NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France spoke to members of the motorsports media in the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center on Saturday to give a “State of the Sport”-type of address, in which he spoke about the Gen-6 car and innovation goals for the sport. Afterward, he took questions from the media members in attendance. Here’s a transcript of his speech and press conference:
BRIAN FRANCE: Thank you and good afternoon.
I want to just touch on a few things. Number one, it’s always a neat weekend here with Memorial Day weekend, what auto racing means all over the country, and certainly to our military and the big salute that’s going on right now is always terrific.
The other things that are on our minds that we’ve talked about a lot is the Gen-6 car. Continues to evolve for us. We’re looking at that carefully in terms of the driver feedback, the racing action on the track, all the rest. We like what we see. Although, like anything that is new, we’re always trying to make some improvements on that and we’ll be doing that as we go along.
It’s nice also to see some of the results that we’re getting from the driver diversity. You saw some recent victories with Kyle Larson, who was in our program. You do see Darrell Wallace, Jr. now with a full-time truck ride. He’s performing well. It’s nice to see some of those drivers move up through the ranks, and I hope they have long, great careers.
But the main point of touching base today was to chat a little bit about what we’ve been doing on the innovation side of things.
About a year ago this weekend, I talked about Steve O’Donnell taking a bigger role with innovation, R&D, helping with such things as the track drying, the Air Titans, one project we were working on. Certainly getting the Gen-6 car into a place that we felt gave us the best racing action we possibly could get, coordinating with our entire competition group, which Robin Pemberton leads, and John Darby and company, have done a great job, and many other people.
But what we’ve decided to think about is, as we go along, getting more separation in inspecting the cars, running the races every weekend, and developing the rules packages of the future and other related items.
That’s why we’ve recently announced Gene Stefanyshyn. But we’re excited about Gene’s appointment. 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.
With that, I’m going go ahead and be happy to take any questions you might have.
Q. Brian, numerous tracks continue to have some attendance issues. I realize there’s a lot involved in all that. Considering that, looking at schedules down the road, do you think about offering opportunities to places like Iowa Speedway to have a Cup race to see what might happen if we added somebody new to the mix?
BRIAN FRANCE: There’s always going to be a track or more than one track that has, for one reason or another, whether it’s rain or other issues. We’ve been up in attendance at a number of events. Ed Clark is running quite a bit up, as a matter of fact, in Atlanta as an example. Phoenix, Las Vegas. California had one of its better-attended events.
I would tell you we have huge stadiums. When we’re not filling them completely, that’s one thing. We want to fill them completely. But at the same time they’re often huge numbers that we’re able to have in attendance.
The other tracks, Iowa and others, we do run of course Nationwide and other events. We’ll take a look at that from time to time.
But we like the mix of historical, big events at venues that we race at year in, year out. That would be our preference.
Q. Brian, this is obviously the biggest weekend of racing worldwide all year. A couple weeks ago Kurt Busch went to the Indy 500 and ran 218, 219 miles an hour, created quite a buzz. Has there been any thought given to NASCAR working with a way with Indianapolis to maybe make it feasible for a couple drivers from each series to really do the double and benefit both series by creating a lot of interest?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, it’s harder to do now because the schedules that the drivers have. We don’t have an active discussion about that with Indianapolis. Of course, in the past Tony Stewart, there’s been others that have definitely done the dual. I think what they generally find out is that’s too difficult to manage the schedule.
It’s not on our front burner to work on that.
Q. There have been some penalties to major teams reduced under appeal in the last couple years. Do you feel these decisions have impacted the authority of your competition officials? Do you feel these decisions need to have more of a public statement as to why the penalties were reduced so teams and the public have a better understanding?
BRIAN FRANCE: We’re usually disappointed when we think we have made a good case for a particular penalty. We do talk about it. But that’s what you have when you have a true appellate way to resolve differences.
On one hand, that’s exactly what it should do, even if we disagree. We’ll look ourselves at making our case to whatever panel members we’re talking to or to the chief appellate officer in that case.
We’ll be looking at, are we making our case as strongly as we could have. The teams certainly are. They’re very good at that.
But that’s why you have a system to give drivers and owners and others a chance to make a case that maybe we went too far or whatever they may think. That’s the system that we have.
Q. Brian, back in January you said the criteria for the Gen-6 car would be lead-lap passes, passes for the lead, passes through the field. Do you still like that criteria and what is your assessment so far of the Gen-6 car?
BRIAN FRANCE: That’s the criteria for us in general. I think it’s good. Do I think we can improve the quality of racing in terms of our core goals? Sure.
Gene Stefanyshyn, his team, that’s an endless journey for us to be on, to figure out. You have 43 teams that want to game whatever rules package we bring forward. They want an advantage. If you ask any driver, they would like to win the race by 10 seconds. But we want to see a more fair balance where the best drivers and the best teams on a given night who race just a little bit harder, make just a little bit bigger effort.
That’s the hallmark of NASCAR. We boldly say that. We don’t talk about that’s sort of part of it. That’s the steak on the plate for us. Our fans have come to expect us to deliver on that as much as possible.
Q. Brian, in talking about the Gen-6 car, when you mention improvements, I know you talk about the measures, what other things are you looking at improvements? Are you talking about things like cars getting airborne at Talladega, avoiding that, or is it finding more speed? You look at IndyCar, where they’re talking about finding rules to increase the speed, the potential excitement there. Is finding more speed part of the improvement process or what you’re talking about?
BRIAN FRANCE: No, we’re not looking to find more speed. We have plenty of speed in the cars today. We do talk to the drivers on a frequent basis about how they feel about that particular subject.
But, look, even now, I mean, the R&D center works on all kinds of things that aren’t necessarily just creating the best rules package, including aero things that keep the car on the ground. We made big improvements on that. It allows us to feel more comfortable at Daytona and Talladega in terms of the cars at lower speeds now getting pressed to the ground when they happen to make a turn.
The R&D center, whether it’s that or any other safety element, they’ll always have a very focused view on that area, along with innovating in other areas.
Innovation is going to be a big area to us. You’ll see us announce different companies that are going to come in. This is a place to validate lots of things with technology. The car manufacturers, each one have stated goals about evolving, innovating in their own space. We have a technology partner as our series partner in Sprint.
You’re going to see us embrace technology, embrace innovation, so long as it can make the racing tighter, better and safer.
Q. Bruton Smith was looking at he was possibly moving an October race from here to Vegas. I want to know your thoughts on potentially losing a race out of the hub of North Carolina. Also want to know where you stood on your glass dashboard.
BRIAN FRANCE: First part of it, you’re correct. They have not asked us to look at realigning an event. They certainly could. That’s the process we’ve had. It’s been done.
Our preference, my preference, is to make the events where they are more successful. We have gotten a long way with our position in motorsports because we’ve had historically important events, like this weekend, that happen every year that people can count on.
That said, for one reason or another, a certain market is not performing as well, it may be a better opportunity. We’ve seen that in the last five, six years or longer. We’ll take a look at it.
My preference would be to keep the event here in Charlotte. That’s always been my preference.
On the menu of things that our group is working on, we have a couple prototypes of the glass dashboard done. We’re not entirely pleased with it right now, so we’ll keep working on it.
I suspect, as many of you know, that the car manufacturers are going to some version of a glass dashboard in their passenger cars. They would like to see us take advantage of that technology. We intend to do that.
Q. Brian, what have you seen on the television front? Are you seeing the step-up you were looking for? And what about the negotiations moving forward for television rights?
BRIAN FRANCE: We’re getting down to the last bit of it. There’s a lot of interest. That’s a very good thing. There’s a lot of interest for all premium sports programming, obviously not just us.
I have said, and my hope is to renew with the incumbents. We were very pleased to have extended FOX already, be part of FOX Sports 1. My hope is to remain where we are. But that’s why you have negotiations and discussions. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
Q. What have you seen on ratings right now?
BRIAN FRANCE: Ratings have leveled off. It depends on the storylines coming in and out of a weekend if we’re going to be up a little bit or down a little bit. Daytona was up a lot. We had a lot of good storylines.
We’re no different, as I’ve said many times, sort of gets missed many times, we’re no different from the other major sports leagues from the standpoint if they have the right matchups, they have their product going in the right way, with few exceptions, almost every league will rely on storylines and matchups.
They’ll always have big ratings, we do, too. But it’s driven by our drivers are the most popular winning races, running up front. That helps us.
We’re fine on the ratings. We’ve improved in the demographics. Do we want to have higher ratings? Absolutely. I go back to making the racing closer and tighter. That gives us better ratings. The Air Titan system gives us better ratings. We would not have been able to continue Saturday or Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway without the Titans. No mistake about that. That allowed us to race in prime time and complete the event as scheduled.
That did two things. It held our ratings a lot higher than if it would have been Monday, number one. So the networks were able to sell their spots the way they want to sell their spots, to the highest audience. And it saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in everybody’s costs – actually more than that, well over a million – when you look for the cost for the track to open back up on Monday, all the teams, different hotel rooms, our television partner from an operational standpoint to come back and shoot on Monday.
By the way, as small as it may seem, those are the kind of things that excite our partners, our television partners, both the ones that we have now and potential new partners, by looking at what we’re doing to make our product better, to hold our audience tighter, to all the things we’re doing at IMC that most of you interact with every day, digital media that we’ve put such a big emphasis on.
Daytona’s announcement on what they hope to do with their project, ISC, some other projects they have, SMI as well in terms of the capital department. That excites people about the fact that this is a big business, a big sport that is doing its best, sometimes with a difficult economy and a bunch of other things that happen, to improve this sport for all of its stakeholders, and most importantly for our fans in terms of getting the racing right.
Q. Brian, obviously you’ve talked many times about how important safety is. You’re always trying to make more innovations in safety. One thing that’s already proven is SAFER barriers work, yet there’s not SAFER barriers at every track. There’s places like Texas and Fontana where there’s no SAFER barriers. What’s preventing that from happening at every track, and how long do you think before that kind of safety improvement is everywhere?
BRIAN FRANCE: Obviously, there are SAFER barriers at every track, but there’s a pocket here or there.
We’re not the only thing that runs on a given facility. That’s number one. If it’s a motorcycle event, Moto GP, something else, which is contemplated being run at different facilities, that has to be considered.
From NASCAR’s standpoint, we look at that very carefully. We were all over the California circumstance. When we need to put additional SAFER barriers anywhere, we will do it. There’s nothing that prevents us other than that we look at this, we think we have them in all the right places, and if we don’t, we’ll make an improvement, like anything else.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about where you stand on the grain initiative? After we heard the IMC discussion on Tuesday, they talked about going after the college and children’s market. Are we best served in all the markets that we are now to attract that group? Also, do you anticipate any new venues showing up on the 2014 calendar?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think the green initiatives that we’ve gotten a lot of, the people that are working on it, Dr. Lynch, everybody else on the NASCAR team, and within the industry, we’ve had a lot of participation, have put the sport in a better position in lots of ways. You’ve heard me say it before, certainly with the younger fan, where the environment really matters to them.
We’ve gotten a number of sponsorships that have come out with companies that say, Wow, we want to be partners with you. That’s the space that we’re in.
We’re either validating with ethanol or we’re working closely with recycling with any number of companies where that’s important to them.
So we’re really pleased that we set out a number of years ago to have this as an important platform for NASCAR.
Will there be any other venues? I don’t see a new venue in ’14 at this time.
Q. Brian, given your answer to the Air Titan question earlier, the emphasis your team put on what took place at Talladega, can you explain, mostly for the benefit of fans, why that’s not available at every track, why NASCAR won’t make tracks have it?
BRIAN FRANCE: It’s available for every track. It’s available. Obviously one of the things we’re trying to do is lay out for the industry things they may not have been aware of in terms of the cost, the savings cost, that they might have in exchange for, because obviously especially a new technology, if you will, the cost to implement it any given weekend, that cost will be coming down. So there is a cost issue.
There’s also some tracks that wanted to see it be validated. We certainly tested it. We certainly felt comfortable with the claims we were going to make. I think Talladega went a long way in demonstrating that. The track operator, Grant Lynch, said we would not have completed either Saturday or Sunday, no question.
We dried the track in Talladega, then got two rainstorms that came. At one point that track dried in an hour and one minute, 61 minutes. That usually takes, under those conditions, about 2 hours and 25 minutes. Dramatic improvement.
In fairness to different tracks, they hadn’t seen that work in a real live condition. 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.
But that’s why. It just takes the industry a little time to realize that it really works, all of us to get together and implement it.
ISC is really using it quite a bit, and they’re going to get a fan advantage from that. You’ll see through the summer. I hope we don’t get any rain, but if we do, you’ll see how fast a Martinsville would get dry. It’s very surprising. It’s very good.
Q. Brian, I’m curious about driver personality, what you learned by the $25,000 fine to Denny Hamlin to what seemed like a benign comment about the new car. Drivers in the aftermath of that have said some rowdy things, and you did not levy any fines then. What did you learn and what was your philosophy there?
BRIAN FRANCE: We didn’t learn anything. Our policy is our policy. You can say rowdy things. You can say things that we don’t like at all. You can criticize us, and it happens quite a bit. As I’ve said, that policy goes further than any other sport, major sport, in this country.
What you can’t do is you can’t cross a line into the product, in any way talking about our racing product. We’re very clear.
Let me tell you, I can’t tell you how many drivers came up to me after the Denny Hamlin comment and said, You got to do that or we won’t be able to help ourselves from time to time, I’m glad you did that. They all know the line. They all know exactly where it is, because we talk about it. I talk about it directly with every one of the drivers, every one of the owners. No disputing that.
But it shouldn’t be confused, and it never should have been confused, as a policy to stifle the drivers’ personalities. It’s quite the opposite. We want them to have emotion, even if we don’t like to hear it, one thing or another. That’s the emotional part of sports and NASCAR that we would never want to take away from.
Q. When you look at the storylines that we’ve seen this year, whether it was safety issues with the wreck at Daytona, Denny’s crash, what you can and can’t say, if you look at penalties and appeals, it seems to me that NASCAR has been in a lot of headlines, but not necessarily the racing, the Gen-6, the competition. I’m wondering if that’s a concern at all, that the focus is maybe not where you want it to be.
BRIAN FRANCE: We always want it to be on the racing action and the drivers and the teams. When things are a distraction that are unavoidable, like a fine or whatever else, we would prefer that no one tried to game the system, that nobody made a mistake, we never had a fine at all. I’d agree with you. Those things run in waves a little bit sometimes historically. It is what it is.
I think we have had great storylines if you look throughout the first part of the year with different rivalries popping up, very, very close racing action at a number of venues. California in particular was just a spectacularly good event for us.
That would be our preference, would be to have all of the events focus on that. That would be true.
Q. Brian, you’ve updated the Nationwide car, the Sprint Cup car. I’m curious if there’s something coming for the trucks.
BRIAN FRANCE: Not at this time.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR