France continues to put safety first

NASCAR Chairman Brian France is committed to improving the on-track product.

In a press conference held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday, France discussed wide-ranging topics from the Gen-6 car and monitoring drivers’ comments on it, to tweaking the schedule to include new tracks or to accommodate drivers who wish to do the Memorial Day "double."

Competition remains at the top of France’s to-do list with a focus on innovation and safety.

France said he’s looking to separate his competition department by distancing the at-track officiating group from those that develop the “rules packages of the future and other related items.”

One of the initial steps was the addition of Gene Stefanyshyn as vice president of innovation and racing development to the NASCAR R&D Center last month. Stefanyshyn spent three decades with General Motors, most recently overseeing global product development quality prior to joining the sport.

“We’re excited about Gene’s appointment,” France said. “It’s a big hire for us. He’ll be taking control of the R&D center, already has. We’ll be going in a direction that I’ve told everybody, which is we’re going to use a lot more science than art in establishing the very thing that matters most, which is safety, of course, but also putting ourselves in a position to have the closest, tightest competition possible.

"That’s what Gene’s task is. He’ll work very closely with the existing group in competition. And over time we believe we can make improvements on a central goal of ours. A central goal of NASCAR is to obviously have safe racing and at the same time have the tightest, closest races in the world. That’s our mission. It’s harder than ever to do, to accomplish, but that’s our goal, that’s our mission”.

Additional hot topics France addressed were:

The Generation 6 Car. France understands that the Generation 6 car, which was introduced at the start of this season, “continues to evolve for us.” France said NASCAR is looking at the model “carefully in terms of driver feedback, the racing on the track,” and other variables but “we like what we see.”

The 2014 schedule. France tackled several issues in this category. Although Speedway Motorsports Chairman O. Bruton Smith’s expressed his desire to move one of the two Charlotte Motor Speedway dates to Las Vegas, France’s “preference” would be to keep the race in Charlotte.

As far as Iowa Speedway or any other new venue moving onto the Cup schedule, “I don’t see a new venue in ’14 at this time,” France said.

And finally, working with IndyCar to adjust the times to accommodate drivers that want to do the double — running the Indianapolis 500 followed by the Coca-Cola 600 — “It’s not on our front burner to do that.”

Freedom of speech. France insists he doesn’t want to “stifle the drivers’ personalities." But if a competitor “crosses the line” by disparaging the product, there will be repercussions.

France claims that many of Denny Hamlin’s fellow competitors approached him insisting on repercussions to the driver after his comments at Phoenix and his consequent fine. Drivers “know the line,” France maintained.

“They all know exactly where it is because we talk about it,” France said. "I talk about it directly with every one of the drivers, every one of the owners. No disputing that.”

Safety initiative. France addressed filling the gaps at tracks where no SAFER barriers exist — as is the case at Auto Club Speedway where Denny Hamlin suffered his brutal wreck that sidelined the driver for five weeks.

France acknowledged “there’s a pocket here or there” and said other series that share the facilities must be taken into consideration prior to the addition of the SAFER walls. “When we need to put additional SAFER barriers anywhere, we will do it.”

Marketing the Air Titan. At the first indication of rain, fans light up Twitter begging for the Air Titan — NASCAR’s monster blow dryer which France credits for keeping both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races on track at Talladega.

While France admits the Air Titan “is available” to every venue and proved a success at Talladega — it also came with a six-figure cost, one some tracks might not be in a position to budget for or might find it more economically feasible to purchase additional jet dryers.

“In fairness to different tracks, they hadn’t seen that work in a real live condition,” France said. “Now they have. My hope is that we will get the cost down, number one, and that every track who is in risk of having rain will be using the system.”