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Women in NASCAR

Lesa France Kennedy: Advancing NASCAR with her own vision

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The newly christened, mightily impressive stadium-like presence of Daytona International Speedway across the street seemed to gleam in the floor-to-ceiling window that dominates Lesa France Kennedy's office.

The sun shone brightly this day as lines of cars on the road below made their way into the race track in a slow parade-like formation to enjoy 2016 NASCAR Speedweeks. It was a fitting backdrop for a conversation with Kennedy, the International Speedway Corporation CEO and the executive ultimately in charge of -- among other things -- the $400 million Daytona Rising project that is a cornerstone of modernity, vision and fan luxury in the sport started by her grandfather Bill France Sr., fostered by her father Bill Jr. and now led by her uncle Jim, brother Brian and herself.


Kennedy, 54, is the vice chairperson of both the ISC and NASCAR board of directors and in December, she was recognized as "The Most Powerful Woman in Sports" for 2015 by Forbes Magazine. She is also undoubtedly the single most influential woman in NASCAR.

RELATED: Kennedy earns honor from Forbes


And while she has excelled in what is traditionally a very male world, Kennedy doesn't classify herself as being the exception to the rule. She grew up in the family business and has ultimately helped guide and maintain the company's high-profile existence.


"First of all, I was surprised," a humble Kennedy said of the Forbes recognition. "But I think it really plays to how NASCAR has been elevated. I looked at it as recognition of how NASCAR is doing and also the project with Daytona Rising. It's pretty special."

Lesa France Kennedy and Jim France cut the ceremonial ribbon at Daytona International Speedway in January.

Just as the project she is overseeing is unique, so is Kennedy among the sports world in general. But yet it feels more like second nature to her.


In this position she has the unique and invaluable background of running one of the family businesses, which also happens to be a world-renowned contribution in sports. And her ability to plan and predict has been a cherished contribution.


"Having worked with Lesa on Daytona was not new," Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said of the recently completed Daytona project. "Lesa was part of the ownership group and management committee that I reported to when we built Chicagoland Speedway 15 years ago. So even back then, Lesa's vision, her attention to the fan experience, meant driving this sport forward and introducing NASCAR to a new market like Chicago and then 15 years later renovating and re-imagine fan experience and relevance of Daytona.


"Obviously she sees the big picture and that has not changed in the 15 years I've known her."

RELATED: Daytona rises even higher from beach sand | Daytona through the years

Kennedy's role as visionary is evident. The plans weren't necessarily to go into the "family business." But after earning two degrees (economics and psychology) at Duke University -- and spending many summers working in the sport as a teenager selling tickets and concessions -- Kennedy knew her passion and commitment remained in Daytona Beach. This sport is in her blood.


"When I went up to school, I was really open-minded, had some different ideas and really wanted to explore," she said. "After college, I talked about getting back into the family business, talked to my parents and talked to my grandmother and it was a great opportunity so I came back and haven't really looked back since then.


"I love travel and I love showing people new experiences so I could have seen something in that realm, but at the same time, I feel like that's what we are doing here. One of my favorite things to do is show people for the very first time if they haven't seen a NASCAR event to show them what it's like and if they haven't had that experience when you do, it's just so rewarding. Nine times out of 10 they come back and that's always a very rewarding moment for me."


Kennedy's uncle, NASCAR Vice Chairman and ISC Chairman of the Board Jim France is not the least bit surprised by her success. They work together daily, and his high expectations of Kennedy have been exceeded along the way.  They are very much in sync and he takes particular pride in Kennedy's ability to correctly anticipate pursuits.


"She's got a good vision, like my dad had," Jim France said. "Her commitment to take Daytona International Speedway to the next level and the future with our new stadium facility is a testament to her.

"She was the one who pushed that whole project to come together.


"She worked for my mom in the ticket department early on when she was in high school," he added with a smile, "She and Brian have always had a little 'friendly' competition going on and it's worked for both."

RELATED: Ribbon-cutting ushers in new era for Daytona


Not too surprisingly, family has been a primary and sustained element in Kennedy's life.


"I think Brian would tell you this, too, my dad made us, I suppose, walk the walk," she said smiling, "He was supportive but a lot of times if you were having challenges at work and went to him, he would be like 'Figure it out.'


"Behind the scenes he was very supportive, but at the same time, he told us, 'go make your case.' He wouldn't solve a problem but he'd be there a sounding board and maybe give you some suggestions and ask if you thought about it a different way, but he really left it in your hands to solve it.”


While she profusely acknowledges the guidance of her father and uncle, she is also deeply grateful for the influence of her mother and grandmother. She has found the balance of all the strong personalities and drive to be a source of inspiration.


"You also have to give credit where it's due and both my grandmother and my mom were trailblazers," Kennedy explained. "And I think they paved a really nice path, too, and were really encouraging and enthusiastic about it. I was always very intrigued by what my dad was doing, too, so I was I think very fortunate to have the balance of both. It was an interesting time, but I love the way it's evolved."


Her mother Betty Jane France continues to contribute to the sport as the founder and chairwoman emeritus of The NASCAR Foundation and having that strong contributory area as a key element of the company has been important.


"I think my mom had a very different perspective and was a perfect complement to what my dad was doing," Kennedy said. "You know he saw it from the business aspect and what it would take as far as operations and the next level in terms of elevating the sport.


"My mom saw a whole different side of it and has a unique ability to read people. She's really the epitome of Southern hospitality as well. And I think that was a really inviting atmosphere for newcomers to the sport and then as we moved along, she had a great ability with relationships and bringing people in and making them feel comfortable. So between the two of them, it was a perfect match, both personally but for the sport as well."

RELATED: Learn more about the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award

The evolution has also included Kennedy's role as mother. Her son, Ben Kennedy , is a full-time competitor in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series -- and started from the pole position in his first race at the family's Daytona track.


Following in the great tradition of service that her parents began, Kennedy ensured that her child also spent time learning the family business -- Ben had to park cars, sell tickets and hot dogs and now, he is learning the business of NASCAR in a most unique way by competing in it.


"First of all, my husband and I had a pretty good balance with all that," Kennedy recalled. "We would have some help as well, but Ben traveled a lot and became a race fan at an early age. The summers we were usually at a race track on the weekends and the holidays. We had the opportunity to take him to a lot of places with us. And over time, he's had the ability to evolve and his own race experiences with being a driver. He's having a good time with it.


"And it truly is a family sport for us. What I really enjoy, though, is the part of the business he is learning is so different from where I started and was working on. He's given me a different perspective. Just watching him put his team together and some of the challenges he is facing have given me a deeper appreciation of what all goes into the competition portion of the sport."


While still clearly preferring to speak about her company's achievements instead of her personal recognition, there is a definite sense that Kennedy is proud to have -- like her family before her -- set an example, to have been a visionary.

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