NASCAR execs preview 2013

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During the second day of the Sprint Media Tour in and around Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, NASCAR President Mike Helton, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell and Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway President Joie Chitwood held a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway to discuss, among other things, the upcoming 2013 Sprint Cup Series season and the new Gen-6 race car. Below, is a partial transcript from the press conference:

Q.  Brian, can you talk about the moment or the time or the transition from when NASCAR seemed to be reacting and now is innovating?  Some of your executives were talking about the fans and media engagement center, and you said, get it done.  When did all this start happening in your mind to get these initiatives not so much reacting but innovating in your mind?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, that’s really why we built the R & D Center in the first place was to stay ahead of safety, of advancements, and fortunately we don’t talk a lot about that now, although it’s a continual centerpiece of what we do at the R & D Center.

But it’s also the world that we live in.  There’s so much technology that is going around in every industry, and so for us to embrace that in a smart way hopefully, we always have to when we’re doing things make sure that we don’t just put technology or innovation in without regard to what things cost the industry.  Team owners, certainly the track operators, so whatever we do we have to balance that.  But clearly we’re declaring big things.  We may not get all of them accomplished exactly the way we set out to, but I think we’re putting the resources behind it to make these improvements and align the industry to make racing better and more exciting.  And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

Q.  You said earlier that the Generation 6 car was created to make races more exciting if I understand it correctly for the fans.  Nevertheless, according to the press release, there are some details mentioned that, for example, the hood and the deck lid is made from carbon fiber, so carbon fiber is a very exclusive material, especially in Europe, it’s very light.  Nevertheless it’s very, very competitive.  From the cost reduction point of view, would it be better to choose another material?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, we balanced that.  We balanced the weight, the strength of it for safety, and we balanced that, so that is a — that’s something we looked at, something we chose.

You know, but the enhancements that I’m talking about that improve the racing to keep our promise of the most exciting racing in the world often aren’t going to be things that cost team owners or teams additional money.  It very well could be in the packages that we create, downforce, tires play a big role into that, so on and so forth.  And the goal is real simple:  We want to see the closest competition that is possible.  That’s the goal.

MIKE HELTON:  And just, afterwards, when you get one-on-one with Robin you can get more detail, but a little bit more in-depth on us choosing to do a composite material, we get the fact that steel is cheaper than carbon fiber, but in today’s world with the technology of building carbon fiber, it’s not that much of a bridge as it used to be to start with.  But the way we’ve introduced this piece is this is a standard piece that no one can alter.  Steel, if we left the steel deck lids the way we’ve done in the past from our experience, then this new car would be a generation of evolution again.  But we standardized the deck lids with carbon fiber.

We went to a third party to produce the rear deck lid.  The manufacturer has to submit the hood, and the aerodynamics around the 2013 or the Gen-6 package is critical with these components in it.  So Brian was right; there is a balance that we have to reach. 

If our goal is for the car to be safe but very competitive, there is a balance against cost, and we have to balance all of those out.

But get a little bit more detail on this piece in particular, because there’s a good story behind the cost as well as us managing the sport to keep 43 cars on a very similar playing field.

Q.  Going forward, how will you measure or judge the success of the Gen-6 car?

BRIAN FRANCE:  I think we’ll measure it by lead changes, we’ll measure it by how it races, we’ll measure it by how the drivers feel about it, and knowing that not everybody will always love every rules package or thing that we do, that’s for sure, but we’ll look at it very simply.  Everything is designed to have closer competition, and we’ll see — and I’m quite confident that I know we’re going to make improvements.  By the way, that’s not a new thing for us to — a new issue for us to consider.  That’s always job one past safety.  That’s always job one.  It’s just today we’re just — as I said, we’re using a lot more science, and so we’re going to get answers to questions that — where we used to use a lot of art and judgment, which we still do, but I think this new mix of the way we’re looking at our tests, at the packages that we’re — as we drew up the car, it was all for that in mind.  And I think the benefits will be there.

Q.  Brian, it’s expected that the new car will kind of increase manufacturer lobbying for rule changes throughout the year.  Is that something you’re trying to avoid, or do you want it for, while controversial, it creates buzz?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, I don’t think we ever enjoy a lot of good lobbying, that’s for sure.  But look, that’s part of it a little bit.  There will be a little bit more of that, which we anticipate, to give the manufacturers the look that resembles their cars. 

Obviously we had to go away from the complete common template that really would have defined the old car.  So that goes with the territory a little bit.  But having said that, we’re also working closer with them than we ever have, and that’s — and they’re really excited about that, and that’s good for us and good for them.

Q.  How different is this new proposed drying system from what we have now with the jet dryers?

MIKE HELTON:  Quite a bit, visually and operational.  It uses compressed air as opposed to jet engine.  It’s designed to expedite, obviously, the removal of water using compressed air and heat, where the jet dryers were simply designed around blowing and depended more on hot air.  The new system depends more on compressed air.

The evolution for — there’s a few faces out here that will remember when we used to dry tracks off with just a fleet of vehicles going around the racetrack, or dragging tires behind pickup tricks, and then someone came along with the jet dryer that expedited it quite a bit and served its purpose for a long period of time, but in today’s world with the expectations of getting the show done and getting it on, there was a high priority placed by Brian and the rest of us to come up with a way that we could expedite that, and Robin and the folks at the R & D Center responded to that and come up with ideas, and this one seems to have quite a bit of validity to it.

Appearance wise it’s considerably different.  It’s a gain of pipes behind a pickup truck that the air is being pushed through as opposed to a jet dryer.

Q.  Mike, the fans come for entertainment and to see the racing.  You walk up to a tower to do a lot more.  That’s a job for you, to watch more than just an entertaining race.  Will the Gen-6 car increase what you have to do over the first part of the season, or will it lessen some what you have to do?

MIKE HELTON:  Well, our hope is that the driver of the Gen-6 car increases more of what we have to do.  But the visualness of the Gen-6 car combined with the driver skill and talent and what they do will make the show exciting for us in the tower and everybody in the grandstand and the folks at home watching it on TV.

But from operating a race from the green flag to the checkered flag, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Gen-6 car or a tractor and trailer.  That all comes out about the same.  But the expectation is that the visualness of this car and the attractiveness of it as it relates to the manufactured brands, as well as the ire aerodynamic package that the team has put together around this car will produce more exciting opportunities.  But it relies on the drivers doing what they do more than anything.

Q.  Mr. France, with all the talk of the new fan engagement center and all the emphasis on social media and trying to reach fans in various ways, it’s still important to have the eyes on the sets when it comes to TV contracts and the revenue, and when numbers are down from people watching, I know there’s a lot of concern across the industry.  How do you balance the social media and what you have going on on the internet, because if fans can watch a race, so to speak, on the internet with all the things they can do now, they’re not going to watch the TV set.  How hard has it been to balance between the new social media initiatives and the traditional television?

BRIAN FRANCE:  I don’t think it’s hard to balance that at all.  I think one drives the other over time.  The idea is that you’re engaging your fans in different ways to take in, to go behind the scenes or whatever it is, their favorite driver, their team, their track that they like to go to, you’re able to in real-time communicate those things with our fan base.  It should strengthen the relationship with our fans who will obviously ultimately — the best thing is to go to an event; the next best thing is to watch it on television; and if it doesn’t drive and promote those two things, then we wouldn’t — we obviously wouldn’t put the focus on it, but we do.

Q.  This will be the 10th Chase.  How do you feel that has reshaped the sport, and how do you respond to those who question if the Chase has consistently delivered the attention that maybe you intended?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, I’ve said before that I was surprised that we didn’t have in those 10 years some more tighter battles going down the stretch in the last few events.  We’ve certainly had some very memorable — including the first one and including last year was amazing.  And the year before that was Tony.  So we’re getting back into what I always thought would be the benefits of a Chase.

What it really has done for me, though, as a fan, because we’re fans, too, is it shows that the drivers and teams, when it’s all on the line, can really elevate their talents, and you saw that with Tony and that incredible run two years ago; you certainly saw it with Brad getting on a roll and competing.  And you know, you never had those moments to judge a driver in the old system, and I like that.  I like what that does to the teams, and we certainly like the Wild Card, by the way.  We thought that was a — and that came from one of our drivers, actually, in the driver-owner meetings that will start later on today, getting that feedback.

So we really like the emphasis on winning, winning your way in and so on.  I think that’s exactly what we want.

Q.  Mike, how satisfied, in regards to tech inspection, how satisfied are you with the new laser measuring system, and is the goal to get rid of the aluminum templates or metal templates altogether?

MIKE HELTON:  Not altogether, but think the laser system helps retain the accuracy of the car and shows the rest of the garage area that here’s what everybody else’s car measures up to be, and so I think the — it’s mostly a gain on inspection as opposed to a replacement on inspection.  But I think so far, and you can ask John later on in the breakouts, but I think what we’ve seen and what we’ve used so far shows us that it’s the right direction to go.

More importantly, though, it gives NASCAR the ability to have the credibility of showing everybody else in the garage area that these measurements on everybody’s cars are the same.

Q.  Mike, at the two tests and already on the media tour, we’ve heard several comments from drivers who believe that the racing and the quality of the racing will be better with the new car.  I just wondered from your perspective, have you seen enough on- track testing or testing that you have done yourselves from the NASCAR side to give you confidence that the promise of that that seems to be coming forth will actually transpire on the track?

MIKE HELTON:  Yeah, I don’t know that you ever see enough evidence until you go racing, but certainly the amount of testing that NASCAR has done with the teams to get prepared with this car and work on very specific areas to promote side-by-side racing at tracks other than the Superspeedway in particular, has been intense.  On the computer, in the wind tunnel, at the race shops, at the R & D Center and at the racetracks, there’s never been as much effort put into a car to get it ready to go racing, and the testing that we’ve seen in Daytona, the testing we’ve seen in Charlotte shows us, and the voice that you hear that from, is the most important voice for the drivers to say that we think this car is going to offer up the best racing we’ve seen.  It’s got us all going in the right direction, so we expect to see that.

But Brian mentioned earlier, and it’s been talked about, that it’s a really, really strong start with the Gen-6 aerodynamically and the chassis and all the rules and regulations that go along with it.  But it’s also from experience, we know that while we may have closed the gap on the effort that we have to do once we see it racing, there are probably still things that we will tweak along the way to give the drivers what they want a little bit of but give the fans what they want mostly.  And if it requires tweaking from our part, we’ll do that.

Somebody asked earlier about the manufacturers with the different looks and everything.  That’s a good thing.  But science and technology gave us the ability to do this with the Gen-6 car that we didn’t have in the Gen-3 and -4.  We didn’t have that technology to build a car that looks and is extremely different in appearance but comes out aerodynamically the same.  But it wouldn’t surprise us very early in the year to see manufacturers come and lobby about spoiler dimensions or something that is traditional in our sport.

But so far all the indicators and the voice of the sport is telling us that we’re on the right track.

Q.  We hear from time to time from fans that the length of races is a little bit too long.  Last year at Martinsville for the late model race they invoked heat races to set the field for a future event.  Has there been any thought of adapting a heat race format for the Cup Series where the total number of laps raced during the weekend would be the same but you would race it in heats and then set a feature that was shorter in length?

BRIAN FRANCE:  No, we’re not considering heat races at the Sprint Cup level.  We have shortened events.  We obviously have changed our qualifying procedures around, and we will continually look at the format in terms of mostly how long or short an event can be, and that’s obviously balanced against what the track operator believes his customer base wants to see, not just what the broader television audience or whatever might — everything we do, it’s got to be balanced.  But we’re watching that.

Q.  Brian, part of the promo earlier talking about the Gen-6 car talked about the racetrack and the showroom arm in arm again, and I’m wondering if the COT brought you too far away from that relationship and if it harmed NASCAR, and if so, in what ways?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, I think it did.  Looking back, you’re always 100 percent accurate when you get to look backwards, right, and I think that would be fair, that we certainly didn’t intend to do that, intended to try to make racing better, and costs were a huge thing, as they still are today, and we did significantly bring costs down, and safety was a big thing as it is now.  We significantly improved that.  But it would be fair to say that in doing those things, we weren’t as in step as we are today with the manufacturers.

And so it wasn’t just that, too.  By the way, that obviously had huge business issues going back to ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, that they fortunately have really rebounded on that.

So a combination of things, but this is going to — and also not just sort of get in the car in terms of more like the showroom cars.  It’s also working closer with them, because there’s other things that are now much more important to each of the car manufacturers that maybe wasn’t as important 10 years ago, things like innovation.  We’ve talked about a glass dashboard.  That’s coming.  We’ll balance, again, against costs and what they want.  But that’s things that are going to be — with ever-increasing fuel mileage cap A standards for them, they’re using a lot of technology to obtain those goals and reach their goals, and they want to use the NASCAR relationship and the platform to help develop some of those, and we’re going to be a very willing and good partner in doing just that.

Q.  Moving forward are you looking at pretty much status quo with the three manufacturers, or what are the prospects of bringing back a fourth down the road?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, they’re a lot better now than they were a year ago because there’s an opening of some sort.  It’s still very difficult.  But my hope is, and I know there are a couple of big manufacturers, and there always are – this is not breaking news – there’s always somebody who has an interest in at least understanding the NASCAR opportunity, and so my sense of it is over time that we will have a fourth manufacturer.  And we’ll have to see how that plays out.

But sure, we’re certainly open to it, and there’s — much past that I don’t think — it would be very difficult for a car manufacturer to get enough quality teams to make their program work properly, but four is certainly manageable, and we would — we’re encouraged that at some point we’ll attain that again.

Q.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought the spotlight on concussions last year with what happened to him.  Are there any new procedures, policies put in place by NASCAR to make sure a driver doesn’t end up driving with a concussion as he did for several weeks before the second one?

MIKE HELTON:  Well, I think over the years we’ve made great strides in our relationships with the drivers in regards to their medical posture or situations.  With the liaison program that Steve O’Donnell puts in play and modifies every year, we’ve grown in that relationship.  So we’ve got confidence in our current program, certainly.

Having said that, I think Dale Earnhardt’s event last year highlighted to a lot of folks, including the garage area, the other drivers, the seriousness that you should pay attention to when it comes to your own health as a driver so that you’ve got a pretty good life afterwards.

And through that experience that Dale went through, we also ourselves had a real-time working model to go look through, and the different steps that Dr. Petty and his organization took Dale through gave us the ability to see things used firsthand.  Through those experiences, we’ve learned, and I think in ’13 our goal is to explain more to drivers what’s out there in regards to advance information, in regards to elements that can be used by them to be on — and to carry the load from there on in as far as responsibility is concerned.

And then it also gives us the opportunity to look at our own program, not necessarily immediately but certainly immediately look at it as it goes forward, and are there other elements or steps that we can add to our program to make it bigger and stronger.

But I think our most current issue is to take what we’ve learned from Dale’s experience and make sure the other drivers know what’s out there to collect data and for them to be in practice of, and then it’s an opportunity for us to look at what we might institute going forward.

Q.  Brian, this isn’t dissimilar from Viv’s question, but how would you describe the COT era, and what impact did that era ultimately have on NASCAR’s product?

BRIAN FRANCE:  Well, I mean, I don’t want to build too much into it.  Obviously we think — we love the new car, the Gen-6 car, and we have said that we made some errors in — really in collaboration to getting the car.  We achieved a lot of things with that car:  Costs, as I said; safety went up; a lot of benefits that the industry and that the teams and drivers gained from that car.

Obviously we got away from some things that historically had worked well for us:  The manufacturer rivalry, which we’re excited about; the relevance issue with the car manufacturers.  And then I think we put a lot more focus in the new car into the rules package surrounding the car that we didn’t put nearly — I can tell you we didn’t put nearly as much science into the old car as we tried to achieve better racing.

No sense in worrying about what happened in the past; we’re excited about the future.

MIKE HELTON:  Yeah, and Brian is right.  We shouldn’t stick a dagger in the Gen-5 program and say, man, we’re glad you’re gone, because that era, that Gen-5 created a lot of great moments for NASCAR.  The last two championships for one, a lot of races in its stable or its time in existence. It also led to the evolution of the collaborativeness that we now operate the sport by when it comes to the parts and pieces and the cars themselves.

It also served very well in an era when the car manufacturers involved in our sport were struggling with their own businesses, and we weren’t a front burner topic to them.  We had a car that could survive that era.  So there’s a lot of positives to the Gen-5 era that we shouldn’t overlook as we celebrate the Gen-6.

Now, I’ve got to tell you the enthusiasm and the energy around the car that we’ll see in 2013 on the Sprint Cup events is phenomenal, and it’s wonderful, and it’s everything that we want it to be.  But it’s Gen-6, so there were five before it that gave us the opportunity to get to Gen-6, and we should never forget that.

– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR

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