NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France
November 19, 2010
An interview with:
BRIAN FRANCE: Obviously we are very excited about coming down to the last race with a tight battle. Some observations I did want to share with you, and I've been doing this a long time, and our family has been doing this a long time.
But what's really clear to me, is when you put drivers in a position where there's a lot on the line, and they just can't have a good position, and they actually have got to go out and win or lead laps or compete high, they do it. And I think you're seeing that the last several weeks; that the best drivers all year, a whole bunch on the line, and they are dominating these races going back and forth. And I bet that's the case on Sunday.
So that tells us that the more we can do, to have incentives -- an incentive-basis and decide this championship, that puts it all on the line more often, that's what we need to be thinking about. And it's just great to see these performances. These are guys talking about: I've got to win today; I've got to get out there and I'm not looking for a good finish; I'm looking to lead every single lap and on and on and on.
That's what we want to have in the environment of this sport and the atmosphere, and so that is also a function of I think us pulling back at the beginning of the year, the 'Boys, Have At It' and so on, and letting the drivers mix it up a bit differently; not over-regulating the sport, so that certainly has played a role. And will play maybe a role on Sunday. They will mix it up. They have been mixing it up.
We are obviously very pleased about that. I know we'll talk about TV ratings or attendance and the economy, and I'll just cover some of that so we don't have to go through that in the discussions.
Obviously we would like our TV ratings on an upswing, and when they are not, we are working on all kinds of things to look and see what is a better formula for us. Clearly we moved start times back, to accommodate our race fans at the at-track experience. We did that. We also did that to uniform start times between the East Coast and the Midwest and the West Coast.
We took ourselves out of some more homes by doing that; also by switching networks on ABC to ESPN. So we did some things to try to help in one area that might have had an effect in another. So we'll be looking at all of those things in the off-season.
Obviously when we would like to do is have the kind of story lines, the kind of attention, that captures the most fans. So that goes without saying. We are working on it all the time, and that's where we are on that.
But I will say that the quality of racing, going back to the beginning of the season with the different rules packages that we put forward, primarily the spoiler, reintroducing that, has worked well. I think the fact that we are so far into the cycle of, it's not the new car anymore, it's the car; and various other little things that we did, all have come together to give us -- if this isn't the best racing we've seen in a long, long time, I think I would be very surprised to hear anybody say that it wasn't.
So with that, I'll be happy to take some questions.
Q: Brian, you said I guess in July that you would take a hard look at the Chase. Now that it's shaped up this year the way it has and you've got this finale and guys sort of eliminated themselves and you do have this winner-take-all scenario on Sunday, what do you do, do you still go into the off-season saying you have to look at this or do you leave things alone?
BRIAN FRANCE: No, we will look at it. What I like is, what I said earlier, a winner-take-all, if you will; and watching someone not just have to run well, but have to beat some other people. That is feeling to us like that's exactly what we want.
And by the way, it's exactly what the drivers want. It's working out that way this year. We are in year seven of the Chase.
Let me say this. Right almost every sports league, almost everyone, including the NCAA Tournament last year, is looking around at what they need to do to change their formats a little or a lot, depending on who they are, to make sure that their playoffs or their championship runs are what they want them to be. And we are no different.
It's that time of the year where these are the kind of questions that we get. We understand that we are going to have a championship that puts a lot on the line as it does now. That's credible, and rewards the drivers that have the biggest performances throughout the season, and whatever we might consider, we'll accomplish that.
But, hey, first thing's first. You know, we are not going to look ahead to 2011 till this weekend is concluded because this could be a very, very memorable Sunday.
Q: I guess the talk around the changes surrounding the fact that you wanted to see more impactful moments in the playoffs. Now that we are nine races in and the more impactful moments are to come Sunday, what are those that made a lasting impression upon you in the first nine races leading up to this one?
BRIAN FRANCE: There have been a lot of them. I think Denny Hamlin winning in Texas, getting down, coming back; Jimmie, just, you know, doing his thing, winning races; Kevin; throughout the Chase, I've just seen an elevation like I haven't seen in a long time. And maybe that's because it's very, very tight.
But when these guys have to go up a notch, they are going up a notch. And what fans like about that is they see that. They see taking chances like last weekend, staying out, if you were the 48 team. They like the strategy. Look at the pit change that occurred; they thought, the Hendrick organization, that that would have made a difference.
So the point is, you've got to elevate here. You've got to elevate on Sunday. You cannot have a good run on Sunday and expect to come out here with a championship.
And I believe, I know that's making the racing better, and that's exactly what we wanted to see all along. You saw that, it's been a long time, but you saw that in year one, seven years ago, when three guys, or it was actually four, came down close, and they swapped the championship around for 400 miles before Kurt Busch settled it.
I suspect, I'm almost certain that that will happen. And that, to us, is exactly what we want to see in this sport.
Q: Have you learned anything from looking at the histories of other sports leagues to see that sometimes popularity runs in cycles; for instance, the NBA in the 90s was a very popular sports league and took a dip and appears now to be on the way up and baseball has been through the same thing. Do you see NASCAR simply going through another cycle like that?
BRIAN FRANCE: I think that historically is true. We are 60-plus years old. This is a time when story lines and things that sometimes were out of your control are happening, or not happening.
And you know, we have got a very strong fan base, and my sense of it is, people's attention span, it is shorter; we know that. And that this sport will definitely -- if we keep the racing as good as it's been the last half of the season and beyond, and we do our jobs right, I'm not worried about a thing on the popularity of this sport.
Q: The details of competition within the Nationwide Series seems to be one of the most difficult issues that NASCAR has been dealing with lately trying to resolve participation on the part of Cup drivers, there are a lot of people waiting in the garage to find out and a lot of strong voices in the garage offering a lot of different opinions on that. Can you give us any indication of where that might be leading for next year, and, if not, when can we expect to hear something about that?
BRIAN FRANCE: You will be hearing about that in January. And the idea for us is, you know, we want to see the Nationwide Series have its own identity, very similar to what college football does for the NFL. That's a great analogy for us. And what we don't want to see is Sunday and Saturday homogenized, just completely homogenized.
So we want to see Cup involvement, absolutely, fans want to see that, buy tickets, we get it. We also want to make sure the Nationwide Series is, you know, helping us find stars that stay there for a little while, earn their stripes and move up; back to when I think Dale Junior might have been the last one, matter of fact, maybe one other, who actually went that way, the way we would like to see.
And that's because it's very crowded in how many seats are available in the Nationwide division, given so much cross over. So what you'll see from us, is we'll deal with that. That's the kind of policy things that we will try to weigh properly and make sure that we are developing more stars with their own identity; at the same time, not throwing out a lot of things that are working.
It's delicate of how to do that, but we have been at this for a number of months studying the idea of making Saturday have a better -- it's more so its own identity. But you have to remember, it's the second most popular form of motorsports by a wide margin.
So whatever we would do, we have to be careful, we don't want to throw out too many things that are working properly. Everybody would like to have the ratings and attendance and sponsorship and everything else that goes with that series, but we'll balance that correctly. That's what we do. We have got Steve O'Donnell and his team have been looking at all of the options to make sure it's all balanced in a better way, and we'll figure it out.
Q: About down here in the Gold Coast as a championship venue, yeah, everybody has had trouble selling out lately, but this is a hot championship race, and it seems like over the years, where this place has embraced Orange Bowls, Super Bowls, World Series, it has not quite gotten its arms around NASCAR and its enthusiasm doesn't always show in attendance and just the fire around town. Is any consideration being given to the possibility of taking the finale somewhere where it might create more obsession and excitement on the part of the community, such as a Las Vegas, or even I've had countless fans say the NASCAR season ought to begin at Daytona and end at Daytona.
BRIAN FRANCE: And obviously you were not at the Zac Brown concert at Miami Beach last night, because in the rain, there was quite a crowd for that -- I'm kind of kidding. (Laughter).
No, look, this has actually been a good market for us and I would disagree with that. I think we have had big crowds here. There's always the temptation and other tracks that would like to host the finale. Daytona wouldn't work from a spacing standpoint. It's too close to February and I don't want to be sitting here with three or four drivers who think Daytona would be the place they needed to finish the season; we might have our hands full trying to manage that one.
But we always have the issue that, you know, could it work better here or work better there. But this is a great market for our fans to come down, spend a few days, there's lots to do. It's also a competitive place. You know, the weather, the sunshine, the Keys are just to the south and the beaches to the east and on and on and on. But we understand.
But this is a great championship market, and the track has done a number of things over the years, not the least of which is to get the banking right where the drivers think this is a really fair track to settle things. You don't hear a thing about, well, that -- somebody runs better here or there, but they like this layout. So we are pretty comfortable with this market and we'll obviously look at it as we go down the road.
Q: A lot of drivers have come in over the last couple of weeks say that they want shorter races, they want shorter, I guess, laps and times and shorter schedule; it's all short, short, short. You look at the NFL, they are running on Sunday, they run on Monday, they run on Thursday, they run on Saturday during playoffs and they run on Sunday. The buzz is a constant thing. Have you looked at getting -- a trick with any part of the schedule where we could see weekly racing so we could see the buzz carried throughout the week?
BRIAN FRANCE: We obviously have limitations, because the size of our events and the idea that our fans have got to drive further, stay longer, makes that difficult to get back to work, etc. We don't have hometown teams, so every one of our events is a mega-event of some sort. So that's difficult for us.
We are looking at shortening races as we go along, if we shortened California this time around, we think that made for a very good event. So on the margins, we'll look at when that makes sense to shorten certain races that we think will get a better competitive product on the track, if it was a little bit shorter, we look at Nationwide events, with that same thing in mind.
But actually, making a big change with a schedule in the mid week, that would be possible now.
Q: Would it be better for the sport if someone other than Jimmie Johnson won the championship? And ratings, with the kind of hype and excitement and closeness, is that something that is not going to be an immediate deal; that we could see improvement, but it wouldn't be just the next week, is my question.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think the first part of your question, you know, I think Jimmie -- that's a subjective thing. Jimmie can make history with winning five in a row, which is an incredible feat. And if he does, then that would be an unbelievable thing for him to do. So that's that.
On the ratings, you know, we did a lot of things for a while. Notably, we rolled out a car that was in the short run, not very popular with anyone. And we took a long time to figure out as an industry how to, you know, get past that.
And then we did some things, as I said earlier, by -- for other reasons, moving start times out of higher usage of television use in home to accommodate more centralized start times. We changed networks. And we just had in the last few weeks, this championship heat up, really in the last two.
So I don't suspect you turn light switches on, and you know, move the needle that way. I think over time, circumstances happen that are also out of your control. Things will happen and stars will come into this sport and make themselves, you know, a household name. You know, that's going to happen. There's some popular drivers, I think they will get going again, as well.
So all kinds of things are going to happen over time to drive ratings and interest level, and our job is to make sure that the environment to do that is just right.
Q: You said back in July you wanted to create Game 7-type scenarios, but in other sports you really don't see that every year, maybe every two or three years and baseball this year wasn't that way. And a lot of fans that communicate with us say they are just as disenchanted with the Chase in general, they want to go back to the other points system --
BRIAN FRANCE: You met somebody that's telling you that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Okay.
Q: Obviously you do some fan research and all that, but is there a risk of turning off more people by making changes again, especially when you've got what you want right now?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, look, I mentioned to you that every -- almost every league and tournament is taking a look at their playoff or format style. Some will do a little, some will do nothing at all and some might do something more drastic.
And so I don't know what we are going to do, if anything. And I will tell you, if we can make it simpler to understand, that's a good thing for us to do. If we can do -- or have what we have now, which is as I said, Game 7, that could have been -- we don't have a Game 6, obviously, and neither do a lot of other sports. But they have incredible big moments where the best teams have to elevate their performance. And that's what excites us as fans.
That's what excites our fan base, and it excites casual sports fans who are going to look to this sport one day to enjoy as much as we do. If there's a plan for us to accomplish that, we will consider it over the winter. Right now we are obviously thrilled with where we are at and looking forward to Sunday.
Q: You are in a situation Sunday where you could have two or three drivers racing in the last couple of laps for the championship, which is a position you want to be in. But is there something that could happen over the line with 'Boys, Have At It'; are you in the position where you might take corrective action that some driver blatantly takes out another one with a couple of laps to go?
BRIAN FRANCE: Look, you know, some could happen. That's true. We are going to look at that. But you know, late in the race, when you're mixing it up, if something is blatant, obviously that will get our attention.
But I would expect if two or three are going down to the wire, I've said it before, this is a contact sport. This is what -- you're going to get shoved around a little bit if somebody is trying to get by and you're trying to win; a championship is on the line. We are not going to treat this race any differently than we would another. And despite how much is on the line, they have got to settle it on the track.
Q: If you look back at the NASCAR popularity boom in the 90s, it can be traced to the baseball strike. With the possibility of labor stops in the NFL next year, are you monitoring that and are you strategizing to possibly take advantage of that if it does happen?
BRIAN FRANCE: We are not monitoring that. Look, there's all kinds of things, look, like I said, that are out of our control that can change things around, and our hope is that all of the leagues do well, because we all share the same partners, we are all sharing the same television partners.
So I don't know what will happen in that, I'm not close to it. I have no idea.
Q: You mentioned Jimmie has got a chance to make history, certainly he's done that already and continues to rewrite, he's got the chance to continue to rewrite the history books this weekend. When you consider that balanced with the notion that it may not be paying dividends right now for the sport, how do you reflect on that with the fact that or the idea that it may pay later on, but right now, not so much?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, because there's not one thing. There's not one lever we go around looking to pull to generate interest for the sport. There's lots of things, as I've said, out of our control that happen around us. This is a competitive year with the Olympics that started out with us in Daytona, the World Cup, and so on, and other sports are having great story lines. Some drivers resonate throughout history differently than others, better than others.
You know, some stars are born, some stars are coming on now and it just takes time. Our job is to make sure that we are putting the best racing in the world forward, and let those story lines and incredible performances get the recognition over time as they will, and that's what we do.
Q: Brian, we talk about the racing being better, the Chase is coming down to this fantastic finish, potentially fantastic finish here, and still, the ratings and attendance, you're still having the ratings and attendance issues; so not to beat a dead horse, if let's just say Sunday's race doesn't -- you see a ratings even dip for that, does it almost force your hand to make some sort of change?
BRIAN FRANCE: No. I mean, like I said, we are starting this race two hours earlier than we did last year. That's a lot. And homes in use obviously goes up later on in the afternoon and on into the evening. So we did that for a variety of other reasons, and we knew that that had some risk of some ratings erosion. There are other factors, too. We changed networks, as well, for the Chase. So we will be looking with our partners. They want -- ESPN wants the highest ratings possible for their network. So do we.
We will get -- we haven't had a very strong Chase in the last three or four years, at least in terms of this kind of a closeness. So we are not going to make decisions based on some ratings in one season that were not what we wanted it to be. But obviously our goal is to grow our audience, and expose NASCAR to the biggest audience that we can, and we have a lot of smart people and a lot of smart people in this industry who will ultimately achieve that.
Q: In the last week the IndyCar Series has picked up two engine manufacturers for 2012, and one of those is a company that competes in this series in GM. The talk that you hear about why they are doing that is because the IndyCar Series has an in general that's relevant and they are looking to try to get in line with what's going into the street models these days. Are you guys mindful of that? I know you are looking at an overhaul of the car for 2013. Are you looking at the engine, as well, and is relevance going to be a bigger factor going forward based on what's happening in other racing series now?
BRIAN FRANCE: I think you heard me say that we are on a slow, hopefully smart, march to more technology and to being far more open and inviting to a green economy that we think one day will get established.
We announced the biofuel deal as one step. We are very mindful that the car manufacturers, all of them, want to see more technology in racing so that it's more relevant to the cars they sell. And we have historically worked at that a little slower. We are on a faster pace to make sure that we accomplish that.
You know that we are looking at fuel injection and looking at all kinds of things, and we have to balance that on the cost side, on the competition side, to get it all right for the team owners and everyone else. But, we will. Because that's an important thing for us to be a good partner with car manufacturers, for sure, and also, to open ourselves up to new technologies that are coming down the pike.
We think this is going to be the best place in the world, especially the energy sector, to validate new technologies. To do that, we understand we have to have more technology in all facets of the sport, and we will.
Q: When you went to the 'Boys, Have At It' policy, how concerned were you that it might spin out of control somehow? Was there ever a point where you did have concerns, such as like when Carl flipped Brad, and has it worked out better than you might have expected?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we dealt with that and 'Boys, Have At It,' when Robin said that and I said we were going to open things up, I believe were the words. We always said that there was limits to that. The drivers know what those limits are.
But you know, we also have to be clear with the fact that we could over-regulate things. We are at this 60 years. We are trying to do the right thing. What happened at Talladega year ago, we are trying to react to the bump-drafting thing that we thought might have escalated to a place, and we always have to keep safety at the top of the list which we do, which we will.
But in the course of doing all that, we can over regulate things sometimes. The rules packages, that come with almost every event, it's different for us because we have got to manage the car manufacturers, all of it, and all we said is that if we happen to over regulate something and take away from the competitiveness of the drivers, then we need to, you know, make that adjustment. And we have.
That was something -- that was the first thing we talked about with Robin Pemberton an the flight home from the awards banquet last year in Las Vegas, and he and I talked for two hours on that very subject. We had too firm of a grip on it where these guys can't mix it up the way they want or whatever else; and he thought they did, or we did, rather; and Mike Helton certainly did and very shortly thereafter, we made some changes. And that's what -- it's kind of what you want us to do, think about things in realtime and try to get it all right.
Q: In all of the talk about the Chase changes, we have heard things about eliminations or re-seeding of drivers or more weight for wins. Is there anything you can tell us about what's on the top of your list for discussions or anything that's off the table?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I am not going to talk about what we are considering, because we are considering a lot of different things. My only thing is, is that we really like the way things have elevated, as I said, the performances, what that means to our going out on a very strong, positive note.
And if there's one thing we can do is simplify how we crown our champion so the casual fan feels a little bit easier -- it's easier to understand; that would be a good thing.
But the idea is to create big moments by the best teams at the end of the year, who have to put their best performances forward to win it all, and if there's a better way to do that, like every other commissioner, I'm sure that we'll consider it and there will be that normal consideration and that happens this time of year, every year.
And frankly, the criteria that I just described, that doesn't change. That was the same criteria I used last year, and we didn't make any changes. So I wouldn't assume that we are just going to make some changes because we are talking about looking at things.
Q: Earlier you mentioned wanting to grow the audience and expose NASCAR to as wide an audience as possible. With that in mind, why does the move from ABC to ESPN where you go down some homes, why does that make sense for the sport going forwards? And are you comfortable with having it on ESPN next year, and as you look to reach younger fans, is there a way to get more of the races online or things like that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we are having a lot of success with some of our digital efforts. So that being one.
ESPN is our partner and they have been an enormously good partner, and they actually have a younger demo on ESPN network than does their sister network, ABC.
But obviously, so you know, we are going to look with everybody at ESPN to make sure that we have the right times, the right promotion, the right everything, that puts the sport in the best possible position to have had the biggest audience. Our interests are completely aligned in that.
And I suspect we'll sit down in the off-season and talk about that and we are going to share everything with them and they have been a great partner. By the way, I think the broadcast has been as good as I've seen in a long time. I think the energy level and the calling of the action, the on-air talent, I think is top-notch right now on their network, and they have been working at that for a few years to get all of the things just right, and I think they have.
Q: A lot of people talk about how great the racing is in Trucks. Obviously I'm a little biased to that. One of the things that I really believe makes our competition great is the tire limit and the crew chiefs have to strategize; they can't just come in every time there's a yellow. Have you given any consideration to doing that in Cup as far as limiting the number of tires so that they can't pit every single time there's a yellow?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, the answer is, for financial reasons, we certainly had those kind of conversations to see if there were ways to help economically.
I think you know we do have four national divisions, we ought to keep them distinguished. There ought to be unique things to one series and another -- versus another. We are asked all the time, why don't you do a Chase-style format, possibly for the other divisions, and one of the reasons is we want to see them distinguished.
So I don't find anything unique or wrong with having the Truck Series have some rules packages that are different.
Q: In the past couple of weeks, there's been a lot of questions about team orders, and fortunately it has not reared its head on the racetrack that we have seen but there's a lot of questions with it, and the answers don't seem as clear-cut as maybe they were five or ten years ago; that no, that would never happen. We also had a few weeks ago some crew swaps among organizations, the 48/24, the 33/29. Is NASCAR comfortable with the balance of team versus organization, or are there concerns with that and how this plays out in the sport, because we do get a lot of calls on our programs with people that are concerned about it?
BRIAN FRANCE: I know you do. I listen to that. You know, the short answer is, we have had that happen from time to time throughout the years where one pit crew guy would go over, work on another. What you saw, the wholesale change got everybody's attention in Texas, and so that's understandable.
As far as team orders out on the track, you know, we would be very, very -- if that somehow altered an event, that would be a problem, and we would react to that. My sense is that you know, the good part about this sport is, it's every man for himself at the end of the day, and the bad part of it sometimes is it's every man for himself.
We'll look at that. I would -- I can tell you that all three teams in this championship don't give team orders by their own admission, and if that somehow were to come around, we would look at it. But I don't anticipate that. I think you're going to see them settle it individually, and that's the way it should be.