Transcript: NASCAR Press Conference 2-13-2007
Brian France State of the Sport Transcript
State of the Sport
An interview with:
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Before we get into what we're here for today, we do not have anything to announce at the moment on penalties as a result of this weekend's qualifying and whatever. But we will have, later this afternoon, an announcement on penalties.
So with that aside, please welcome NASCAR's chairman and CEO, Brian France.
BRIAN FRANCE: Good afternoon, everybody. I want to do a couple things today. As you guys know, I give a little state of the sport here in February, then in July we try to give another update where we think some of the bigger topics, initiatives are going, how they're working out.
With that, first of all, good afternoon. Second of all, thank you very much. I know it's the hardest working press corps in press, the motorsports press corps. I know another thing, we keep you here a long time, 10 days in some cases. It's a long spell. We appreciate the hard work and the good coverage that you guys provide.
Let me tell you a little bit about '06 as we wrap-up and head into '07. Another congratulatory to Jimmie Johnson, the No. 48 Rick Hendrick Lowe's team. They proved they were the best on the track. Jimmie is going to make a great champion. I also want to make mention of what I think now is being defined as the best rookie class that we've had arguably ever and some say maybe since 1979, but certainly one of the best. Denny Hamlin was the leader of that pack, making the Chase, getting a couple of wins. That rookie class is going to serve us well as we move into '07 and beyond.
I want to also talk a little bit about our ongoing concern, initiative, emphasis on leveling the playing field, lowering that barrier, keeping those costs down as much as possible. I think we like some of the early results we're seeing from the tire leasing program we had last year, how that worked out, to lower some costs, try to balance this field for the Pettys, the Wood Brothers, some of the other single and dual teams here in the series.
With that in '06, now we're in '07, moving on. It's always going to be about intense competition. That's what NASCAR is all about, as everyone knows. That's why I think Toyota is going to add something to the mix. Obviously their engineering, technology and just there emphasis on coming into this series helping so many teams, we're already seeing a real benefit. You can see the car counts going up, the level of competition growing. We're real happy with how Toyota has come into the series. I know it's early, but we certainly like the organization of their teams, how they're approaching it.
We certainly have a lot of optimism for Juan Pablo Montoya, good qualifying run, wins the 24-Hours. We think he can be special. We think the fact he looked at NASCAR as his No. 1 goal, that he wanted to be part of the most competitive form of auto racing in the world, and chose us. I think that's quite an endorsement where NASCAR has come on the global stage in motorsports. And also I think A.J. Allmendinger, who had a lot of success in CART, other forms of racing, is going to be a big plus for this series. I believe, too, that Sam Hornish is going to compete in a number of Busch events and add to what we're doing.
We're excited about some of the drivers, frankly, undeniably here in North America, maybe now in the world, this is the place to be when you want to test your skills against the best drivers in the world.
Of course, Thursday we'll kick it off here with the Gatorade Duels. I think in recent memory, we haven't had so many drivers trying to compete for so few spots. Thursday is going to be an interesting event as we set the field for the Daytona 500.
I told many of you that we wanted to turn the corner, make winning even more important. That's why our announcement last month, five points on the nose, the way we're going to see the Chase when we get into the fall, all going to be based on wins. Whether it's symbolic or whether it's tangible, that's where we're going. We want to constantly keep pushing that, but remaining and making sure that balance for consistency is preserved, but we're headed towards more emphasis on winning.
I, like many of you, are anxious to get the Car of Tomorrow off the test tracks and onto some real competition. We'll do that in Bristol here this spring. I'm optimistic that the teams are by way of having either chassis that we're certifying in Charlotte, the R&D center, that we're going to be able to move along hopefully at a brisker pace of phasing the Car of Tomorrow in. That's going to be based on the teams' capacity to get up to speed. But they're coming online very fast. We have a nice roll-out plan, but we're going to look at that as we go along.
Busch Series. This will be the final year of Anheuser-Busch's long-standing commitment to this series. We want to thank them for their partnership. They've been a great partner. We'll be looking down the road here very shortly at a new entitlement sponsor. This year we'll be headed to Montréal for the first time, headed north, building on the success we think we've had with going to Mexico City. Had a very successful couple years down there. That series, clearly the No. 2 motorsport in the country, is going to be off to a good start. We're going to manage through the sponsorship things in an intelligent way.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series of course debuts on SPEED this Friday night. Full field, lots of competition. Like the way that series has been going and hopefully will continue to go.
I want to mention a little bit about sponsorships because you can't be in this business without understanding that that's part of the lifeblood of the entire sport. I'm sort of pleased to give you a good report card on that. There's more than 100 Fortune 500 businesses investing in NASCAR. Sponsors, of course, will change their mind and come and go to a degree. But investments in corporate America is another positive sign we got the momentum. They're scrutinizing their budgets, scrutinizing their investments like never before. Time and again they're choosing us and we're real proud of that.
To that point, Bank of America, Tylenol, new NASCAR sponsors for '07. Recently renewed Goodyear for a multi-year commitment. They've been the longest standing current partner in NASCAR. Glad to have Goodyear back for many years to come. More importantly than all that are the new team sponsors that you see out on the cars today. I want to make note of a couple of them. Dish Network, Big Red, Wrigley's, Burger King, Red Bull, and (indiscernible). Some great brands that are going to help us in the investment in the teams, make sure we'll got well-funded teams now and into the future.
Also I want to make note some of the new executives that have joined the industry here in recent months. One of the announcements I know is probably coming, although not yet made, is John Henry of the Boston Red Sox looking to make an investment in Roush Racing. Should that happen, that will be an interesting and important milestone. John Henry brings a lot of sports and business savvy. That will be very helpful should they join Roush Industries.
I also want to welcome Max Siegal, DEI. Comes from Sony, the record industry. He's now the president of DEI. He'll bring an interesting perspective. Happy to have Max in our industry, as well.
You can see from a momentum standpoint where we're at. We think that this sport is poised for interesting and great things in '07. It starts, too, with our broadcast partnerships. We start our eight-year television package with FOX, Turner, ABC and ESPN. FOX, of course, the home to the Daytona 500, 12 NEXTEL Cup races every year, and this year, of course, exclusively. Turner returns as NASCAR's longest consecutive broadcast partner. They'll televise six consecutive NASCAR Nextel Cup Series races, including the Pepsi 400. Of course, as most of you have seen, the enormous commitment that the Disney corporation with ABC and ESPN has already made to NASCAR. The production, the promotion, the focus on NASCAR is unprecedented from ESPN. Happy to have an old friend back in the fold.
The SPEED Channel gets an enhanced position, as well. Of course, they're home exclusively to each NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. They'll broadcast the Gatorade Duels on Thursday, and of course the All-Star Challenge in Charlotte exclusively. SPEED has a great package. They're doing a nice job covering the sport. Want to thank them.
We got Sirius radio up and launched January 1st. Lots of 24-hour, round-the-clock coverage. I like their shows, a lot of the things that are going on. Happy to have one of the real interesting and pioneers in satellite radio in Sirius.
And Direct TV. They were nice enough to sponsor my father's hot dog roast last night. They've got the Hot Pass, taking our fans behind the scenes in some cool places for the entire season. Happy to have Direct TV.
In closing here a little bit, I want to thank, again, the hard-working media corps that covers us week in and week out, but reminding you of a theme that I have that's important. Despite the real hard effort and great effort in covering us, we're still an under-covered sport in many major markets. We're doing a lot of things to educate these various markets, various mediums to what NASCAR is all about and why this sport deserves a little bit better coverage. That's on our watch, on my watch, so we're going to be working at that pretty hard.
Yesterday I got an update directly from the Hall of Fame committee. I'm pleased to tell you that it's a much bigger, grander project than even we had envisioned when we drew up the idea. They are really off and running in Charlotte in a big way. Hopefully they're going to stay on schedule and be completed around 2010. But I will tell you, it's going to be the most technologically advanced Hall of Fame ever built. The designers, the architects are hard at work. It's going to be a fabulous tribute to NASCAR's past, present and future when it's completed.
Couldn't give you an update without telling you about diversity, how important diversity is, if we don't get that right, what it means. You know about the initiatives, I'm not going to go into each and every one of them. Our Drive for Diversity is the centerpiece, but there are many others.
I remain not only committed but convinced that if we don't get diversity right, this sport will not achieve what it needs to achieve from a popularity standpoint, won't get the best drivers, won't get the best talent on the management side, won't get the fan base that we deserve, so on. We got to get diversity right. We won't stop until the progress that we think we need to make it made.
With that, I'm going to take some questions in a moment. As I conclude today in my sort of update, I think it's undeniable a few things. I think it's undeniable that corporate America, the funding, the investment in the sport, the belief in this sport, the sport on the move, is better than we've ever had it. Look at the garage, the car counts, the quality companies that are making this investment. So we really feel good about that.
I think another thing that's undeniable is the level of competition and the quality of drivers that this sport has attracted over the last four or five years. It's amazing. I think there's going to be some big names, some talented drivers who won't make the Daytona 500. That is indicative of an extremely strong and competitive field.
I think what's also undeniable is the initiatives at work for a number of years, whether that's diversity, the Car of Tomorrow, our cost-containment strategy, our safety strategy of making things better every time we can, the work being done in the R&D center, we're getting the results from all of that. We're getting the results from the hard work and those initiatives that take many years to cycle through and get the real reward.
I can tell you, you expect me to have confidence, but I'm going to tell you I got a lot of confidence that '07 is going to be a very, very special year for NASCAR. We're really happy about getting underway here in a couple days.
With that, I'm going to take some questions, as well.
Q. You talked about your corporate sponsorship, getting everything off to the big start. The big news on Sunday, you had three guys busted for cheating. What kind of message does that send? What are you going to do about it?
BRIAN FRANCE: I'm glad we're going to talk about this. As Jim said, we're going to announce some pretty strong penalties here later on today. You can't expect with 120 cars, thousands of rules that are out there, that some teams are either going to intentionally cross the line or inadvertently cross the line. Either way, it's our job to protect the integrity of the sport.
What we said in July in Chicago was that we weren't happy with the frequency of those, too many of those. There's going to be some. You can't bat a thousand with a hundred plus cars. As more on the intentional side began to happen, we were going to ramp up the penalties in a strong way. As Mike Helton said, whatever it takes.
Now, whatever it takes ought to be measured because we ought to be looking at, you still got to have the punishment fit the crime as well as be a deterrent. So we'll balance that. You can be assured, you'll read the penalties later on today. We don't know the details on the 55. But as these penalties or as these infractions become more frequent, you will see us undeniably step up the punishment.
We'll find the right common ground to make sure while there will be some inadvertently flop over or make a mistake, but the intentional pressing, trying to get ahead of the rules, will not work. We'll make sure of that one way or the other.
Q. When the Car of Tomorrow cycles its way through to where it is running in the Daytona 500, will the areas we saw Sunday be minimized to a great extent as to what they can really get their hands on and try to trick up?
BRIAN FRANCE: We think so. We think we have narrowed it dramatically. And in fairness to the teams, there are a lot of I won't say ambiguities, but a lot of rules to make sure you get right. It's their job to get them right. I think the Car of Tomorrow should go a long way and ought to be less room to have any confusion on.
We haven't talked a lot about this, but we're certifying the chassis - this is the Car of Tomorrow - in the R&D center in a much more tight, sophisticated way, using technology, a lot of other things, to make sure that these cars are absolutely perfect because we know that we have to protect the integrity. Everybody has to know that all 43 teams that start the Daytona 500 are on the same playing field. We'll do whatever it takes. I do think the Car of Tomorrow is going to allow us a chance to have less gray area than there is today.
Q. Do you envision a day maybe shortly when NASCAR will want to set a maximum age for its drivers at the Cup level? If not, why not?
BRIAN FRANCE: That's a fair question. We did put what you hope we would put, which is the parameters, we're talking about James Harvey Hylton here. He, of course, competed in the ARCA series last year, ran all their events. Got a chance to look at how he was doing physically, the doctors and all that.
We'll have to look at that. Right now we have a system that measures and evaluates drivers for their health, all the rest. We'll look at that as we go on.
Q. Do you envision yourself racing in the New York City area within the next 10 years? Why or why not?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I hope so. Obviously there's been a setback in the Staten Island situation that ISC was trying to develop. As they told me, they certainly have not given up on the New York market. They're hard at work trying to figure out the next opportunity there.
It's important to the sport to be in New York City for obvious reasons. I don't want to put a timeline on it. It's a very difficult project. There's a number of people working on it. It's not something that I work on myself personally. I don't have anything to do with that, other than that to be encouraged when I hear that ISC or someone else is making some good progress there.
Q. As the sport incorporates more foreign involvement, what role can foreign companies and markets have in NASCAR's growth? How are you actively pursuing that initiative?
BRIAN FRANCE: Are you talking about foreign markets or foreign manufacturers?
Q. Foreign markets, foreign companies both.
BRIAN FRANCE: Sometimes they go together.
Well, we've been saying that we're going to take a nice, slow, careful international view of where this sport can go. The only parameters I've laid out to our team is it has to be additive to the industry. So that means when we take an event to Mexico, which we already have, or Montréal, which we will, that the whole industry has an opportunity to win. That will also be the philosophy should we look at expanding outside of North America. That may be Europe, that may be Latin America, may be Asia. Doesn't matter where it is.
What my mandate is, how do we make sure that the industry is expanding, whether that's building cars and exporting cars, whether that's information, promotion, technology, you name it. This industry has got the model built. When we have opportunities internationally, it will have to be that the industry comes together and gets the benefit.
Q. You talked about NASCAR still being an undercovered sport in some markets. You want to change that on your watch. Does that go hand-in-hand with diversity? Are some areas where you struggle in terms of coverage areas where perhaps you're not seen as diverse, so accomplishing that would accomplish both things?
BRIAN FRANCE: I think it does. I think it undeniably does. We want to grow our audience, our awareness. We want everybody in the country - you've heard me say - be a NASCAR fan. To the extent we're not reaching a market, whether that's the African American market, Hispanic market, you name the market, or just a region of the country that we somehow haven't made our way to the front of the sport's pages, talk radio or the local television sports coverage, you name the barrier, we want to break it down. We want to break it down and try to expand this sport.
I think it does go hand-in-hand in some cases. We're working on both.
Q. Do you think NASCAR has maybe reached some sort of plateau at this point? Also could you talk about the ESPN effect. Seems they're bringing a new excitement into the broadcast area for you.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I don't want to comment on the excitement of the broadcast. That's for others to do.
Let me take the first part of your question. No, I don't think we've plateaued at all. I think we had what I call a lot of things that were coming in '07 that are coming right now that weren't there in '06. We had obviously some TV partners that had other priorities at the time rather than us once those decisions were made. It was reasonable for us to assume we were going to sort of cycle around here.
But we just know with this undercovered issue, with the interest the sport has commercially, ESPN will undoubtedly, because one of the areas that we can stand some growth, that is the casual sports fan. No one reaches the casual sports fan more often and more impactfully than ESPN. We're excited, not only here, but they're treating this sport like we would hope they would, which is a true franchise sport from how they produce their events, how they promote it, studio shows, the talent they're putting forward. It's an enormous commitment. That's going to help with us that casual sports fan in a very big way. It's going to help everybody.
Q. With the Car of Tomorrow entering competition for the first time in Bristol, as it gets on into the races you're going to try it out this year, if you see trends that are less than positive, things happening that you didn't predict or couldn't foresee, will you be willing to make changes to the Car of Tomorrow mid-season or will you wait till the off-season, evaluate all the data, make changes then?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, the answer is we'll make changes if we think they can be helpful right away. They may be small changes you don't really hear a lot about. But we'll make those changes.
As all of you know, this has been a long runway. We've taken a long time to test on almost every size track with virtually every team. We've gotten an enormous amount of input. My expectation is we won't miss it by much if we miss it at all. If it's small things, we'll make those adjustments right away.
Q. You mentioned about the growth of the sport, the new Fortune 500 companies going in. Television ratings were down a little bit last year. How do you sort of mesh those two?
BRIAN FRANCE: My view on television ratings, I mean, we look at them a little bit longer cycle or window than maybe you would think we would. TV ratings, depending on story lines, other competing things that are going around, are going to go down and up a little bit. We don't get too hung up on it. We went down a little bit.
We look over a long period of time, two, three, four, five years, trending the right way. One year, that's pretty expected. You're going to have two steps forward, one step back occasionally.
My expectation is we'll be up in TV ratings in '07 for the all the reasons I mentioned in my opening remarks, all the momentum we have that we didn't have last year.
Look, we have a very strong fan base. With all the TV ratings slightly down, we're the No. 2 sport on television. 17 of the top 20 events were NASCAR events. We likely carried the weekend or were second, might have beaten the Pro Bowl this last Saturday. Very, very healthy sport. The television partners that we have - don't take my word for it, look at the investments from the TV partners who put billions of dollars on the line looking out eight years, not 12 months, and look at the investment that the car sponsors are making. They're expensive investments. They're doing their homework. This is the best value in sports. We're going to try to keep it that way.
Q. Following on the Car of Tomorrow, if things go as well as you expect them to go or maybe a little better, how inclined would you be in order to reduce the costs associated with development on two different platforms to phase it in maybe full-time next year?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, that would be ideal, not to have two programs running at once for a long period of time. On the other hand, that's going to be a decision that we make collectively with the teams. One of the things I told you several years ago when I assumed my post, Mike Helton and I believe in this strongly, we're going to be consensus builders. We'll make decisions, no question about it. But we're going to make sure we cycle through the older equipment correctly with the teams. We'll be ready to go either way. We'll make a cost decision, a competitive decision, how good the product is. We think it's going to be tremendous. Let's get in there and see.
As quick as we can cycle the Car of Tomorrow in for every event is when we will. We have a plan now, and we're going to honor that plan. If we can speed it up, we'll know more this spring and summer with how the teams are producing cars, how comfortable they feel it's going on the track. We'll know more in the summer.
Q. You talk about being undercovered. Yesterday for the second year in a row the headlines that are coming out of here for your biggest race are cheating. All these papers that don't normally pay attention to NASCAR, this is what we see, they run with. I think that's probably the wrong image that you want for your sport. What do you have to do to get this cleaned up and stop this nonsense?
BRIAN FRANCE: That's part of our problem. Not this group. This group is very sophisticated in what NASCAR and this industry is all about. But many parts of the country simply don't know how to cover this sport, what's important on a Tuesday, not talking about the Daytona 500, but in a normal week what are teams doing on a Tuesday or Wednesday to prepare to win the second-most important or first biggest sporting event in that particular weekend.
The truth of the matter is that talk radio, which NASCAR is not very -- doesn't have much of a place, or depending on where you are, they just simply don't know how to cover us. We're working on that. It's our challenge.
I don't think the cheating thing, and listen, I said earlier, 120 cars, you have a lot of rules that are up for interpretation, you're going to have a couple of people who want to try the system. There's a lot on the line. That's been going on forever. It will go on forever.
It's our job to escalate penalties. You're going to see it today. It will be undeniable that when you keep pushing the system and test the integrity of the sport, we will do whatever it takes. That doesn't mean you go out and get somebody in the electric chair, but it does mean you step up the penalties to a level that makes it a true deterrent.
Even when we do that, somebody without much to lose or somebody who thinks they're smarter than somebody else, will always try. So don't ever think we'll be here three years from now, and NASCAR was so tough, they did all these things, they have nobody pressing the system. It's unrealistic. Some people press the system, they don't know they're pressing the system. Literally unintentionally. Maybe it's rare, but it does happen from time to time.
Rest assured that no alarm buttons are going off. But we're noting it. Today we're huddling with myself, Mike, the board. Integrity matters to everything. Whatever it takes, we will come forward and make that happen.
Q. You talked about the health of the sport, so on. Rockingham losing a date, doesn't sell out. You have lots of empty seats at California, empty seats at the 600 in Charlotte. What is NASCAR doing, if they're doing anything, to try to help change that or address that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Let me say we had a few empty seats in California. Still did 90 something thousand, whatever, double what they did in Rockingham. Charlotte's been on the upswing. The Chase has been additive to their fall event. They've always done well at the 600. These speedways have a lot of seats. But we're selling more tickets than ever. Look at the public company's stock price. That's based on how well they're performing. We're selling more tickets. Doesn't mean we're selling them all.
When we move to Phoenix for a second date, they sold every single ticket for their spring race as they did the fall. We got to remember we've also added, and we're talking a lot about California, the Southwest, we've added a lot of events there. When you go back to Dallas, you go west and add a second in Phoenix, you add a second in California, that's a lot of supply coming online in just two or three years of time. It takes a little while to absorb that.
We don't just add one race, we add a whole weekend. That can be a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We're way up in ticket sales, some one event here or there. But the sport is in great shape. I'm very comfortable saying that.
Q. You mentioned John Henry, what he brings to the sport. The fact that one of your top organizations has to go outside to look for financial help in order to compete and survive, what does that say about things?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, that's a good loaded question. I like the way you phrased that.
I don't know who looked for who. I just know that I met with John a couple times. Obviously what he's done up in New England with building the Red Sox, winning the World Series, being on Sports Channel, a bunch of other assets he brings to the table. If I was Jack, had a chance to partner with John, which he may or may not do, but looks like he will, if he does, I think that's great.
Listen, Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach bring something different to the sport. Joe Gibbs, when he came in, brought something different. We like it when other people in sports who can bring something to the table besides just financially, but can bring some other ways to look at things, that's always been helpful if you go through the history. I think John Henry will be no different.
THE MODERATOR: Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN FRANCE: Thank you.
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