France Kennedy keeps making NASCAR better

Lesa France Kennedy is getting the recognition she deserves.

The 48-year-old Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors for International Speedway Corporation and Vice Chairperson of NASCAR was named the “Most Powerful Woman in Sports” by Forbes magazine last week.

In typical France Kennedy fashion, she said humbly, “It really took me by surprise. It was very rewarding. I was so happy that the sport was recognized. I looked at it as recognition of the sport and NASCAR and how far it’s come.”

For those that know France Kennedy, the acknowledgment by Forbes is hardly a shocker. Eddie Wood, whose family has been in racing as long as the Frances, has known France Kennedy since the two “were kids.” Wood made the point of saying he’s “proud to be her friend.”

“Lesa has worked really hard to get to where she is,” Wood said. “She takes the sport really seriously. She’s a lot like her dad. It’s a compliment to her with all the things that you have to keep up with any more. Lesa’s the leader of that company and does such a great job.

“The award is a big deal. Lesa is low-key. But she gets the job done. That’s just the way she moves. She’s very smart. She’s very serious about what she does. She eats and sleeps this sport, and I think that’s very good.”

After graduating from Duke University with duo degrees in Economics and Psychology in 1983, France Kennedy joined the family business. She was promoted to president of ISC in 2003 and named CEO in June.

During her tenure, France Kennedy brought Daytona USA (now the Daytona 500 Experience) to fruition. Although she currently oversees 13 racetracks, France Kennedy was instrumental in developing Kansas Speedway, considered one of the most fan friendly venues on the NASCAR tour.

Even a decade ago, France Kennedy wasn’t short-sighted enough to believe the adage ‘If you build it, they will come.’ She embraced the fan-as-guest concept early on.

The facility was constructed with significant roadway arteries to lessen the traffic congestion associated with race tracks. The Fan Zone — the first of its kind in racing — enables interaction between the athletes and spectators where race enthusiasts can get an up-close and personal look at garage activities. Finally, the track itself was constructed deep-set into the ground to offer optimum views from anywhere in the venue.

Since Kansas Speedway debuted in 2001, it’s been one of the most successful tracks to date. But France Kennedy continues “to focus on the fan and the experience at the race track.”

“The more you can bring the fans closer to the athletes, I think that has the most appeal,” France Kennedy said. “The more fan zones and the more autograph sessions, the closer you can bring them to the activity or give them that opportunity, I think that goes a long way with the fans.”

Her latest project at the track, through a partnership between the Kansas Speedway Development Corporation and Penn National Gaming, is the proposed construction of a $705 million hotel and casino overlooking Turn 2 at the Kansas City track.

“We’ve done so many things at the race track to add value and overall experience,” France Kennedy said. “The hotel/casino in Kansas City is a perfect fit. It will provide additional entertainment for our guests.

“The race fans will extend their stay, and it will also offer year-round activities right there at the race track. I think the more activities that surround our racetrack, the better it’s going to be and the more it will move the company forward.”

Kansas Speedway is expected to acquire a second NASCAR date once the project is complete. Although it’s rumored a race would be moved from Auto Club Speedway to accomplish that goal, France Kennedy said it was premature to discuss what track would lose a race. A 2010 announcement is scheduled.

Given the limited use of race tracks throughout the year when events and race schools are not using the facility, incorporating additional attractions such as gaming will provide further revenue. The concept certainly has paid off at the Dover Downs facility in Delaware.

Does France Kennedy envision gaming as a possible lure at other ISC properties in the future?

“I think that’s the right thing for Kansas City. Some of our other tracks might have a concept that might be similar, but at different venues,” France Kennedy said. “It just so happened that they were offering casino rights in Kansas — and that opportunity came up. But there may be different things — but similar concepts elsewhere.”

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Despite ISC’s total revenues dropping by $40.3 million in the third quarter compared to last year, France Kennedy remains encouraged. With the current economic climate, ISC has made necessary corrections at the tracks by offering “value packages” to maintain the existing fan base as well as attract new business. France Kennedy also believes providing consistent race start times — including a 1:00 green flag for the Daytona 500 — is “a terrific change”.

“The fans really wanted to see that,” she said. “We listened to them, and the response has been overwhelming with the change of the start times. That’s one example of the things that we can do in recognizing what the fans want and what is important to the fan experience.”

France Kennedy knows the sport must adapt for the times. Jim Hunter, vice president of communications for NASCAR and a close friend of her late father Bill France Jr., calls France Kennedy “a very strong woman.”

“She’s also very pragmatic, like her Dad,” Hunter adds.

Certainly her determination and pragmatic nature has helped France Kennedy persevere and succeed in the male-dominated world of motorsports. While she believes that the at-track and on-track experience “goes hand in hand” when providing the best events for the fans, France Kennedy remains committed to ISC. Even though she holds a seat on the NASCAR board, France Kennedy has shied away from taking on a greater role on the sanctioning body of the sport.

“Competition as you know is really driven by (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and (chairman, CEO and brother) Brian France,” France Kennedy said. “I’m really busy right now with the tracks and the development of the race track facilities. I really want to focus on the track side.

“We have so many new fans now that have been introduced to the sport through the restructuring that has taken place and so a lot of the fans that are buying tickets right now are new fans. That’s really encouraging. We’ve all been challenged with economic times, but sometimes when you take a look at it, that offers opportunity as well.”