Saturday, September 21, 2013 12:03 am
France steadies NASCAR during credibility crisis
By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer
As he waded through the intricate layers of race teams manipulating the outcome of a pivotal event, France was forced to make unprecedented rulings. He spent the actual anniversary of the day he succeeded his late father, Bill France Jr., using his authority as head of the family business to expand the 12-driver field for NASCAR's version of the playoffs to accommodate wronged driver Jeff Gordon.
The next day, on the eve of last Sunday's opening race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, France angrily faced the competitors. France told the drivers the scandal had reached NBC Nightly News, which had called NASCAR fixed in its piece. The $8.2 billion television package NASCAR announced in July that begins in 2015 includes NBC.
Integrity must be restored immediately, France demanded.
At least one longtime participant thought France's leadership last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway was not that different from his old man.
"I think Brian France did a great job, he stepped up and he said `I made the decision and this is the way it's going to be,'" said Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 Cup championships. "It sounded like Bill - `I'm going to make sure this doesn't happen, and this is the way we are going to race from here on.'"
It's been a messy two weeks for NASCAR, which heads Sunday into Round 2 of the Chase, one of France's very first creations after taking over the post his father held for 31 years.
What began as an attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to manipulate the outcome of the Sept. 9 race at Richmond to get one of its drivers into the Chase field blew wildly out of control even after NASCAR issued one of the largest penalties in history against Waltrip's team. At least one other instance of race manipulation was uncovered and France, who doesn't always take a hands-on role at the race track, had a front and center presence in two days' worth of damage control at Chicago.
But as NASCAR's credibility was called into question, and France ordered drivers to give 100 percent in new rules prohibiting the artificial altering of events, the damage continues. NAPA Auto Parts on Thursday said it was ending its multimillion dollar 12-year partnership with Waltrip, and MWR is now fighting for its survival.
Waltrip declined Friday to second-guess NASCAR's handling of the scandal, but indicated France's meeting with competitors last week has closed any loopholes in the rule book. MWR was fined $300,000, its general manager has been suspended indefinitely and driver Martin Truex Jr. was kicked out of the Chase. Meanwhile, Penske Racing and Front Row Motor Sports received probation despite evidence showing the teams may have bargained to get Penske's Joey Logano into the Chase, and France used his power to expand the field to give Hendrick's Gordon a spot in the Chase.
"We now clearly understand what is and isn't acceptable behavior," Waltrip said. "As long as we know the rules and everyone plays with them and we're all governed the same and that's the case going forward, then we'll say that we've learned a lot from this situation and we'll be better prepared to race forward. Other folks didn't get as big a penalty for some things they did. We have to accept what we were given. We can't worry about what other people were given."
The third generation France to lead the racing series formed in 1948 by his grandfather, the late Bill France Sr., Brian France has a more open-door policy than his father ever did during his three decades leading NASCAR, particularly since the disastrous debut of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007.
France views that car as one of the biggest mistakes of his reign, and since has tried to rely on more input from team owners, drivers and manufacturers on important decisions.
"I think Brian's done a good job. I work with him. Sometimes he listens. He doesn't listen all the time. We debate issues sometimes. I'm proud to say sometimes I win. I'd like to win all the time," said Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the late Bill France Jr.'s biggest adversary. "But I don't. We'll continue to go down the road with him."
In this case, Waltrip said MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman had a dialogue with France, but it didn't make a difference. "They were pretty well set on their decision, and we elected to accept the penalties and try to move forward," Waltrip said.
It's impossible for France to not have similarities to his father, who had zero tolerance for anyone who messed with his show.
"In our family, the way everything works, you grow up around the dinner table, so he was getting a pretty good education from Bill when he was very young," said Jim France, Bill's brother and the current executive vice president of NASCAR.
But Brian's vision often differed from his father's in that France thought bigger and broader from an early age. His first big coup came before he was chairman in a move that helped NASCAR take the final step away from a regional niche sport.
France ended the practice of individual tracks negotiating their own television deals with NASCAR's first national TV package in 1999. The deal with NBC Sports, Turner Sports, FOX and FX cable tripled the number of Cup races shown on broadcast television when the contract began in 2001.
"Part of the evolution of being a regional sport and becoming national, getting international recognition, you have to elevate your game, and those are things Brian recognized from the very beginning," Jim France said. "He's done a masterful job of shepherding NASCAR through the changes. I don't think there is another motorsports organization in the world that has all of the disciplines that NASCAR has, and a lot of them started before Brian took over the role from Bill, they were things he was working on before his current role."
Although racing is his business, France is a sports fan at his core. "I'm the biggest sports fan in the company," he boasts, and claimed it wouldn't be unusual to find him at a high school football game, professional tennis match or college basketball game. He cites Duke basketball as his favorite team, "I admire their coach immensely," and has often been linked to so far unfounded rumors of interest in purchasing an NFL franchise.
But it's that passion for sports that can be found all over his decade as chairman of NASCAR. France doesn't look at his sport as an auto racing series when he makes strategic decisions, instead he considers the big four professional leagues.
It's how NASCAR ended up with the Chase format in 2004. France saw it as way to add excitement when NASCAR goes head-to-head with the NFL, and he's tinkered with the format since its debut, expanding the field, adding wild card berths and bonus points for "regular season" wins, in an effort to create what he calls "Game 7 moments."
For France, it's part of the evolution of keeping NASCAR relevant in relation to the NFL and other sports, particularly as NASCAR's televisions ratings and attendance have slid since the 2008 economic collapse.
"We've always been trying to get television dollars or exposure or sponsor participation, stuff that you only get by having the size audience that will put you in line with the other professional sports leagues," he said. "The nuances of what we do is very different than any sport. We've also taken an unabashed view to creating the closest competition that we can. We're competing for the casual fan. It may not be the biggest motorsports fan, but they certainly appreciate big moments in sports. We have to compete with other sports, so that's natural for us to want to emulate some of the things to set up big moments to attract some of the casual fans."
But both the Chase itself and France's push to move NASCAR away from some of its traditional regional tracks and into larger urban markets has irritated its longtime fan base. In the wake of the Richmond scandal, there's been a groundswell on social media noting that this never could have happened pre-Chase, when the champion was crowned over the 36-race schedule.
Instead, the pressure to get a driver into one of the 12 Chase spots to race for the championship over the final 10 races created this mess.
France, in an interview before Richmond, said drivers have praised the Chase format because it gives them the opportunity to elevate their performance. He cited Tony Stewart's 2011 championship run, Brad Keselowski's title last season and Jimmie Johnson's five championships as examples of drivers turning it up a notch.
"Drivers love the format and appreciate what it does," France said. "We have seen over and over again that when it's on the line and it's big. Whether it's Tony Stewart a couple of years ago or whether its Brad last year, or certainly Jimmie, everybody ups their game. It's amazing when they get into the Chase, they are the ones that dominate the final 10 races, because they have more on the line.
"That's rewarding to me because that is at the core of our DNA is to have the closest, tightest competition possible."