On Friday, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France stepped into the media center at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, prior to festivities to kick off the Coke Zero 400 race weekend, to give sort of a “State of the Sport” updates, as well as field questions from the media on hand. Below, is a transcript from the press conference:
Good afternoon, everybody. We’re obviously at the midway or a little further than the midway point and making the turn into our version of the playoffs. I think if you see some of the things that are going on, we’re encouraged by that.
By that I mean some of the story lines and how it’s shaping up. You’ve got Dale Jr., obviously, in contention, won a race, competing hard, could be a factor in the Chase. That would be a good thing for him, for sure, and everybody else.
I think there are also some interesting things with Jeff Gordon and where he is on the outside looking in, and probably is going to have to win a wildcard slot, going to have to win a couple of races at least as he goes down the stretch.
So that’s kind of what we want shaping up to try to match the intensity and competitive zeal of last year’s Chase which was probably our best ever. Our goal is to build on that. We’ll talk, and I’ll be happy to take any questions.
I know talking earlier with some of you regarding how I feel about the racing and some of the hot topics of the day, and I’ll be happy to take any questions, but I want to say a couple of things that I had mentioned in May.
We had moved Steve O’Donnell to take a much more direct role with the R&D center, and we also did a second thing with that which is we split out from competition. They’re still closely aligned and they’ll come together wherever we’re solving rules packages or innovation or any other issue which has to do with the racing product.
But to give the group at the R&D center more clarity and more autonomy, frankly, to get at some of the things that are going to be critically important for us to get right. One of those is the racing product.
Our stated goal is to have the most competitive and close competition as we possibly can. I look at that over long periods of time with snap shots as we go along. It would be fair to say at any one time, although it would be subjective to say it’s really, really good or it’s not as good as some would like it to be.
When the new car came out several years ago, it would have been a fair argument at the time to say we didn’t have the rules packages just right for that particular car. We worked on that, later achieved that. We can go to tandem racing, go to any number of things that change around on us.
So our goal is to use what I’ve said, which is a lot more science than art for us to keep up, solve issues, create rules packages on intermediate tracks and alike that produce closer, more competitive racing. That is the stated goal. We’re doing a number of things to achieve that.
Then the last part of that discussion is technology and innovation. There are a lot of things on that agenda. Things like drying the racetrack off in a much faster way than we currently do it today, which obviously would have a huge benefit to our race fans and the sport in general. It’s going to mean doing things with technology inside the car, balancing that issue that we always have — which is not to drive the cost unnecessarily up on the team owners, but be more relevant in the technology space.
We’re working on a glass dashboard that is in the early stages, which is not inconsistent because the car manufacturers and some already there are coming with their own version of glass cockpits in passenger cars. So we’ll be very careful how we get there, but we’ll be looking at such things as that and many other things.
So that was our goal with what we’ve done strategically with the R&D center, and we’re only a few months into that plan. But it’s going to accelerate our ability to achieve solutions to sometimes complicated problems.
With that, I’m happy to take any questions.
Q. Could you go into more detail in terms of what the technological innovations maybe? Is the object to get the cars harder to drive to make them closer, put more emphasis back in the driver’s hands, things like that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Simply put, it’s to make the competition closer, more competitive. That is the stated goal of ours. Now how we get there, how fast we can move on those kind of sometimes problems, sometimes they’re just a circumstance of how things have evolved. Tandem racing would be a good example of that where it just evolved on us in a way that we, obviously, moved quickly to solve because it wasn’t popular.
But whatever it is, it is to make sure when you’re watching NASCAR that it’s as we’ve stated. That it is the closest, most competitive form of auto racing in the world. That’s going to mean a lot of different things, but we’re going to use – here’s what’s important – we’re going to use more science than we’ve ever used in getting those rules packages where we want them.
Even when we get them where we want them, they’re going to change. That’s just the nature of this business, the nature of the teams and so on. I do want to make one mention. One of the things we did a few years ago was involving – most of you know this, is involve the teams, their personnel and others, to share information not only where the sport was headed on business issues, but technical issues about what can we do to make racing better, safer, and different things? Before that exercise occurred, years before, whenever we’d solicit teams for their advice or information, we used to get very self-serving data back or very self-serving suggestions back.
Today, my guys tell me and I see, that’s largely changed. What we get back now engineering simulation reports, whatever it might be for us to look at and maybe change the rules package for the future is much more focused on what’s best for creating this closer, competitive racing. That is a nice change to see. The teams really have mobilized to work a lot closer with us to get a better result for our fans.
Q. Are you hiring any outside consultants or taking any advice from outside the garage or from people that you currently have on staff in trying to work on this project?
BRIAN FRANCE: Yes. We frequently use the smartest people in any given industry. We can’t employ everybody that’s best in class, so the answer is as we do in all other parts of our business, absolutely.
Q. Wanted to ask you about the 2013 season. How is the schedule for the top three series taking shape? Should we anticipate any surprises when those scheduled are released?
BRIAN FRANCE: I don’t think there will be any dramatic changes in 2013. There may be a few things here or there, but I wouldn’t anticipate a big change.
Q. You said you all want to increase the competition and increase the action and all. Where is the fine line you walk between maybe getting artificial and creating that and improving things?
BRIAN FRANCE: It’s a very clear line to us. What we’re not going to do are gimmicky things. I’ve heard we ought to throw a caution every ten laps. That’s nonsense. We won’t do gimmicky things. But we’ll do things that incentivize performance, incentivize wins. That we are open to. The wildcard does that. It does it in an authentic way.
Double file restarts get us better racing action. Anything that gets something better on the track and doesn’t employ a gimmick, we’d be reasonably open to.
Q. These days most of our fans, the series fans, basically can’t make it to races, so most of the time the way they watch the race is on television. Many of us writers and especially people like myself, get screaming emails on a weekly basis from fans that feel they can’t realistically follow the races on TV because they’re so focused on certain large-scale sponsors, or so zoomed in close that they can’t see anything. What is your opinion on the current broadcast? Do you feel that general race fans can really follow everything that’s going on? And if not, what changes could be potentially made to help that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think we hear those similar kinds of complaints over the years, and they may be differently put or they may have different concerns or whatever. But I think it’s important for us to work with our broadcast partners, and we’re up in a renewal cycle here shortly, to make sure that they present the sport in the best possible way. The good news is that’s their goal too.
We may differ from time to time on one thing or another, but that’s always a concern of ours to see how – because you’re right. That’s where most people get their NASCAR fix is on television, and we want to make sure that it’s as good as it can be.
Q. Can you update us on the TV negotiations? Obviously that is forthcoming and a lot of things are based on that moving forward. Can you tell us where it’s at?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we’re getting into the time line where we’re having serious discussions about what the future will look like. We have our incumbents, some of the best partners we’ve ever had. We’ll have to see how that goes.
The good news for NASCAR and frankly any high-powered sports content is there is a lot of demand for it. So the sport will be in very good shape, and we’re looking forward to those discussions and how they materialize.
Q. Do you expect or foresee any changes to Rookie of the Year criteria to open that up to more drivers?
BRIAN FRANCE: That’s working pretty well for us. We like that it’s spotlighted some drivers. But we’ll look at it. We’ll look and see if that’s something we work on in the off-season.
Q. Going back to the TV Pandora’s box that’s been opened. One complaint that we in the media center get a lot from fans is the amount of commercials, and they find that the race is very difficult to watch because there are actually people, if you can believe this, who time how much time there is on track versus commercial time, and they present these statistics that show they’re not seeing much actual racing. Is that an issue that NASCAR is made aware of, and is there anything that NASCAR can do to cut down on commercials?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, look, there is a commercial balance here. There are parameters. All of our partners have very strict parameters of how many commercial units they can run at a given time. Some have experimented, and there will be another here this weekend with Turner doing sort of a rolling live event with their commercials laced in.
That is a fair point. I say most of our action is live action. There aren’t TV timeouts, per se, in our sport. So it’s understandable where our fans can miss something, feel like they’re missing something and be frustrated by it. I understand that.
Then there is a commercial position that, as wonderful as this sport is, our TV partners aren’t doing it to just be good sports about things. So we have to balance their commercial concerns and so on.
Look, it’s something that Steve Herbst and our group in New York work on. That’s all they do is getting the presentation right or as right as we think we can in every way.
Q. You might have touched upon this earlier when you said you didn’t anticipate changes in the Chase. But is there any viability in looking at a road course in the mix of the Chase races down the road?
BRIAN FRANCE: I don’t know. We only have two, so it would be a little challenging just from a scheduling perspective. We haven’t heard a lot of concern one way or the other why it is or it isn’t. So it wouldn’t be top of our list.
Q. When you say glass dashboards in cockpits. What is the purpose of that? What does that do? How does that enhance things?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, there would be phases of that. It’s one of – I only share that with you because it’s one of many, many things from an innovation standpoint that are on the drawing board, not all of them will happen. But, for example, that is the future if you talk to the car manufacturers, which they’re always insisting and we understand why.
They want us to be as in-step with them as possible. That your car dashboard in the future is going to be like an airplane cockpit. You’ll be able to do different things with that and set it up the way you want to set it up. So the first step is for us to have a look and feel that is consistent with what they see their cars looking at on the showroom down the road.
Second part of that is there are going to be any number of things once we get this digitally done where that information out of the cockpit can be part of the racing experience for our fans in the stands or anywhere else.
I think that’s our step towards technology, our step towards innovation and a step towards being aligned with the car manufacturers.
Q. We hear a lot about your five-year plan. What parts of that plan might you see results the soonest? What would you expect out of that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, many of you work with our IMC Group and see many, many changes we’ve made to better service the media, better get at some of the things that we think can be improved on our end. You see our efforts to take our digital rights and social media and alike that we’re working very hard, hiring a lot of people, putting a bunch of resources against, and we’ll have those rights. We’ll be managing them fully in 2013 when the light comes on, you’ll see a big change there.
I mentioned throughout this discussion about innovation, about what the R&D center, and how they’re accelerating things. I got an update today from Steve O’Donnell and Robin Pemberton and Group at a very fast pace. But they’ll all take time. There won’t be anything we can do. There is nothing we should do just for the sake of being in a hurry. We want to make sure all of these things that we’re doing are best for the race fan, that make the racing better, make the experience better, align better with our partners. All of the things that we say all the time.
What you’re seeing from us is putting a lot of those plans into very formal motion. I think we’ll all be happy. I know it gives the industry, the drivers, teams, tracks, a lot of reassurance that these important things that we’re all trying to get right, that we’re leaning on them. We’re investing lots of money and resources in a time where that’s not always easy to do.
We have a very, very clear plan, of which they’re participating, contributing, and we’re all going in one direction. That is a pretty big change from where things were four or five years ago, as many of you may remember where there were a lot of confusing messages or whatever that you may have heard from different people in the industry.
I’m really proud of that. That is a whole collection of efforts in the entire group at NASCAR, and the entire industry that’s figured out that these are big things to get done right, and we can get further together.
Q. What are your feelings in general on shorter races and considering the sort of short attention span world we’re living in, can you see the sport short term or long-term going to things like maybe a pair of 20-mile races on race day as opposed to a four or 500 mile marathon? Are you looking at all of those things down the road?
BRIAN FRANCE: We are. I think you have to acknowledge that’s real. Any information shows that people have more to do, more devices to play with and get information from, and as a result, their attention span is shorter.
We’ve shortened events. It’s generally worked well. At Pocono it worked well, California worked well, Dover has worked well. Some of the events that we’ve done. We’ll look at that.
We’ll also look at one of the great features this sport has, you know, the technology is a real part of this sport – in the cars themselves, in the way information is flowing back and forth between the teams, the drivers, and ourselves. We’ll be able to enhance that experience for our race fans in ways that other sports may not be able to do.
That will be something – I said the glass cockpit, and we’ve said our digital rights. They’re all designed as people are watching, and maybe this convergence which has already happened a fair amount, where people – and I was talking to somebody today – they don’t watch the event without having their computer on to interact digitally in some way. All those things are on the table.
That’s why you have to have a plan to deal with those things. You have to have a plan to look down the road, and you have to have great people that can figure outcome indicated issues to make the sport better.
Q. In 2007 you introduced the COT, this is the last year for that car. Next year you’ll have the new style cars. How much are we going city those cars here? Since they debut in Daytona, will we see a lot of testing here? Just generally the fact that the manufacturers now have more of a signature on their cars, does that get you excited?
BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, and more importantly it gets them excited. They’ve had a lot more input, as the teams have had, in this car, than we certainly did in the car in ’07. So that’s just going to get us better results. The answer is given how important Daytona is to the season and the biggest event, my sense is we’ll see quite a bit of testing as we go down the road here in Daytona.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR
– Follow me on Twitter @NASCARexaminer