On Saturday at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, continued the yearly tradition of speaking to the media near the halfway point of the season with what has become known as his “State of the Sport” address. This time around, France discussed the renovations going on at Daytona, the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, and race attendance, among other things. Here’s what he had to say:
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, other than the rain in particular here at Daytona when we started back in February and then the first four or five events, that was unfortunate for our fans and for ourselves, but other than that, the format, and I think we can all see the benefits of changing the winning importance, and it in fact has changed the racing on the track. There’s no question about it. The drivers are telling us that. They’re taking different kind of chances. They’re going for wins when they would have played it safe otherwise. And I think that’s just going to get more intense as we close in on Richmond and we seed the field here.
So we’re very pleased with it, and we’ve made, of course, a couple of changes to what we call the rules packages that the teams compete with. We’re not where we want to be on that, and we’re embarking on a lot of work, a lot of science, technology and innovation led by Gene Stefanyshyn to get the very best racing product that we can on all of the tracks, and that’s obviously a fundamental goal and responsibility at NASCAR.
The difference is how we’re approaching it, and so we expect the racing to continue to get better and we certainly like the format, and I for one, and I think most people are very excited and interested to see how the Chase is going to play out this year.
Q. Obviously the changes here at Daytona are becoming very, very obvious and spectacular we might say. Your impressions of Daytona Rising and what it really means for the entire sport.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I had a chance, of course, to see a lot of the design work and the amenities that will ultimately come online, and now of course you’re seeing the steel and the infrastructure. But I think when it’s all said and done, as Joie says quite frequently, the only sports stadium for a racetrack in the country, our fans will really appreciate those benefits, the escalators, the social media zones and all the rest.
Listen, when we kick off our season, it’s the biggest event, so it needs to be a spectacular place to come for our fans, and that doesn’t even take into account the development that’s being contemplated across the street which will be another huge benefit for our fans and everybody else in the industry when they come to Daytona twice a year.
Q. I know you’re a big sports fan, Brian, and I don’t know if you’ve been following the World Cup at all or if you’ve been aware of the way it’s resonated or captivated the country. Has anything about it resonated with you and could apply in a way that maybe NASCAR fans could get excited and do watch parties or perhaps other angles of it have resonated with you?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, my experience with that is it’s always organic. You can try to do some things everybody does, but when there’s sort of a wave of energy that gets created, and the Olympics brings that right and certainly the World Cup we saw that a few years with the Women’s World Cup, and that was terrific.
Good for them, and it’s been fun to watch.
Q. This season Kyle Busch has won every single truck race he’s entered, and in the Nationwide Series there’s been a lot of Cup guys as usual winning those races, and in many cases, for lack of a better term, stinking up the show. Has there been any more thought, I know there was some discussion earlier in the year, has there been any thought to putting a cap or limitation on Cup driver participation in the lower series?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, you know, that’s always a question. When a Cup driver gets in and has a lot of success, Mark Martin did that for a long time in the Nationwide, and there’s always that balance, but where we usually come out on that is that the younger drivers gain valuable experience even if somebody gets on a run and tends to win more events than is normal.
So we try to balance that out, but we lean on the side of the greater experience for the younger drivers to get a chance to compete against, and also for our fans to want to watch the elite drivers not just on Sundays. We tend to let the events unfold the way they unfold.
Q. Are you contemplating any changes to the percentage allocation of TV money as far as distribution to tracks and teams or distribution among the three national series, and if you are can you elaborate?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we are looking at that because we start, of course, a new TV agreement beginning next year so naturally we are rethinking that a little bit, and in particular with the Nationwide teams, as well. But that’ll be something that we will consider and we will look at to make sure that the appropriate values are where they need to be.
Q. Denis McGlynn had mentioned in a story about attendance problems a while back that track revenue had become predominantly, I think he used the term media-based. Promoters will always worry about selling tickets, but with the TV package seemingly really healthy, does the series at large worry about empty grandstands except for the fact it doesn’t look good on television?
BRIAN FRANCE: Sure, we do, and listen, that’s one of the reasons Daytona is making a big investment, to accomplish that, and a lot of other tracks are, too. Some markets are just more challenged. Some are doing better than they did last year, so it’s a mixed bag a little bit. Balanced attendance is up.
Now, there are some markets that have had a lot of pressure, and Dover is one of those. But it’s very important because you’ve got to remember something, too: Unfortunately for our industry, the speedways don’t enjoy the public financing component that almost all major sports enjoy. That’s a big difference. So Daytona’s $400 million, and it’ll be more than that when it’s all said and done, when you factor all that in, that’s private — they have to make those investments. We’re hoping that that gets better balanced over time; in other words, that communities, local governments and so on and states will help grow these facilities like they do other stadiums and arenas.
Q. Brian, there hasn’t been really an owner that’s been able to come in and have sustained success, wins or constantly up at the front maybe since Michael Waltrip several years ago. Obviously earlier this year there was an owner that had come in recently that had to pull out. Is there a concern on NASCAR’s behalf about who’s coming in or trying to get ownership, new people to come into the sport, and what can be done to invite it because it seems like it is a very high ceiling, high barrier to entry.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I’d agree with that, and I think that that’s part of, when we talk about rules packages that get us better racing, we’re also talking about lowering the barrier to entry. When we talk about the engine issue, which we’ve talked about lowering horsepower or whatever we’re going to do, we’re also talking about making sure that that engine is relevant to a new manufacturer who may in the current situation, we’re not. Wherever you turn and whatever policies that we’re trying to do, and we don’t always get this right, and some of these are — all of them are complicated and some of them take a long time to turn around and get things in the proper order that we want.
But lowering the cost of racing, getting parity where teams can come in and have success, and making ourselves more relevant to manufacturers and partners is all part of the NASCAR business model.
Q. Are you seeing any progress?
BRIAN FRANCE: It’s been slow; it’s hard. It’s slow and it’s hard, and it’s gotten more complicated. That’s why we’re tackling the rules packages in the manner that we are. I was just in an hour-long presentation by Gene Stefanyshyn, and it was remarkably different talking about the rules of the future on all of this stuff. It was all science, all what really costs what, what really can work and give us the best outcomes in terms of giving more drivers an opportunity to race hard, compete well, all those things that we’re chasing and striving to all the time.
There was no armchair discussion or a hunch that this might be a good direction for us to go. It was very, very analytical, and that’s exactly why we brought him in, and that’s exactly why we’re resourcing whatever he needs to be successful, and we’re going to make a lot of progress as fast as we can.
Q. Recently there was talk about changing the fan experience with regards to the souvenir row. Is there an inherent danger of changing that dynamic at this point, or moving forward how would you do that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we are looking at that, and that’s one of the benefits we have with the licensing trust that got formed a couple years ago is it allows us to look at that more carefully. We really want to have higher quality merchandise available in more places and make it more convenient for our fans, and just how that gets done, the tracks and the teams and everybody else will come together and figure that out, but we do think there’s probably some newer, better ways that we can merchandise to our fans.
Q. You mentioned I guess a question specifically about Dover but in a broader sense some markets are just challenged. How long do those markets get to be challenged before you have to take a harder look at if they can sustain holding multiple races?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, we don’t have a timetable on that, and we don’t like to think of it that way. We like to think that historically important events work themselves out over time, and some of that is on us, too. I mean, we’ve got to constantly figure out how to make our racing tighter, better. I mean, that’s why I spent so much time today telling you that we are zeroed in on that.
I think we don’t put a timeline on that. We’re working with our track operators, the ones that have more challenges than others, and we’ll just have to work through it and try to get a good outcome.
Q. You mentioned that the business model of NASCAR, and we’ve seen the last couple weeks there have been some promotions and there’s also been news of some restructuring and a little bit of shedding of employees. We know financially NASCAR is well-positioned with the TV contract, so can you shed any light on what’s going on there? Is there a shift in where the IEP is going or just why the recent reorganization in NASCAR?
BRIAN FRANCE: It’s always difficult when you change things around and you combine some things, departments or you change direction a little bit, and that’s kind of where we are with what happened recently. But we’re on a nice, steady ground, and sponsorship is coming back for us thankfully. That was obviously a hard hit in the recession. The business is sound, and we’re going forward.
Q. Can you talk about Daytona Rising just a little bit more? Did you have any input into the structure here? Are they keeping you advised on how it’s progressing?
BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, of course, and I’m obviously on the board of ISC, and it interests me, certain projects that they do. I don’t go through every one of them, but this one I have, and I’ve seen the outside experts that they’ve brought in to execute the plan, and they’re some of the country’s best architects and engineers, have done stadiums all over the country. So I think they’ve kept me up to speed, and I’m really excited about it.
Usually I have a lot of comments to make when I get through with a presentation, and I didn’t have a lot because they really had thought about every little detail, and I’m sure that there’ll be something that they miss, but they’re very thorough, and it’s a great project.
Q. Once this Daytona Rising project is complete, can you look to other promoters and track operators and go, okay, this is what your track needs to look like five years from now, ten years from now?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think every track has to have its own identity, and it has to do what it thinks is important in the marketplace that they compete in. Now, I think will it be something that other tracks want to emulate? I think it will. I think like any good idea that works, assuming that it works and it creates more interest, gives the race fan, the most important thing, a better experience so they want to come back more often for more events, then I am certain that other tracks will want to look at that business plan.
Q. Just wondering if you had any concrete interest from any other manufacturers and the status of the Nationwide sponsorship.
BRIAN FRANCE: There is interest, always a manufacturer or two taking a look at us simply because we’re the largest form of motorsports in North America, and this is a big car market. Nothing certainly imminent there.
And on the Nationwide sponsorship, very good interest. I think in the coming weeks we’ll be getting to the end of that process, and we will be in very good shape when the dust settles there.
Q. Now that we are guaranteed to have a championship race in the last race of the season in the Cup Series with the new format, how much thought has there been given, Brian, to moving that race around, making it more of a Super Bowl type thing, or does the deal between Ford and Homestead Miami Speedway kind of preclude that for maybe the next five or ten years?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I know when you talk to the Ford people and you talk to people at ISC, at Homestead, they want to do whatever makes sense for that sponsorship. While yes, it’s Ford obviously for the finale down at Homestead, they’re partners with us in every event. There’s nothing to preclude a directional change down the road.
But historically we’ve liked the fact that to do it in South Florida, the weather is great that time of year obviously, it’s a good market for us, and the track, and this is an important thing, is by any definition, the best mile-and-a-half track that the drivers believe that they have — that they can really race hard and compete hard, and that matters, too, right. It’s a very important thing.
When you factor all those things in, we’re going to be in Homestead for the foreseeable future.
Q. Could you kind of take the fans through the process that you and NASCAR went through, the Chase changes, going to 16 and then changing the last 10? It must have been quite a process to find something that worked.
BRIAN FRANCE: You know, it always is. The best way to say it is we weren’t pleased with the direction of drivers, and it was understandable, by the way, so it wasn’t anything that anybody did wrong. But we were creating a formula for points racing, period, and that wasn’t good in qualifying for the Chase, and it wasn’t good when we got to the Chase. We wanted to change that, and we also wanted to fix a couple things. One of them was that we didn’t want to have a bad race or two take somebody out early on in the Chase, which has happened every year.
So you’re never out until the transfer race comes and then you get a win and you’re back in. So we wanted a format that accomplished all those goals, and most importantly got the drivers to take chances, race harder because they can. They don’t have to worry about a, per se, mistake or something like that, and we saw too many times down the stretch where there was a chance to go for a win but understandably in the old format no need to risk that if you’re comfortably in the Chase or if our on the bubble, even more important not to risk that, and we thought it was important to get racing changed around a little bit back to a different era, and we’re really pleased that — you’re always worried about unintended consequences more than you are is it going to achieve the goals. It’s going to achieve the goals, but what else did we miss that might be a negative, and we haven’t found that yet thankfully.
Q. Chris Myers from FOX tweeted earlier today speculating that maybe Darlington might be moved to the second race of the year. Curious, is that something that you are looking at and how much change do you expect in the 2015 schedule?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, it’s a unique time because we’re starting with a new television partner coming obviously next year. There’s been some weather issues, as you well know, in the last several years at Bristol as an example, and then some other things that we would naturally look at as we go along in the schedule, and now that the Chase format is changed, there’s additional interest to move from one place to another.
So there will be a robust discussion that will be for those reasons a more comprehensive look at what the best schedule will look like. I don’t have any of the details today. We’ll be releasing that in September, but it’s fair to say that there’s a robust discussion within the stakeholders to come up with the best schedule that we can for 2015 and beyond.
Q. Cup drivers have won the last two Nationwide races, and there hasn’t been that same outrage that maybe like when a Kyle Busch wins in the lower series, so when you talk about limiting the number of times Cup guys can drive in lower series, is that really a Kyle Busch issue, or is it more of a Cup driver issue?
BRIAN FRANCE: No, it’s never an individual issue. Look, I said earlier we have to balance that. It’s true that if a Cup driver dominates in a lower division, it’s understandable why people will shake their head, and we understand that. As I said, we balance that against the idea that fans like to see the younger drivers with the veterans, and the younger drivers, most of them, almost all of them, like to figure out where they’re at on the skill curve.
So that’s good for them to compete against, and it’s unique to motorsports. That’s how it’s always been. But we have to balance all this, and we’ll do the best we can as we go along.
Q. TV ratings and viewership have been down for a majority of the races this year. Are you concerned about that at all?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, they’re down for obvious reasons. You have a very low number at Daytona simply because of running the entire day and not finishing in the evening and then lots of rain and lots of World Cup competition and other things. But when you go around and really look at it and look at all the digital interests that we have today on devices, and that’s not obviously scored currently, we’re real pleased with that. When you combine it all up, we’re actually — we’re not off that much even with our challenges. We’re still not off that much, and we’ve carried, I think, either one or two almost every weekend that we go in, I think seven or eight times we were No. 1 coming in and out of the weekend on television, 7 million viewers a week on average. We’re pleased with our — we’re never pleased when our ratings aren’t growing at the rate we would like, but we understand that circumstances will always have us going one way or the other from time to time.
Q. With Iowa Speedway, at what point do you look at considering that for a Cup track? How do you assess the performance, and at what point also do you look at it in terms of an international event for your top series or returning for the Nationwide Series to an international venue?
BRIAN FRANCE: The first question on Iowa, we don’t have plans for a Cup date there. We’re working with the state representatives and others to help us build racing in Iowa to the highest level that we can, and they’re doing a great job with us, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the entire effort that the communities have made in and around Iowa.
But they’ve got a nice full schedule with IndyCar and Nationwide, and I think that’s where that remains.
Internationally, we’ve always liked when we’ve had opportunities to go to Montreal or Mexico City or even abroad for exhibition events, and when those opportunities present, we will certainly want to look at them.
Q. Are there any plans for any of those in the immediate future?
BRIAN FRANCE: Not in the immediate future, but that sort of changes around, as well, as we go down the road. So we’ll have to see.