NASCAR has been led since its inception by the same family. Formed by the late Bill France Sr. during a 1947 meeting at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., the organization today is led by his grandson.
Brian France took the reins as chairman and chief executive officer from his father, the late Bill France Jr., in October 2003.
Ahead of the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, Brian France talked with The Enquirer about the race, the season and the sport overall.
What is your assessment of the season so far?
We’re pleased obviously with the competition level. The racing’s probably never been better. I think most people would agree with that. Having Trevor Bayne win the Daytona 500, the Wood Brothers and all that, was a trip down memory lane. And it was neat to see. I would say, our ratings have been up and attendance generally has been up. But we still, like everybody else, we still have to deal with a sputtering economy and high fuel prices, all of which are unhelpful for us. But with that said, the season is going very well.
Before the season started, NASCAR changed the points system and altered the Chase format to include two wild-card spots. Are you pleased with how the points system is working so far?
I think you’re starting to see this whole idea of the wild card. Winning races is likely going to have a significant role in who gets into the Chase. That will be interesting. Just about the time we get to Kentucky will be a time when that will be shaping up. So that will be good.
What does it mean for NASCAR to have Dale Earnhardt Jr. running well and in contention?
It’s good. He’s the big franchise for us. The most popular driver and all that. It’s really helpful when he does well, and it’s also good to see that he’s got his confidence back. Confidence in auto racing is a big deal. When you don’t have it, it matters.
So much has been made about “boys, have at it.” There have been incidents in recent weeks where NASCAR has stepped in and handed down fines. Are you OK with the feuding and the “boys, have at it” moments?
I don’t know that “boys, have at it” per se is why we’ve had a lot more emotions flying around. I think part of it is the racing is tighter. There’s no doubt about it. Some rivalries get created. And sometimes you don’t like somebody that you race with. And when it’s real close and real tight, you tend to have some more of these things. But we’ve always said that there are limits to anything, including us lightening up the officiating a little bit. There are always limits. Nobody said, “Do anything you want out there.” You’re seeing us make sure that there are parameters around good competitive, safe racing.
What are you hearing about the inaugural race at Kentucky Speedway?
It’s new, and that’s always fun in a long season. Most of the drivers have raced there in one division or another. But there’s nothing like when the best guys get there. I understand tickets will be sold out, and that’s not a surprise. A lot of race fans (are) in the region and in Kentucky. And then the improvements on the facility, I’m told, are coming well. And there are a lot of them. We’ll be excited to get there.
How would you explain to somebody who doesn’t follow NASCAR the significance and impact one race can have on an area?
You start there, with the economic impact. And it’s huge. It’ll be helpful to the broader economy in some way or another, for sure. I think the interest and excitement of a major sporting event, especially one that is new, coming into the state of Kentucky, there’s just an excitement that you can’t put your finger on. But you feel it, even if you don’t go to the event. A good feeling about having a lot of attention drawn to one place.
What were some of the factors that NASCAR took into consideration before signing off on SMI’s request to move one of its race dates to Kentucky Speedway?
You’ve got to look at saturation in one area of the country or not. You need to look at how it flows on the calendar, what events it’s around that it can have an impact on. And obviously weather and when you can have it. The usual things. Then it’s got to be a date that also works well with the track that hopefully is not conflicting on a Bengals game or something like that. There are myriad things that we would look at to make sure that it all fits in the schedule properly.
There’s been speculation that IndyCar driver Danica Patrick will move to NASCAR full-time next season. What would she bring to NASCAR?
She brings a lot of interest, a lot of attention and her own fan base. Like anything ultimately it’s based on how she performs. She’s been performing better and better at the NASCAR events. It would be great to have her. She is a talented driver.
What impact has social media had on NASCAR and its ability to reach fans?
We look at it with social media and digital media, they’re obviously very different things. But the digital media side, there are no restrictions online and some other areas. And there are no set or particular rules or precedent of what somebody wants to cover. That opens up good things for us because this is an under covered sport nationally. No doubt about that. And then social media is a very, very significant cultural thing that is occurring now. It has the chance to speak with your fans in real time in ways that you just couldn’t in the past. That’s really good. And there’s obviously some other things that you have to look at with social media that can be adverse to a sport, too. So we’re trying to balance all of it as we go along.
The most challenging aspect of your job?
I think balancing everyone’s interests. If you talk to any commissioner or anybody who runs a sports league, trying to make sure that all the stakeholders get everything that they need to get out of the sport. Television partners. Team owners. Track operators. That’s the hardest part, to figure out how to manage that. You see in other leagues there are disagreements that can cause big problems. You just want to get all of that right. For us, we have the mechanical side of things to make sure it’s an even playing field, the costs don’t go up and all of that other stuff that our sport has to manage a little bit differently. I’d say those two things are a handful.
On the flip side, what part of the job gives you the most satisfaction?
We’re working with so many good, smart people that are really helping grow the entire sport. Watching things work out properly. Having a full house, a big television audience, an exciting race where it all comes together, which it does for us fortunately a lot. That’s really rewarding.