Big moments define France's 10-year tenure
September 13, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
NASCAR Chairman and CEO leads innovative industry reinvention
In the big business of sports, huge competitive moments typically earn the large-lettered headlines that tell of the spine-tingling photo finishes and the fierce championship battles waged by larger-than-life personalities.
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NASCAR has always delivered on that brand of high excitement. As NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France marks the 10th year of his tenure this week, technological innovation, a willingness to evolve and a keen business sense also have defined a new era of leadership during a tenuous time of economic uncertainty and challenge.
"The first challenge was to have a smooth transition from my father to me, and since we worked alongside one another, that was good,’’ France said. “I don’t use the philosophy of just trying not to make mistakes. I think you have to add value when it’s your opportunity to lead anything.
"So I took that same approach that I tell others. If you get an opportunity, it’s not about putting your stamp on it, but just making things better than when you received it ..."
France has driven the sport toward a more defined destination, positioning NASCAR as one of the world’s top sports and entertainment properties. All the while, he has maintained a delicate balance between the desires of fans, the tools for competitors and the financial needs of the supporting industry.
LEADING WITH BOLD INITIATIVES
" … Brian has been bold in his initiatives," said veteran driver Jeff Burton. "He didn’t just come in 10 years ago and say everything’s working the way it is, let’s not change. He got very proactive and tried to take the sport to a new level.
"He’s been bold and that’s important. He’s also been at the reins during a very difficult time. He can’t control the economy. A lot of things happened under his reign that he couldn’t control.
"I appreciate his desire to make it better. Every sport has to evolve and improve, and he hasn’t been afraid to try to make it better."
France’s own CEO highlight reel rivals that of the on-track product he’s overseen, and one of the features he’s most proud of is the creation of a playoff system, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which begins a 10-race showdown this week in Chicago.
In the competition department, he introduced hugely popular double-file restarts and even tweaked the original 10-driver Chase field to include two additional Wild Card participants based on victory totals that increased the emphasis on winning.
The debut of the Gen-6 car this year has produced track records nearly every week and the kind of close-quarters racing that distinguishes NASCAR’s brand.
France has secured major title sponsorship for all three national series from major corporate partners such as Sprint, Nationwide and Camping World. He oversaw the construction and successful opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte and has created a Drive for Diversity program that will see one of its graduates, 21-year-old Japanese-American Kyle Larson, in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car next season.
Just last month, he oversaw successful negotiations for a television deal worth $8.2 billion, as reported by multiple media outlets, that will broadcast his product through the next decade of his tenure.
France’s emphasis on the NASCAR Green Initiative through more environmentally viable, sustainable innovations has won praise and admiration from other industries. Equally as important, it clearly signals the new age of NASCAR as the sanctioning body is not only environmentally conscious, it is willing to be a leader in the effort.
BALANCING SAFETY AND COMPETITION
Ask the people at the core of NASCAR’s existence -- those working under the cars in the NASCAR garage each week, turning a wheel in the race car or spending money fielding a team -- and they will tell you one of France’s greatest contributions to the sport has been in the area of safety.
"Through his leadership, the safety initiative came to the forefront of NASCAR’s efforts," Burton said without hesitation.
Installing SAFER Barriers at NASCAR national series tracks to drastically improve the safety of driver and fans was one of the first major accomplishments of France as chairman and CEO.
It points to the need to create the ultimate competitive environment while maintaining the business model needed to keep it going.
"You want to move fast and move smart, but we have to change our business model and at same time, not forget about the critical things that make people love NASCAR," France said. "So that can be a balancing act, of course, but whether its safety, or answered in formats -- The Chase or double-file restarts or not racing back to the yellow -- those were all things very important to us to inch away at and we’ve done that.
"Of course, you’ve got to be able to handle a lot of criticism and real concern when people don’t want to see the essence of NASCAR change. And I don’t want to either.
"I want to see it get better and that means closer competition, more big moments by our drivers and teams and that means our events are bigger. We’ve tried, even in the face of a lot of adversity, to make all those things better."
Longtime team owner Richard Childress has participated under the management of three generations of Frances from NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., to his grandson Brian and has a unique perspective on the recent reign.
"With Brian, it doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years already, but he’s just signed another huge TV deal, he’s spent more time with the marketing side with NEXTEL and Sprint and bringing that relationship home, and he’s put some really key people in under him,” Childress said.
“One of the big things I’ve seen him do is be open to listening to fans and what they really want to see like the restarts, and he’s open to listening to the owners. He’ll come to you and ask what you think.’’
MAKING AN IMPACT BY GIVING BACK
Opportunity in general is a common theme when France speaks about his tenure and the years ahead.
It has come in different forms, including a very personal chance to not only make a difference himself, but to set an example others in the sport have readily followed.
He and his wife Amy chaired an Autism Speaks fundraising gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in March, presenting a donation to the organization on behalf of the NASCAR Foundation as well as making a significant personal donation.
Even before the 2013 season began, France arranged for a trip to Newtown, Conn., to meet with families of those schoolchildren and teachers killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting as well as the first-responders.
The trip wasn’t a “photo opp” and in fact reporters didn’t even know about France’s financial contribution to the school’s charitable fund until weeks later. This wasn’t France acting as NASCAR Chairman and CEO, but as a father of young children, who -- like most in America -- was heartbroken about the situation. And was fortunate enough to make a difference.
"We’re all in unique roles to make a difference both financially and giving awareness to things," France said of his emphasis on charity. "There’s a responsibility. We do things that we’re not looking to take a bow for.
"You feel good to use that responsibility wisely. It’s an obligation that, at some level, you should think about how you can make an impact. That’s a culture that we have, and it’s a culture that the country has."
MOVING FORWARD WITH TECHNOLOGY
It’s been typical of the progress model France has adopted -- make an impact and keep moving forward.
To that end, France has spoken often about the possibilities of new technology and the huge impact it innately has. He is optimistic that incorporating cutting-edge technology will improve the competitive nature of the sport but also enhance the fans’ experience in ways other sports cannot.
"Technology and what’s going on in that space -- on the track and off the track -- are big challenges but also great opportunities," France said. "We’ll be able to use data, telemetry, and incorporate that in the running of events [a] way other sports probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to do and how well we’ll be able to take real advantage of that.
"We can bring real innovation in to make the product and experience better and bring in more partners along the way, plus promote the sport."
Reflecting on the past 10 years, France didn’t select one particular achievement from a wide array of choices. For him, it comes down to something NASCAR fans and competitors agree makes the sport genuine: creating the ultimate environment for tight competition and pure excitement.
"The one thing I feel really good about is not the result of any one thing," France said. "They used to say in auto racing, that drivers and teams could never really rise to a different level. They were always racing as hard as they could and whatever you did wouldn’t really matter. And that’s not true.
"We’ve now seen unbelievable performances from all kinds of drivers. When you make the moments bigger, the great drivers and team members -- in the pits or with strategy -- rise to a different level, and that’s been nice to see."
(Graphic by: NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications)