concession stands.
Q. Brian, talking about the change, you're not going to add change now, race fans spend a lot of time debating you. Do you think the race fans don't know you? Do you ever listen and think, They don't know who I really am? Talk about why you made all the changes. There's a lot of talk about why you're not changing now.
BRIAN FRANCE: I don't spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, what everybody understands. I certainly want them to know where we're coming from. That's the most important thing. Where we're coming from is to try to keep delivering the best form of auto racing in the country. I have made changes. Mike has made changes. We all have made changes. You have to make changes.
What we're saying is that our thinking is, because we're race fans and sports fans as well, and if you change all kinds of different things in any particular sport, there comes a point when you need to slow that down. It needs to be very compelling if you have to make additional changes. That's where we are.
Once again, there were a lot of things that we did that were out of our control from a timing standpoint. Anheuser-Busch decided it was the end of a 26- or 27-year run, that was a decision that was made. When Sprint buys NEXTEL, rebrands the series, that's a change, a big change, but those are the kind of things that were out of our control that will ultimately benefit the sport.
We want the discussions that happen on talk radio, in publications, any form of media, to be on not trying to keep up with this change and another, but on the drivers, on what's going on, who's winning what, who's doing what, who's performing well. That's what my hope is for 2008.
When I say "get back to the basics," that's what I mean, that the story lines on Monday aren't television ratings, this sponsor, that sponsor, it's what happened on the track. That's the most important thing. We're going to get back to that.
Q. Robin, the question about qualifying, you decided to put the Go Or Go Home cars at the end, not the beginning. What was the thinking that went into that? Why at the end? What was the final decision?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: It was under a lot of debate from all of us, from the garage area, when you talk to the series directors, what makes the most sense to them and how they operate the garage area. One of the key factors that comes into play is the five-minute clock, which everybody has seen come into play occasionally throughout the year.
The thing that could happen that we didn't want to have happen is if we had 12 cars that had to qualify on speed, and the car had to be excused through unforeseen circumstances, engine problem, a wreck or something in practice, that car very well could have been placed on the truck and missed its opportunity to qualify when we got to the 13th or 14th place in the qualifying order if they were to go early. So we didn't think that was fair, to think there was another 30, 35 cars yet to qualify and one team already missed its opportunity.
That probably was the single biggest factor that weighed in on making that the best for all of the competitors.
Q. In the change as far as putting all the penalty fine money into charity, what do you anticipate based on last year's fines, what is going to be the rough amount charitable causes will receive? How much was the total take last year from the three major series and how much of that is going into charity?
THE MODERATOR: I have an average over the last 10 years. So the average over the last 10 years has been $200,000. It fluctuates from year to year. Last year was close to a million.
Q. Brian, I understand your points about the last 10 years, the television ratings, whatnot. I think the last couple two, three years have seen TV down, attendance down, merchandising folks are saying they're having a hard time moving the souvenirs. We see recently Sprint is in a lot of financial trouble. How much are any of those things a concern individually or all of them happening all at the same time?
BRIAN FRANCE: Look, we would love every single aspect of our business to be on the upswing and be perfect. There are business cycles that occur. You talk about ratings. Every sport is down significantly in ratings. Almost everything in television is down in ratings. American Idol is down in ratings. There's a reason for that. There's lots of new ways to get rich content either over the Internet, now over the phones. I think Paul Brooks quoted me the amount of video clips that were accessed on NASCAR were 25 million, maybe not that many, some large number.
The point is, people are getting their information from lots of different places. Does that have an impact on all ratings? Sure. Was NASCAR online way up? It was. So there's things that cycle around. The economy is the economy. We are not immune from the economy. Every sport, and ours is no different, has some impact. If people have more money to spend on discretionary income, of course that's helpful when the economy's better.
For all the things that are quoted, I think most -- I know about every auto racing series or league would like to have NASCAR's problems, I can tell you that. I can tell you that we're very pleased with where the sport is on balance.
Q. Brian, you mentioned that it's good for the sport when Dale Jr. wins, he's the marquee driver. He's heading out to the marquee organization. What are the risks having Dale Jr. with Hendrick? If he starts to do really well, he'll have a lot of attention, we'll see the Schumacher juggernaut in Formula One, top teams wins everything, people tune out? What's the risk of that happening here?
MIKE HELTON: I think what would be interesting is ask Rick Hendrick that question. What the risk is is Jeff Gordon doesn't get his fifth championship, Jimmie doesn't get his third championship from that perspective.
I think what we have seen historically in our sport, cycles of dominance, just like every other sport sees on occasion. Roush a couple years ago was unbeatable it seemed. Now it seems to be Rick Hendrick.
Whether it's a cycle or a trend is something that we have to pay attention to and stay on top of. But in the meantime when very popular drivers, whether it's Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, in today's world in particular, because we're kind of in the middle of a needle that a lot of you have talked about and written about over the holidays of the changing of the guard, so to speak. What Brian mentions about getting back to our experienced fans is to explain to them that this is still the NASCAR you fell in love with, but we realize we're in this needle on top of all the changes settling down, not wanting to make any unless we have to. The big things that have happened we think have happened and we can give them time to accept.
The other thing that needs to happen right now is for fans to find their next favorite driver, the ones that may have been following Terry Labonte or Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, some of the drivers that have cycled through now. This has happened in the past. This isn't the first time it's ever happened to NASCAR. We've been through this cycle before.
Those are the things that when we talk about a driver being successful helps, it helps in a lot of ways. It helps build interest in the sport. It helps a fan figure out and learn more about their driving style and their personality so they can attach a following to them.
We think we've got a lot of young drivers, like a Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex, Carl Edwards, that have that. They need to be successful, too. I think that's where NASCAR really benefits.
But I don't know there's risks involved in someone being overly successful or successful at all. I think that's what sport is all about.
BRIAN FRANCE: When I say or Mike says if such and such wins, that will help us, the reality is for any driver, the young ones that Mike just talked about coming along or the biggest stars, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr., that's the whole point, they have to win to help themselves, to help their fan base, and help grow NASCAR. But they've got to win.
It's a good thing when they do.
THE MODERATOR: That concludes the Q&A session. We're now going to direct you to several breakout media stations we have set up. They'll be available for another 25 minutes to answer any further questions you might have.
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