Brian France needs to answer tough questions

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France joked during the introduction of the Myers Brothers Awards celebration, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Brian, if only it were that easy. It will take more than a few good nights at the tables for Lady Luck to turn NASCAR’s way.

Car counts continue to shrink as sponsors fade from the landscape. Attendance has waned both in the stands and on TV. And the Chase has become a predictable conclusion to the season.

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In an era where the sport is searching for direction, there doesn’t appear to be a clear path to the finish line.

Before January’s media tour, there were five areas in desperate need of clarity. Topping that list was NASCAR’s leadership. We asked, “Who’s the boss?”

We still wonder.

Although he was clearly more visible at the track compared to years past, France appeared uncomfortable and restless talking with the media at Homestead a few weeks ago. At Las Vegas, France was more at ease thanks to the assistance from a Teleprompter. But the year has not been kind to France.

Perhaps it’s because any publicity that France has garnered this season has has not come through any accomplishments he earned for his family business or philanthropic endeavors. Most of France’s face-time came entering or exiting the courts whether it was in regard to the Jeremy Mayfield lawsuit (more on that later) or his own personal business. Apparently, former Chairman Bill France Jr.’s contempt for lawyers and dragging any connection to the NASCAR brand through the mud was lost on his son.

It was one year ago that France admitted he would “not have a 30-year run like (his) father (Bill Jr.) for a variety of reasons.” He added that NASCAR has plenty of “talented people in the sport” and questioned whether anyone could be “effective for 30 years.”

How soon we forget. Certainly, Billy Jr. was effective. His instincts were spot on. And his authority was not questioned.

That hasn’t been the case for Brian. And it’s surprising that more of NASCAR’s team ownership group hasn’t been more vocal on the matter, particularly given some of the faux pas the younger France has made this season.

Yes, NASCAR has a stringent drug policy and it should be applauded for that. But the Mayfield debacle was out of hand in the first month. Instead of making the problem go away, the sanctioning body simply fueled the fire.

But there are more problems France and Co. simply missed the mark on this year.

How egregious were his comments at Michigan Sunday morning before the June race? Just days after many team budgets were cut by the factories nearby, France comes into the media center saying he would welcome foreign partners just miles from the very manufacturers that put the stock in stock car racing.

That day, France showed how out of touch he is with NASCAR’s fan base. The fan who once had a job on the assembly line is the very spectator who could afford tickets at MIS in June and/or August.

On Thursday, France mentioned modifications to the car “to make the best racing in the world even better.” The addition of “20 adjustments” to be made to the new car to improve the product on the racetrack based on input received from the garage came in the shape of a five-page addendum to the rule book which has some team owners wondering how they will budget for the changes. So much for the future of cost containment.

Other issues begging for a makeover …

The Chase

The lack of support in the stands has translated to TV viewership losses as well. In February, Forbes reported that NASCAR’s TV ratings slid 21 percent since the sport’s high point in 2005. Ironically, the slide coincided with the novelty of the Chase wearing off and the four-year spanking of the competition by Jimmie Johnson.

Things only got worse in 2009.

But France — who is credited as the architect of the Chase — refuses to admit that the postseason playoff system still has its flaws. He insists the sanctioning body isn’t opposed to making tweaks to the format on an annual basis and will again this season “to see if we can make it better.”

In 2007, NASCAR increased the Chase field to 12 cars in response to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon not qualifying in the top 10 and subsequently seeded the postseason based on 10 bonus points for wins during the first 26 races.

However, France stands by the current format and admits he “love(s) the premise of the Chase.”

“It’s all in how you want to look at it,” France said. “If you want to look at it that some of those teams that you would think would have been closer coming into today, you’re missing that, yes, but you’re getting a performance that’s historic.

“What I wouldn’t want to do is take away the accomplishment (of) Jimmie (and) his team. In this format, to dominate four straight years is incredibly difficult to do. But we could not have predicted anyone having as good a performance as Jimmie has had, to be able to achieve what he did, therefore taking away some of the things that the Chase will deliver in normal sets of circumstances.”

But define “normal.”

NASCAR created the Chase after a knee-jerk reaction to Matt Kenseth’s dominant title run in 2003. Kenseth won just one race throughout the season and still maintained a 90-point lead over (ironically) second-place Jimmie Johnson despite his engine failing 28 laps into the season finale. Kurt Busch won the first Chase title, followed by Tony Stewart in 2005, but it’s been the Jimmie Johnson show ever since.

And while no one begrudges the No. 48 team’s success, France could find a sexier term than “historic” to refer to Johnson’s fourth championship. With Hendrick Motorspsorts resources, is it any surprise that its teams have dominated the sport since the introduction of the new car?

The New Car Evolution

Many organizations are still feeling the effects from the introduction of the new car in 2007 — a concept that has been lukewarm at best with the fans and competition alike. For the fans, there is nothing sexy about the car. For the teams, it’s difficult to work with and even more difficult to drive.

A town hall meeting was held in May for the teams and subsequent brainstorming has occurred on a smaller scale.

France said, “We’re looking to keep building on that.” But don’t expect NASCAR to ever admit that the COT was a failure.

The roll-out of the pony cars in the Nationwide Series next year is NASCAR’s answer to a second chance at a re-design with the COT.

But a redesign for the Cup car, one which is sorely needed, is not looming.

The Ratings Slide and Waning Sponsor Interest

Reality check

Brian France

NASCAR wants to act like everything is perfect in the sport, but DW says it’s time to admit things aren’t so rosy.

Throughout the season, NASCAR’s TV ratings have been down from 2008. FOX’s numbers dropped by 1.5 million viewers during its 13-race run. TNT lost 394,000 viewers over the same period last year. And ESPN’s final tally is consistent with the other two networks.

France said, “There are a lot of reasons that ratings go up and down,” but only mentioned that he needed to “be mindful” of the dozen or so reasons that factored into the numbers.

But ratings have a direct relationship to sponsorship. France insists, “The sponsorship front is getting better. There are companies joining the sport.”

There’s a kernel of truth there, but not much.

With the exception of Stewart-Haas Racing’s announcement of Ruiz Foods, TRG Motorsports’ Taxslayer.com and Tad Geschickter masterfully cobbling together a variety of smaller sponsorships, current teams have simply preyed on others’ sponsorships.

To regain the interest of major companies, which is needed for teams to get sponsorship and remain on track, something must be done or else …

Strength of the Field

Is it any wonder why the full-time car counts are expected to be down again in 2010?

“The cost structure is a function of the free market and what is available at the time in terms of sponsorship, in terms of other related revenues that the teams can obtain,” France said. “We had this same conversation this time last year when the economy was even worse. There were a lot of predictions.

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“There are always teams at this time of year that are under-funded, that are looking for sponsors. That’s not anything new. I think clearly the sponsorship market is tougher than it’s ever been in my memory. I don’t anticipate that getting remarkably better. Although I will tell you we’re starting to see, get inquiries in our New York group, the teams which do the selling of the sport, they’re starting to feel the ice thawing on that.”

Unfortunately, it might be too late for teams such as Robby Gordon’s No. 7 team, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 07, Hall of Fame Racing’s No. 96 and Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 44. The historic Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford made the move to a limited schedule for this season and will continue a similar schedule in 2010. The former teams might not be so resilient.

The Economy & Consequences

Heading into the 2010 season, NASCAR must stop using the economy as an excuse for the diminishing numbers in ticket sales, souvenirs and television ratings. Yes, racetracks have worked diligently to make racing more affordable for the fans, but what choice was there when the core fan base could no longer manage to pay for seats.

Consequently, Motorsports Authentics, the souvenir arm shared between Speedway Motorsports and International Speedway Corp., is hemorrhaging money. When fans must choose between seats or a T-shirt the former is likely to win the battle.

On the subject of cost containment, France mentioned the addition of further electronic scoring to eliminate scorers altogether and save teams money. Although reducing the current Cup schedule would go a long way in cutting expenses for teams, France didn’t see that as a viable alternative.

“When you start dialing back, it has a lot of effects on you,” France said. “It’s certainly understandable to be a little fatigued at this time of year, but I think when you pull back there’s a great value in having events that happen once a week, where they happen to keep the interest level where it is.”

However, that might be the biggest challenge of all for France, maintaining the current interest level of the fans. At Homestead, he wasn’t exactly beaming with optimism. At Las Vegas, fans were at the center of France’s message. If “fan” had been the key word for the audience’s drinking game, chances are the majority of attendees would have been crawling for the exit. There has to be a balance.

We’d like answers this week before the sport goes into hibernation until late January, but admittedly there’s a lot to tackle. Still, he better have something concrete after the offseason. This sport demands attention from its boss.