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DATE News (chronologically)
07/03/10
nascar
NASCAR News Conference Transcript - Brian France  
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France answers questions from the media and gives a mid-season update
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
THE MODERATOR
: Good morning, everyone. We're now joined by NASCAR's chairman and CEO, Brian France, who will open up with a few remarks and then we'll take questions from the media.

Brian, welcome.

BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, good morning, everybody. We were just talking about all the things that are going on this weekend with the new Nationwide car and bigger plates, a little activity yesterday in practice. So the racing action, as you might think, certainly how we see things, has got a trajectory that it's going in the right direction.

We're real pleased. There's always an event here or there that, you know, you could be critical of. But by and large, some of the policies that we announced back in January feel good to us. And the drivers have been terrific, mixing it up differently, not being in most situations crazy about that, but giving our passionate fan base what they want most, which is the close, competitive racing action. So we're pretty pleased.

I'd also like to thank many of you in the room. We just yesterday in Gainesville announced with the V Foundation our biggest single gift yet for the NASCAR Foundation. That's not possible unless the media helps us with NASCAR Day and throughout the year generating interest and all that. So thank you for your effort. It paid off for the Shands Teaching Hospital, the oncology center there.

I would also say that, you know, this is the time of the year, and we'll talk about it with some questions, where we're formulating the 2011 schedule. We're looking at the Chase format very, very carefully, as we always do - maybe even more carefully.

I don't want to have a big discussion today about the economy and all that. The economy is what it is. It's still difficult. It was difficult six months ago. It doesn't appear to have improved much for our fan base, a lot of our corporate customers. That's sort of the bad news.

The good news is we've got 400 different sponsors within the sport. Most of them are renewing their sponsorships. It may look differently, but they're renewing their sponsorships.

The car manufacturers, despite a very difficult climate for them, have made a lot of improvements in their own business models and are more stable. They, as well, are reinvesting in NASCAR for the long-term. So that's good.

I think the other thing that's happened to us, and it's probably happened to a lot of industries, is when things are tough, and we all feel like we're in a storm, it's not as easy as it used to be. What happens is you get a chance to be more self-critical of yourself. The industry comes together a little bit differently because we're all trying to get through to the other side.

So consequently I just spent two hours with our communications team looking at the next three or four years for us and re-zeroing in on the things we think we can improve on, a lot of them to do with the media here and elsewhere. And that's just one thing.

So the point is that the industry, you've heard about our meetings which I chaired directly, which started last year. I met personally with every driver, every team owner in January as we talked about all the things that we were going to be looking at. Those meetings have continued. A couple weeks ago we began reengaging, we're always talking, but in a very formal way, in a small group of our drivers and team owners, we're talking about 2011, both in the rules packages, the Chase format, whatever it might be, that we're looking at getting their input on.

It's a long way of telling you that even though there are difficulties with the economic climate that we're in, it kind of forces you in a good way to look at yourself, to work together closer so you can get a better result in the long run.

So with that I'll be happy to take up any questions.

THE MODERATOR: We'll go ahead and open it up to questions from the media.

Q. Can you talk about maybe what challenges you feel like the Chase is having and what are you looking at as far as changes there?

BRIAN FRANCE: We're looking at it pretty carefully. And the reason we are is because -- this is not uncommon, by the way. We look at it every year. The main reason is we want to make sure it's giving us the biggest impact moments it was designed to do. That means, it is over a 10-race schedule in itself. Everything to us means pushing the winning envelope to mean what it needs to mean in our sport.

It's different because there's 43 teams, not 1 or 2, 2 or 3, some tournament thing here. We're in a situation where, you know, in some cases winning can't be possible. So we can't have a winner-take-all, per se, like some of the other playoff systems.

On the other hand, we'd like to have it balanced correctly. We're going to look at that more carefully than ever because we also have some historical things we thought would have allowed winning and big moments on a big stage. Maybe they did or maybe they didn't. What's important is we got a chance to look at a lot more seasons than we have up until now.

So it wouldn't be surprising for us to take back the original objectives. We're happy with the Chase. It just means that if we can enhance it in a pretty significant way, we may do that. So that will be the thing that we decide in the next couple of months.

Q. Brian, next year the NFL could not have a season potentially based on what's going on with their labor negotiations, which could leave NASCAR really primed with no competition on Sundays in the fall. When you're looking at next year, is that a factor for you guys at all in terms of what your strategies are or to try to capitalize on?

BRIAN FRANCE: (Indiscernible) that's the best model. We don't plan on failing, that's for sure.

Q. I think it's fair to say the on-track product has never been better. I think people would be pretty much in agreement NASCAR wide things are better and therefore the product is very good right now. That being said, you're not really getting the return in attendance and in TV ratings. We look around this room and it's half empty. Is it the economy or is there more to be done to bring people back to the sport?

BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, that's a fair question. You do things that are working, but you don't see. The answer is because there's always a number of things that are working against you or for you at any one time. Take this year. We did get the on-track product -- we thought the on-track product was pretty good last year. There was a perception where it wasn't. Certainly we have a tendency over many years to at some points in time over-regulate the sport for whatever the reason. We obviously dialed that back.

But what we also had was we moved start times back out from where more viewers are back to an earlier start time. We knew that would have a short-term impact until our fan base could get a benefit from sort of a centralized start time for most of the events, East Coast, Midwest and West.

In the short run, there's less people watching at 1:00 than there is at 3:00. You had the World Cup; still have the World Cup going on. You had a very, very popular Winter Olympics. Our first three events went directly heads up on us. We had more competition than even a normal busy sports calendar. They've had big moments, big story lines. If you recall back in our Vegas race, I think that hockey game did a 21 share or something in the Winter Olympics directly against us. We didn't have that the year before.

Then the economy certainly plays a role, more so to us than anybody else because we ask our fans in the big event business to stay longer, drive further, buy hotel rooms and alike as part of what it takes to come to our events. That's why the tracks and just about everybody in the industry has tried to help that situation out by lowering prices, working with hotels, restaurants, anywhere where they may spend money, to be reflective of that.

In some of our big states that we were very successful in traditionally, like Michigan and here in Florida, have been the hardest hit, some of the hardest hit.

A lot of reasons, a lot of issues. Still there's 14, 15 million people a weekend tuning us in. We're a sport that looks way down the road. In a pocket of the economy or other challenges, that's our job to get through those.

Q. Brian, in June, in a story in the Sports Business Journal, David Hill was quoted as saying the biggest problem facing NASCAR is that the younger males have left the sport. If I was NASCAR, owner of a team, it would be something that I would be burning the midnight oil on a nightly basis worrying where they've gone and how do I get them back. One, your response to that. And, two, finding that balance between the younger audience and your older maybe core fans. It seems like a few years back you went towards that young side and kind of upset the core fan base. Where is your response to David's comments?

BRIAN FRANCE: Any demographic that we lose ground on is something we worry about and get concerned about. Obviously he's talking about the 18 to 35 demographic, which is very important to us. And, you know, that's why you do some of the things that we're going to try to do.

And it is a balance on the core fan, which is a little bit certainly older than that, that you want to satisfy your core fan but you have to do the things that are going to make you as attractive as possible. That's social media to us, which is going to be the great opportunity, one of the great opportunities to reach that young demographic.

We've got some work to do to improve our effort. That's what we met a couple hours today on. So there are going to be a lot of things, technology that comes down. We're going to be an amazing place to validate and help these companies market these new technologies, which will be great for our teams and our tracks because they'll have a different sponsorship and commercial base to work off of.

We're not marketing against a certain audience. In our efforts, we'll get it up.

Q. Of course, there's the young drivers that come up that will make a difference as well.

BRIAN FRANCE: Make a huge difference. You got to let that naturally happen as they find their place with an audience.

Q. Brian, you mentioned looking at the 2011 schedule. Bruton has been making noises about moving his New Hampshire race to Kentucky, dealing with the police department up there, then the Kansas City question. Have you heard from SMI about a schedule change? Have you heard from ISC requesting a schedule change regarding Kansas City? And what is the deadline for them to get those requests in? Is it this week?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, the deadline has come and gone, and we have heard from the public companies and the track operators as to some of their wishes. We are digesting that now and working with them. You know, we typically put our schedule out, as you well know, usually around Labor Day, give or take a couple of weeks here or there. It's my hope we'll meet that goal.

There are obviously now new requests from SMI and ISC. They've followed the policy that we have laid out on realignment. We'll have to see how it all fits into the greater schedule as we go in the next couple weeks.

We just got it in pretty recent. I suspect we'll work through that and figure out what's best for everybody.

Q. A few years ago you made a lot of changes, then you backed off because you said it was too much for your fans to handle. Now it sounds you're going to be making a whole bunch of changes again. Where do you get to the point where you say, Okay, we've got to do this, and maybe the fans are going to have to get upset, but we can't stand still?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I don't know that I said a bunch of changes. We have made a lot of things that are frankly pretty small. I'm talking about recently. Mostly it's in how we officiate the events, how we put rules packages together certainly with the wing versus the spoiler, you know, the rules packages for Talladega and Daytona, the bigger plates. But, frankly, most of those things were not controversial to the fan base. They may have been to a driver or team owner. What they want is to open up competition, which we've done.

And the Chase is an evolution. So we'll tweak that just like other sports leagues. You saw the NCAA tournament took a hard look at how many teams to add into their tournament and had a big idea, then they ended up adding a few teams. There's lots of things that we'll look at.

But we did do a lot of big things to what you're referring to several years ago, the new car being one. We changed sponsors and did some very visible things that were unsettling. We'd like to not have so many things in our control or out of our control that happen at one time.

We're in a normal course of adjusting things as we go along.

Q. Can you tell me where you stand on ethanol? There's been a lot of talk that it's something we will see in 2011 and touting that as part of the green initiative.

BRIAN FRANCE: Ethanol, I don't know that we'll see it in 2011 as a biofuel. It's certainly an option that is interesting. But we have not made -- there's a lot of thought that goes into it. It will be important for us to evolve the fuel source in the national divisions over time. We'll do that with Sunoco for sure trying to respect and value their set of rights. So we'll have to put all of that together.

I don't know what will happen in '11. We're working on a lot of things. But what I can tell you is we will have a very slow, very steady, and sometimes with big impact, but steady march towards, you know, this sport looking and feeling and acting more green. We believe that to be the right way and we'll do that without compromising competition. It will be seamless over time.

But the tracks, you saw Pocono what's happening. There's lots of things on the drawing board - some we're driving; some the industry is - recycling across the board, whatever it will be, to get to the right place over time.

Q. Just to be clear on what you're saying about the Chase. You like the basic structure of a points reset, but you might look at giving additional points to wins?

BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, here is the thing. We like a playoff style format for sure. It distinguishes us in motorsports, number one, distinguishes our national divisions number two. And, number three, the big design is to have playoff-type moments that only can be, in any sport, created when there's a lot on the line at any one moment, right? That's what the essence of Game 7s, eliminations and all that are.

We've always had in motorsports a challenge with that because there's a continuity issue because there's 43 teams. Nobody can win a winner-take-all scenario. And we have to balance sort of the body of what you've done as a driver across the board. So continuity will always be a factor in our playoff-style format.

What we're talking about is, you know, enhancing it in a way that will bring out more of the winning moments, the big moments that happen in sports. And if there's a way we can do that, and there are a couple of ways, we're going to give that a lot of weight.

Q. Letting these guys express emotion, they've done so verbally, also with action. What is your reaction to some of the things we've seen? Is it one of concern or are you satisfied with the way things are going?

BRIAN FRANCE: I like it personally. I like the emotion. You know, a little less worried about what we're gonna do. They always have the sponsorship stuff. It's not easy for them. They have to be accountable to a company that has a big investment in them.

But, you know, I think the more we can do of that with obviously some limits, but we like it. We liked it anyway. It wasn't like we're the guys that like to just put a cap on everything. Rather things evolve. This is a 60-year-plus sport. Things evolve over time. You just sort of keep dialing it down or down or down. All of a sudden you look up, you've taken yourself slightly off course. We've done that before. We'll admit if we've overregulated in certain situations, and I think we did. I think Mike Helton said that directly. But we like where we're at now. We like where we're going.

Q. Looking at the 2011 schedule, you talked about that. Is there any consideration to shorten any races, perhaps Pocono? Also, the threat of rain is looming over the weekend. I know that years ago we dragged the tires around, now we're using the jet driers. Anything in the wings of maybe looking to dry the tracks quicker or work around some of the rain issues at speedways?

BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, and I mentioned a lot about technology, all the rest. We're looking at some things. People are coming to us with certain ways to dry asphalt faster and better. That would be a welcomed technology advancement. So we'll always try to do that.

You know, the surface out here, I know everybody has zeroed in on that, as well. The track has found an issue, but believe we've fixed it. Of course, they're going to repave beginning next week.

But, look, the job for us is, you know, if inclement weather happens, it's out of our control, but to get the track as dry as fast as we can, but it's got to be in a raceable condition for the drivers. If we can speed that up down the road with technology or anything else, gosh, we'll be the first ones to do it.

Q. We talked with Bernard, the IRL guy, the other week. He liked the idea of doubleheaders with NASCAR Cup racing. That's never been done. Are you for it or against it? Does it sound like a good idea for California or a couple of tracks or is it like, We're NASCAR and they're something else?

BRIAN FRANCE: We won't be doing doubleheaders with the Sprint Cup levels. They've had some of our lower divisions which do about the same in terms of audience and everything else, like the Truck Series has run a time or two with the IRL. That won't be possible because of scheduling issues. We don't have any interest in doing that either.

Q. Talking about the realignment of dates, can you sort of address NASCAR's role in making those decisions when a proposal is given to you? There's a lot of debate about attendance, we fill up this track or not, it's nearer to a city or not. Talk about NASCAR's perspective on the dates when you make that decision and how you make it.

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, first of all, it's got to fit in. One track hoppers effect has an effect, needless to say, across the schedule. We have to take all of that into context. The second thing is we have to look at what a certain thing does across a bunch of different measuring points. You know, it starts with what's best for the fan base in a market, in a region, wherever we're talking about. We'll take a look at that. Then there's the size of markets that obviously matters in some way. Lots of things go into it.

But in the end it's got to work for the track operator. If it's not financially working as well as it could work somewhere else, by definition it's not working for the fans as well either. You know, so we look at all those things. It's why we've got to make the decision on that because we're the only ones that have the entire industry's best interest going with our fans at any one time.

Q. I've been watching this sport for a while myself. It seems 15 or 20 years ago there was more to root for in the sport. You could be a fan of different drivers, so many different car owners, crew chiefs, the car make itself. Somehow it seems like now if you want to be a fan of Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, you have to be a fan of Rick Hendrick. If you want to be a fan of one of eight drivers, you have to be a fan of Jack Roush. My question is, now that we go forward in this sport, is there any platform in the future that you see where the engine department and a team's ability in particular to have to pay a Hendrick $4 million for an engine program, do you see that going away with kit engines or anything else so the perception from the race fans is that you're not battling four or five car owners? I don't know if that was clear enough.

BRIAN FRANCE: I essential get your point. I would tell you a couple things. One is, you know, on story lines or more people to pull for because they're essentially maybe aligned with one organization or another, well, that's a concentration of power issue that we've always believed is better treated when there was more competition not concentrated in one area. We just generally believe that. We're not always perfectly successful at achieving it, but we generally believe that to be the best way to approach it.

I would also tell you that all sports leagues have periods in time when they don't have their best story lines or best, you know, stable of athletes, they're the most appealing, the most anything. If you look across all the sports, just about, they'll ebb and flow in some major way based on their star power at the time and their story lines and rivalries.

You know, we certainly had a range of retirements and whatnot, some of the younger drivers that are making their mark to get up to a level of success and positioning where they're gonna be more appealing.

You know, we can do more. NASCAR is going to do a lot more in that area. I said earlier I met for a while today. We're going to be doing a lot more, you know, positioning ourselves, getting more aggressive at marketing the sport. There won't be any doubt about that as the next two, three, four years go on because we need to and it's important.

Generally speaking, though, the other thing in the concentration of power, what we would prefer not to see is because it's a barrier to entry for new owners, new drivers, new team owners. You're likely to see us make some changes in the Nationwide Series as a result of that phenomenon because there's such a concentration of Cup drivers which we like on one hand, but we want to make sure that that division is our version of college football; that there's drivers, owners, crew members all building their identities and careers through that channel, and there needs to be a big enough place for them to do that.

If it's just narrow, if there's not many seats available because we don't accomplish a lot of things, so you're gonna see from us a policy standpoint begin to deal with that issue beginning in 2011. That's something that we'll do carefully.

You know, I've given you a long-winded answer, as I typically would - sorry about that. But generally agree and generally we can do more and we can do more with our policies to help on that.

Q. (No microphone.)

BRIAN FRANCE: No, I didn't say that. I said we like Cup drivers racing in the Nationwide Series. We need to make sure the stage is not crowded out so much so that we can't give opportunities to Nationwide young regulars who need that experience.

And you know what, in my discussions with the Sprint Cup drivers, they agree with us. They think just that way, too. The owners certainly agree with us. So there are going to be some things that we can do.

Frankly, a lot of people you don't see, led by Steve O'Donnell and others who you do see, who are working at the R&D center, setting these policies, looking at all the things we can do to effect either the car or the policy of how we organize things, and they're taking into account all of the ramifications that come if you do this, then five other bad things might happen or 10 good things or whatever the look forward can be.

That's the difference between us having invested a lot of money, and still do, in research and development and in policy to be able to not just run the races and be on the treadmill, but to be able to look around the corner on what's important. That group has been instrumental in saving the industry 10s of millions of dollars by pulling out, starting with the Truck Series a few years ago, all the way up from testing policies, you know, to what parts and pieces go in the car, what limits are here and there.

If we pull a lever, what we can do, there's always -- unfortunately, you might have unintended consequences downstream. We're trying to have a group of people that are smart and serious about looking way down the road so that we get all this stuff right. We won't get it all right, but we'll try to do as best as we can.

Q. My question concerns the COT chassis and Sprint Cup races on the 1.5-mile, 2-mile tracks. Do you believe there are tools you can provide the teams, as far as the chassis go, that will increase the ebb and flow amongst the leaders during long stints of green?

BRIAN FRANCE: I don't know if there's ever been a situation we can change situations on long runs of green if somebody gets hooked up, that they'll have an automatic way to catch that person that's hooked up. That's not racing.

But we certainly have seen the spoiler play a nice effect in that. Most of the drivers think it's easier to pass, on the margins, but it's easier to pass. We actually feel like the stuff on the mile-and-a-half, you know, has been pretty good. The racing has been pretty good.

There's not any silver bullet we can do to emulate a perfect racing scenario every weekend. But by and large, we're pretty happy where we're at.

Q. I wanted to ask you quickly about the drug testing policy. There's been a steady stream of violators. I'm wondering if that has surprised you and if you find that troubling or more a case of this is working.

BRIAN FRANCE: Probably both. I think it is a policy that what you don't really think about is how many crew members are in all four national divisions, how many people. It's in the thousands who get tested virtually monthly. I don't know the exact numbers, but it's a lot. We, of course, did this enormous amount of additional testing a couple years ago. We said very surely, Listen, these are very, very, very thorough tests. They're very, very not only accurate but thorough.

You know, I don't know about surprising. You know, it's always disappointing. What I'm really encouraged about is the vast majority of people that stumble are working back in the program and going through the program, getting reinstated.

One of the things that happened, we all remember the saga of another driver in a courtroom, what was missed in all that is there's a road back for almost any infraction of our substance abuse policy. That's our wish, to work with somebody to get them pointed in the right direction, where they're out enjoying a career with us, whether it's driving, being a crew member, tire changer, you name it. That's our goal that was missed in the saga of the court battle.

But the vast majority of people that have an infraction are jumping onboard and getting some help. I wish that would happen with everybody.

Q. You touched on the track issues a little bit earlier. How concerned are you that there could be more issues this weekend? Now in hindsight, have they waited a year or two too late to repave this place?

BRIAN FRANCE: It's easy to say based on a perfect storm they had in February, how cold it was, it rained, done a bunch of things, and the track was just time to have been repaved. That's easy to sort of look back.

I've got a high degree of confidence that the track here at Daytona are very prepared for what might happen under virtually every scenario. They had an issue yesterday. They were right on it. So I have a high degree of confidence.

Anything can happen. But, you know, I think they're as prepared as you can be. I have confidence in that.

Q. There's been a lot of information here today. I don't want to sort of try to interpret it. I want to give you the opportunity. Is it fair to say on the Chase stuff, you keep talking about big impact, big moments, are you guys looking at potentially eliminations or a different points system or different emphasis on winning?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I would tell you that the base of the Chase in terms of 10 races that decide it, resetting of points, we like the Chase format. We've always liked it. But I can't tell you exactly what because there's a number of things that we are looking at. So we haven't made a decision.

Some of those are more dramatic. We may think that they are not either necessary or would go against this balance that we've always told you that we want to have, which is the continuity of going week in and week out is always important. So we're not going to lose that.

But on the other hand, if there's some high-impact changes to the Chase that we think we can make, and we've also digested a lot of other things over the last several years, we're in a position to do that.

We're talking to people now about what some of those ideas are. You know, we haven't made a decision. Like I said, I think you saw that get played out with the NCAA tournament, as a matter of fact. A lot of things were discussed on their end. I won't speak for them. They ended up doing something that they thought worked for them, which was a lot less than they had originally considered.

We're no different than that. We're looking at that. It's their tournament, it's our Chase. So we'll look at what we think can make the biggest impact, managing the either unintended consequences or certainly the integrity of the format itself, compromising it.

Q. You touched on the ratings earlier. One of the things I hear a lot from people is they're kind of confused about the smorgasbord of networks they have over the course of the NASCAR season, TNT, ESPN, ABC. When the contracts come up for renewal, is that something you're going to be looking at hard in terms of maybe going back to a single network or two? Part of the changes you're talking about for the Nationwide Series is limiting the amount of Cup drivers that race in the series. Is that something that's on the table?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I'll take the first part of your question.

You know, that group that you mentioned should have been with us 10 years ago when virtually every week was different on what network partner. We have a long season. We're going to have and we need a number of the right television partners. I don't think that's likely to change.

On limiting Cup drivers, we tend to like more competition, so policies that we put in place tend to create incentives rather than, you know, try to put hard caps or regulate.

What I can say is we've got to have the rules and the requirements for the Nationwide Series much more tilted to new drivers, giving them a greater opportunity - that would include new owners, by the way - than we do now. There's several ways to get there. I think you're going to see us start down the road to get to that place, knowing that we need to have Cup drivers. That's part of a little bit of the magic of it, too. You get young guys in a different car to have a chance to compete head-to-head with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

We like that. We just think we have to get the balance a little bit better.

Q. We just completed the Grand-Am Rolex qualifying. Can you talk about the plans for Grand-Am? We have a new team here from Colombia this weekend, the international flavor that may be coming in, FIA, with Grand-Am racing.

BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, it's important to note that that is a division that we put a lot of emphasis on in the last few years because we think road racing is underserved, has been for a while, not to mention that internationally you're right, it's certainly what people race in terms of the circuit and whatever else, is mostly road racing.

We'll want to keep making sure that division is prominent and achieves that for any international growth that we have in the future, I would expect that division would play some role.

We're happy with the road racing component. We put a fair amount of resources and time on it. It does give us an international flavor. It also gives us a chance to attract different car manufacturers where there's a better fit, like BMW, who is in the series, and others. It gives them a chance to get the NASCAR flavor of how we go about things, but fits into their makes and models a little bit better. We like that a lot. It's also a very good product for the SPEED Channel. So we're very committed to Grand American Road Racing.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you for your time, Brian.

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