NASCAR chairman Brian France has evolved away from his elders’ authoritarian leadership practices to be more collaborative, progressive.
Brian France, the third-generation NASCAR chairman, was an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That made a few of his corporate partners unhappy, most vocally, Truck Series’ title patron Marcus Lemonis, who’s also sponsor of Sunday’s Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Lemonis wrote France, vowing not to attend the 2015 Truck awards banquet if staged at Trump National Doral Miami resort, as planned. NASCAR moved it. A few months later, France and drivers Bill and Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Ragan appeared with Trump on stage at a Georgia rally.
France was not only following the example of his grandfather and father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and successor president Bill Jr., who backed Republicans including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. He was also tracking their strong sense of the country’s mood: They wrapped stock car racing in patriotism and traditional American values.
France, in an exclusive interview with azcentral sports, said he saw a business connection with a segment of Trump voters.
“People don’t buy tickets to a race to hear my political views,” he said. “But I do think that the middle class, the factory worker, has lost ground in recent years with job layoffs and exporting jobs. That’s our core fan.
“They’re good Americans, playing by the rules, trying to get ahead. The more you make life better for them, obviously, the more disposable income they’ll have to enjoy the sport they love. That’s a good thing for us.”
France has evolved away from his elders’ authoritarian leadership practices.
“My style is to be collaborative, progressive, to look at things that seem a little bit impossible,” he said. “I’m open to do those things.”
Bill Sr. (who founded NASCAR in 1947; he died in 1992) crushed attempts to unionize drivers and a 1969 boycott of Talladega Superspeedway’s first race because of safety concerns. Bill Jr. (who led from 1972-2003; died 2007) ruled with an iron fist, when needed, despite an amicable habit of spending race mornings seated on a directors’ chair in the garage area, accessible to anyone who wanted to talk.
Brian France, 54, has allowed significant input from what NASCAR loves to call its “stakeholders”: Drivers, team owners, sponsors, automakers, track operators and fans. Each has its own council that meets regularly with NASCAR.
As recently as July 2014, it didn’t look that way. When prominent car owners formed the Race Team Alliance as a unified voice to address issues such as escalating costs, France called the group a “bad idea.”
But as TV ratings, attendance and sponsorships declined, France made a sharp turn.
Rick Hendrick, the 12-time Cup champion team owner, contrasts France’s newer approach with the way it was when he joined NASCAR in 1984.
“It used to be, ‘Our way or the highway,'” Hendrick said. “Now it’s a different attitude. The old way worked back in the day, but the world changed.
“The collaboration has been unbelievable. When we sit in meetings and talk about how to make it better for everyone, we’ve never done that before. I think when you put that many smart people together, we will make it better.”
PIR President Bryan Sperber has worked closely with France for more than two decades.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s Brian like?,'” Sperber said. “I think the guy is brilliant. I don’t know that he always gets as much credit as he deserves for his innovative thinking.
“That was Brian’s vision, to do the hard work, to pull the sport together. We’ve all benefited from that.”
Controversy does seem to follow France. He attended only about half of last season’s races, and a Wall Street Journal story last month said he sold his NASCAR ownership stake to other family members a decade ago. NASCAR spokesman Jon Schwartz declined to confirm or deny that report.
Yet any honest assessment of France’s almost 14-year tenure must acknowledge his willingness to enact dramatic change, attempting to maintain public interest and the overall health of his sport/industry.
Examples: Creation of the Chase “post-season” format (2004); driving force behind founding the NASCAR Hall of Fame and increased “green” initiatives (2010); conversion to fuel injected engines (2012); “Gen-6” car that more closely resembles showroom models, revised governance and penalty structure, 10-year TV rights contracts with Fox and NBC (2013); Chase revamped to end with a “Final 4” (2014); charters to give 36 cars guaranteed starting positions and new revenue streams plus electronic pit-road officiating system (2016); Monster Energy drink new Cup Series title sponsor (for 2017).
He’s opened New York and Los Angeles offices and invested in a Drive for Diversity driver development program.
Roger Penske, using a word famous from the presidential campaign, called France “a disrupter.”
“He’s looking to make a change and not willing to keep doing things a certain way,” said Penske, American racing’s most successful team owner, who fields Fords for Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
“He’s not the guy who sits behind the trailer, like his dad did. He’s more interested in what are the next things he can bring to the sport. He’s a young, creative guy. He’s got a lot of respect from me.”
Perhaps France’s top imperative is improving each race’s entertainment value. He has said NASCAR needs more “wow” and “Game 7” moments to satisfy fans’ calls for increased side-by-side competition from green to checkered flag.
This season’s restructuring of event formats, creating “stages” where points are awarded to the top-10 drivers after three pre-determined distances, is France’s latest attempt to spice-up the show.
He’s overseen significant competition-department personnel moves, giving Steve O’Donnell the corporate-worthy title of chief racing development officer and control of NASCAR’s research and development center. Some within NASCAR have privately admitted to feeling pressure from France.
“I don’t look at it as pressure,” vice chairman Mike Helton said. “I look at it as a pronouncement of the NASCAR way, to figure out how to do well. It’s on us, through our competition department and R&D center, to get the product right.”
Penske said France has “made a big management change. We’ve got a new group of young people. Mike Helton has done an outstanding job, and I take my hat off to Mike — he’s stepping back and letting Steve and those guys take a forward role.”
France admitted to disliking criticism but said he’s confident NASCAR is on the right road. If not, he won’t hesitate to act.
“A lot of things piss me off but I’ve got thick skin,” France said. “I know where we’re going and I’m also a student of other sports. That may make me a little unique in our business because I study all the time.
“I don’t have an overabundance of cocky attitude, because I’m collaborative. I have a good sense of what we need to do.”
NASCAR week at PIR
What: NASCAR Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity series races
When: March 17-19
Where: Phoenix International Raceway
Tickets, information: phoenixraceway.com
March 17 (gates open 10 a.m.)
Xfinity practice, 10 a.m.
Monster Energy Cup practice, 11 a.m.
Xfinity practice, 1 p.m.
Monster Energy Cup practice, 11 a.m.
Monster Energy Cup qualifying, 4:45 p.m.
March 18 (gates open 9 a.m.)
Monster Energy Cup practice, 9 a.m.
Xfinity qualifying, 10:05 a.m.
Monster Energy Cup practice, 11:30 a.m.
Xfinity race: DC Solar 200, 1 p.m.
March 19 (gates open 8 a.m.)
Monster Energy Cup race: Camping World 500, 12:30 p.m.