An interview with: NASCAR chairman Brian France
BRIAN FRANCE: Thank you. I'll start out by saying many of you have come up to me and said through the years that you feel like the media sometimes gets a little short‑changed, doesn't quite get the treatment that you deserve. Looking at that TV and the screen out front, the new screen, you guys maybe right. That is quite a big screen, and quite a resolution.
On a serious note, we're almost not at the halfway point, but we're headed that way here at the All‑Star break. And obviously we got off to a fast start at Daytona with a young, dynamic winner and a great race.
This week, of course, today is NASCAR day, we're very proud of the money raised going to children ‑‑ mostly children who need it the most, and not to mention the moneys just granted to the tornado victims throughout Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi and other parts of the industry having chipped into that.
So that's good to see, and it's good to see that NASCAR day continues to make good things happen for people who need it. Of course we're also celebrating the Hall of Fame of the second class here on Monday night. It's a great class. The community is really supportive. I was at the event Wednesday night, so we're looking for a really fun and deserving night on Monday night.
I understand that attendance is up
for tomorrow night as well as going into Memorial Day weekend and the Coke
600. So that's nice to see the track
I would just tell you a few things and I'll take questions in a moment. But about competition, which obviously is the centerpiece of what we do. If you look back, and I would go back not only to the first part of this year, but really go back to most of last year where you saw a rise in the competition level, lead changes, new winners, very competitive chase down the stretch between Denny and Jimmie Johnson and so on. That's carried on to this year.
So you've seen some resurgence by some of the drivers who mean the most to the NASCAR fan base, and obviously that would be Dale Jr., who is, I think, fourth in points now, contending for wins. And it looks like he could contend for a championship if he continues to improve with his team.
There's been a lot of excitement, and I know we'll have some questions on some of the mixing it up on the racetrack in recent weeks. Not surprising, because things are tighter, the competition level is higher, emotions are higher, so that doesn't surprise us to see that that's the case.
So a good part of that is exciting and great for the sport. Obviously there are limits to what we think how far that can go, and we've shown those limits recently.
If you look at the Kevin Harvick incident, which was not even a racing incident, it was after the event, where you saw us take action and step in. You saw us take action as well with discussions with Juan Pablo and Ryan Newman as well. So there are always limits, but on balance, the most important thing is how tight the competition is.
I'll say one other thing about that. You know, the wildcard format where wins are going to matter as we go into July and August and close out the regular season, you know, you could have some really interesting things happen with some drivers like Regan Smith or others that are going ‑‑ who were counted out before, but they have a win. They maybe have more wins, and that could be a factor, probably will be a factor.
So I think if you talk to anybody who is in the know, that you would get a very good report card on the competition. I've always said that's the steak on the plate for us.
Then the final thing is that we mentioned to you some time ago that we had engaged in some reviews of things within the industry that we think we can improve on. They range from the experience at the track, the things we can do at the league level, and things the team owners can do differently and better to serve our fans.
Those reviews are in. They're good, they're constructive. We'll be sharing those with the team owners here shortly. We have shared it with a number of tracks already so far. So we'd like to think that we're our own good self critic in some areas that we think we can improve on. So with that, I'll be happy to take some questions.
Q. I'm wondering where you personally fall on the boys‑have‑at‑it issue? It's a little tricky in that NASCAR has to maintain law and order, but you get all this outside interest and you bring all these new eyeballs and it gets people talking and it's a real water cooler thing. So where do you personally fall, and what is the proper way to manage that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think ‑‑ that's a good question. I think there are limits. You saw one of the limits is that if you put anyone in danger, like what happened with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch where it was after the race had happened.
I think it's important to note if you look through NASCAR's history, one of the videos that showed the most Wednesday night was the famous finish at Daytona with Richard Petty and David Pearson where they obviously hit each other and spun out in the grass. You go through our history and that's part of it, contact, emotion, in particular late in the race.
We're like anybody. We can over‑officiate and over‑regulate in some circumstances, over a 60‑year period of time. And I think our point was a couple years ago we thought we might be in a pattern of that, and we wanted to put it more in the drivers' hands.
We never said there were no limits to that. You just can't go around with a missile and a weapon out there. But if you're having contact, that's part of NASCAR. So it's tough for us, but that's what we do. And it's tough for any sport to have certain areas of the game or in auto racing that are subjective as to what is too much, but we'll figure that out.
We're going to remain, obviously, a contact sport, and we're going to remain with the basic philosophy that we're putting more of it in the drivers' hands. If they go over a line we think is there, we'll deal with that.
Q. Despite the fact that we've seen some really incredible competition and the product is as strong as I can ever remember on the racetrack, Jeff Belskus, the CEO and president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had a comment in the papers that said we don't disclose numbers, but you saw a lot of empty seats here last year are, and I think you're going to see more of it this year. Is there some sort of problem with the relationship there when it was like the second most prestigious races on the Sprint Cup tour? Are you getting some sort of kickback from Indy at all?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, no, the relationship is fine. I think, obviously, there were a couple years there where we had not our best day in terms of the tire problems and other things. They also had other issues that had nothing to do with us and other series had race there, and they've had management changes and so on. I know they're trying to figure that out.
There are going to be some markets,
based on the economy and based on other circumstances, that we will be off in
attendance. There will be a lot of areas
we'll be on in attendance. I said this
weekend is an example of that in
So we know the economy's still not
perfect in places like
Q. There's been some comments from drivers, I guess most notably from Tony Stewart, talking about wanting more specific parameters about what they can and can't do in this new environment. And I realize a lot of this is subjective, but is it possible to say you can't do this, you can do that. Can you draw better lines there?
BRIAN FRANCE: We think not. We think there is a 60‑year history of how we officiate the events. Most of our top officials -- and certainly Mike Helton who is in charge every weekend and has been at the helm for a decade and longer. So we have a lot of ‑‑ this shouldn't be a big surprise for anyone to try to read us and how we're going to officiate the events.
We said late in the event if your car's faster than somebody else and there is some contact and somebody gets by, that's NASCAR racing. We celebrate that throughout our history. Look here at the All‑Star. Some of the great finishes have all been with contact - Earnhardt and Bill Elliot, going to the grass. That's just the way it is.
The drivers know us well enough to understand, and they certainly have conversations that we'll be happy to reiterate our situation. But there is still going to be subjectivity. There is no set of eight things we're going to be looking at, because that would be impossible. It's not practical.
Q. If you could address the health of the NASCAR Home Tracks program and how that would affect or relate to the health of the sport overall? What is that relationship like and how about the health of the home tracks program?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think two things. The home track area of the business has improved in the last couple of years, in particularly the regional events like the K&N Series, who showcased throughout those home tracks, and gave them a big night.
One of the things that's happened with our regional series in our home tracks is we're starting to get ‑‑ you've maybe heard me say that some of the drivers in our diversity program who were in the K&N series, who were in those home tracks ‑‑ one being Darrell Wallace, who I know is winning in some very competitive situations. He is going to, I'm sure be a national series, one of the four national series shortly. And if that happens, and if he's successful, I hope he is, it would be a tremendous boost for us, and a tremendous accomplishment for him.
Other drivers like Sergio Pena and others who are coming from the home tracks, coming from the regional series, and they're getting opportunities and showing their skills and that's going to be a good thing?
Following up on the attendance.
During the famous realignment news conference eight years ago, your
father said he didn't like seeing empty seats at racetracks and that was a big
factor at making a schedule. In light of
some of these tracks struggling such as
BRIAN FRANCE: My father was pretty forward thinking. But even he I'm not sure saw the financial crisis that we had in '07 and '08 come. So that tends to modify your thinking of how you view these things.
We'll take a look at it because he was right. We certainly don't like to see empty seats. We like to see as many fans enjoying this great competition as possible, but we're also realistic that some things are going to take time. There's not many sports that aren't being affected in one way or the other in attendance. And they're having to do a lot of things, so are we, so are the tracks, to be sensitive.
We have high gas prices that are upon us, and that is certainly another factor for our fans to consider. We certainly don't want to see empty seats. We'll be working with tracks to get the best dates possible, and we'll go from there.
Q. It seems like this year especially but late last year too, mid‑last year about that time, there's been a new focus by NASCAR, generally you guys, not necessarily industry, but by the powers that be in the company to embrace what NASCAR was because for a time there was a shift to try to go be something else. How much have you guys talked about that, embracing the history and being what it is?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I wouldn't agree with that. I don't think there was a time when we didn't think the best racing in the world was important or that our core fan wasn't important. That just wouldn't be accurate. Obviously, we have a job to do which is to satisfy the core fan in every way we can possibly and we'll try to do that. We're also trying to be appealing in ways to new fans.
Sometimes there is a different path that you have to be on, slightly different, to accomplish both things. But you're never off of one path for long, and they're never very far apart. So we're focused on being ‑‑ our history couldn't be more important. The Hall of Fame being exemplary proof of that on Monday and through the week.
We'll always keep our eye on the ball. But on the other hand, we're reacting to social media, we're reacting to the digital media landscape that's changing quickly, and most of you in this room know it better than I.
We're reacting to how young people, in particular, are taking in their favorite sports or learning about their favorite sports. It's very different than it was ten years ago, say five years ago.
You just can't have your head down when all these things are going on your way to trying to grow a fan base.
Q. It's no longer unusual for a Formula 1 driver to come to NASCAR. I'm wondering what it means to have this influx. Does it matter to NASCAR? Is there a benefit to it? Is there something about it that maybe detracts from the fan base?
BRIAN FRANCE: Not at all. I don't think the tracks at all. I think it shows you the level of competition that the best drivers in the world want to be a part of. And that's been going on, as you said, for some time. Juan Pablo will probably be at the head of the line in that regard.
So, no, I think it's great. Some will have more success than others. But the idea that they look at this style of racing and level of competition on par with anybody in the world, that's exactly what we'd expect.
Q. Wonder if you could assess is how you think the new points are working out so far in light of the fact that drivers now have to pick one series to run a championship in? Is there any consideration to maybe run in an All‑Star type event for Nationwide or trucks?
BRIAN FRANCE: I don't know about an All‑Star Race. It's been talked about and discussed before. I think the points, I assume, you're speaking about the Nationwide restrictions for the regulars to race for the championship. I think that will come into better play for us later in the year. I think it's added something, no question, to the events.
I think you're going to see us take a slow, steady look at making sure that we're getting the most out of the Nationwide Series, which needs to be analogous to college football and being able to build some Stars that come from Saturday to Sunday for us.
This was a big step, but it's not going to be the only step, and we'll be looking at ways to enhance the young drivers and their talents, and new owners, for that matter, in the Nationwide and other national series, that don't just get this, you know, perforation of Cup drivers to the point where it just homogenizes Sunday and Saturday and doesn't deliver the benefit that's we like to see with showcasing yuck drivers and young talent and young owners, new owners.
Earlier Jimmie Johnson this week was commenting on the fact that he's
the number one athlete of
BRIAN FRANCE: I think, listen, he's won five consecutive championships at the highest level of competition in American Motorsports and I would argue around the world, so he's deserving of that position by Forbes.
I can't say that we've turned the
kind of corners I'd like to see the sport turn, that's why we're doing so many
things to be a better contributor and better partner in that area with our
Can I say we've achieved anything close to what I'd like to see? No. But, obviously, all Motorsports would like to have our problems, but our problems are challenges and we're going to meet them head on and that's our job. Grow this sport, tell the story, showcase our drivers in the best competition in the world.
Q. Roger Goodell has done a number of conference calls this year with season ticket holders for various NFL teams with fans to talk to them about whether it's the lockout issues or particular issues they have about the sport. Why haven't you done something like that or why couldn't you do something like that with say season ticket holders at the various tracks throughout the circuit?
BRIAN FRANCE: You know, I'm sure he was trying to reassure his fan base on some issues that he was working on, and I assume that is the labor issues. I don't know. I wasn't on any of those calls.
The tracks sell the tickets here, and have, and they know their customers best. If I could add something to a call with our fan base and their ticket customers, I'd be happy to do it.
I haven't been asked to do it. I think we tend to let the tracks have that relationship, and that will remain until there is a need to do something different.
It's appeared that being so sponsor dependent that NASCAR might have
been hesitant to embrace the split‑screen commercials. Did
BRIAN FRANCE: We've been informed. Obviously it's not a brand‑new concept. It was tried a decade ago or so with some mixed reviews. And they're trying some different takes at it. I think ‑‑ listen, if it enhances the viewing experience and works for the advertisers, then we're all open to that.
I think we're going to trust our TV partners to try some new things and they'll be as critical as we will be in terms of how it's working and we'll have to see how it goes.
Q. On a related note, I'm curious. The last television deal you signed in December '05 for a deal that started in '07, are you going to follow a similar time line then? Can you talk about how that side by side might affect the next negotiations?
BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, I don't know. It's too early to tell how that would affect the negotiations, because we don't know how it's going to work commercially or otherwise.
Look, there is no question that the television landscape with what's happened with Comcast and NBC coming together, and recent deals, the Pac‑12 deal and others, that sports content has never been more important to all of the networks who are in the business, and some new ones that are getting into the business.
But our first obligation and hope is that we get renewals done with our incumbents. When that day comes where that's not possible, which I hope it doesn't come because I think we have the best lineup of broadcast partners, we'll deal with that and we'll have to see how the broadcast affects it.
Q. You talked earlier about NASCAR paying attention to social media changing, interests of younger audiences. I was wondering whether you've decided whether to do this or not, is shortening some of the races on the table at all?
BRIAN FRANCE: We have shortened races. Over the last five or six years, we've shortened several, including some Nationwide Series.
So, yeah, I think we'd be open to that if it works for the tracks and works for our network partners. And, obviously, if the fan base wants that, that will be something that will be case by case. But are we open to that? Yes. Have we done it before? Yes.
Q. What does probation mean and why was the All‑Star Race included with Kevin and Kyle? A lot of fans are confused by that and think maybe because it's a non‑points event that it shouldn't be included.
BRIAN FRANCE: What probation means is there is a different set of eyes and expectations that are placed on a driver who has been placed on probation. They're going to have a more limited flexibility in how we're going to officiate them should they be in a similar area that they have just violated.
Why it's important to have consistent rules even through the All‑Star Races is there are safety elements that are inter‑affected between events. There are lots of different reasons why you just wouldn't want to say we're not going to have a standard set of NASCAR rules in the All‑Star Race.
Keep in mind, given that there are no points at stake, by definition, it gets more aggressive. We know that. That's fine. Drivers take more chances, they're not worried about where they are in the point standings, so it's going to be more aggressive and more competitive.
But if we took the lid off and said there are no rules or don't worry about any ramifications that might extend into next week at all, then we believe that ‑‑ as I said earlier in my remarks ‑‑ there has to be limits to all of this. That would be above the limits that we believe going into an event would make any sense. Thank you.
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