Lesa France Kennedy is most powerful woman in sports

Auto racing, and NASCAR in particular, used to be a "man's domain." A sport for those brave and fearless men who loved speed and didn't flinch at danger. Women? Most circuits didn't even allow them in the pits until the 1970s. But these days, Teresa and Kelley Earnhardt are major figures in NASCAR, Danica Patrick is one of the most recognizable drivers in the U.S., and come Feb. 14, the Daytona 500 will be run with the most powerful woman in sports in her new role, that of CEO of International Speedway Corporation (ISC), promoter of The Great American Race and approximately 100 others.

Lesa France Kennedy, the 48-year-old granddaughter of NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr. and the sister of NASCAR chairman Brian France, rose from president of ISC to CEO in June 2009. Four months later, the October issue of Forbes recognized her ascension, labeling her the most powerful woman in sports while citing her company's $750 million in annual revenues and the influence she wields.

As CEO, France Kennedy oversees 13 of the biggest speedways in the U.S. and some of the largest sporting venues in the world. The centerpiece, of course, is Daytona International Speedway, which will host the Rolex 24 on Jan. 30-31, followed by the 52nd Daytona 500 one week after the Super Bowl. Other ISC tracks include Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.; Chicagoland Speedway, Darlington, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Martinsville, Michigan, Phoenix, Talladega and Watkins Glen. ISC tracks also play a major role on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.

In a wide-ranging interview with SI.com as the 2010 season approaches, France Kennedy talked recently about changes for this year's Daytona 500, the challenges the economy and California's race date have presented for ISC, the lessons she learned from her parents and grandparents, and the impact of Danica-mania.

"We've always had women [in my family] who have always been involved in sports, and it goes back to my grandmother [Anne], who I felt was a pioneer," she said. "She provided a very stabilizing factor and a great balance to what my grandfather was doing. Pop was a visionary and my grandmother was very detailed and very methodical. It was that combination that was needed to light the sport and get it off the ground.

"With my father [Bill France, Jr.] and my mother [Betty Jane], my mother was an absolute perfect complement to what my father was doing. She has a grace and elegance about her that extended to all of our events. She put a lot of final touches on our events. When people came to town, the entertaining and the overall image of the sport was elevated with some of the things she was able to do. She was also a philanthropist and both left their impact on this sport."

None of those lessons were lost on France Kennedy, who says she would put NASCAR fans up against fans of any other sport in terms of their loyalty. "Both my brother and I started working in the business at an early age and did a variety of jobs, which my parents believed in. Our family vacations were to go to Talladega for the races for the summer. We worked out at the track. You would always have the one-on-one contact with the fans, and those were some of the best days that I've had. I really, really enjoyed those years."

When France attended Duke University [B.A. in Economics and B.A. in Psychology, 1983], the plan wasn't to go to work in the sport, but to prepare her for the next step in life. But that path brought her back to the family business. More at SI.com

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