Breaking Down Brian France's First Decade as NASCAR's CEO
Brian France's 10th anniversary as NASCAR's Chairman and CEO came and went last month. And in typical France fashion, the milestone was marked with subdued notoriety and little fanfare.
Brian's father, Bill France Jr., yielded the keys to the sanctioning body and the sport to his only son in 2003 when the elder France became ill. The man known as "Little Bill" passed away in 2007.
Even before he began his current tenure as NASCAR's leader, Brian France played a pivotal role in developing the sport into what it is today, including devising the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, overseeing the succession of R.J. Reynolds' sponsorship with the Winston Cup to the Nextel Cup and then the Sprint Cup and laying the groundwork for several national TV packages that have followed and brought in more than $12 billion to the sport's coffers.
NASCAR remains one of the most-watched sports on television and has weathered a difficult financial climate for the past six seasons.
Let's take a look at France's tenure at NASCAR's helm—the good and bad—as well as look ahead to what the future potentially holds for the sanctioning body, the sport and France himself.
Brian France's accomplishments far exceed the disappointments by a huge margin. That's the sign of a good leader, someone who doesn't tout all of his lofty achievements and works diligently to minimize mistakes or to learn from those mistakes already made.
France's biggest accomplishments include the following:
* Established the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a 10-race playoff format that not only enhanced competition within the sport, but devised a system wherein drivers must be at their absolute best in all 10 races to have any chance at the championship. Even just one bad race—as Matt Kenseth will attest to after the fall race at Phoenix this past season—can be the difference between winning the championship and coming in second.
* Began a program of seating capacity contraction that will once again promise nearly sold out tracks. Admittedly, NASCAR is gaining by subtracting, but even a race that draws, say, 75,000 fans instead of 100,000 is still going to be a success at the box office.
* Oversaw NASCAR's safety initiatives, which have been the most innovative in all of the major motorsports series—including mandating head and neck restraints and cushioned "soft walls" to lessen the impact of crashes, overseeing the advancement of black box technology to record what's going on inside a race car (especially in crashes) and a making commitment to keeping race cars and trucks as safe as they can possibly be.
* In that same vein, safety is unprecedented in the sport. No driver has died in a NASCAR major series race since the late Dale Earnhardt succumbed to injuries from a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. What's more, NASCAR is the only major motorsports series in the world that has not lost a driver to a crash-related death in more than a decade.
* Saw the first African-American driver win a major series race for the first time in nearly 50 years, when Darrell Wallace Jr. won the fall Trucks race at Martinsville this past season. Wallace's win is further affirmation of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity, which France has championed even before he became its CEO and chairman.
* Helped NASCAR become the leading sports league with a green initiative that stretched from fuel to recycling.
* Nine of the last 10 Cup championships have been decided at Homestead in the season finale.
* Brought back racing on dirt at Eldora Speedway for Trucks Series this past season. NASCAR has also returned to race at Rockingham Speedway and added tracks to both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, including road courses at Road America, Mid-Ohio and near Montreal.
* Attracted Nextel (eventually succeeded by Sprint through a merger) to assume title rights of the sport's biggest series after R.J. Reynolds ended its 30-year Winston Cup run following the 2003 season.
* Negotiated multibillion TV deals in 2001 with Fox, Turner and NBC; did so again in 2007 with Fox, ESPN and Turner; and did so again in 2013, extending Fox through 2022 and beginning a new deal with NBC that starts in 2015.
* Oversaw development of and the debut of the highly praised and competitive Generation 6 car in 2013. It was a marked improvement over its predecessor, the so-called Car of Tomorrow.
* Was at the helm of the sport during the entire Jimmie Johnson era, which saw Johnson win six championships in eight years. JJ is now just one championship away from tying the legendary Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships ever by a driver (seven each).
* Convinced Danica Patrick to leave IndyCar and to race in NASCAR. Patrick has become the most high-profile female driver in NASCAR history (along with Janet Guthrie in the mid-1970s). The sport has now attracted a greater female and youthful audience than ever before.
* Has indirectly helped Dale Earnhardt Jr. win coveted Most Popular Driver status in voting by fans for a record 11 consecutive seasons.
* Reacquired NASCAR.com and oversaw its relaunch as the sport's top purveyor of NASCAR information.
* Oversaw the implementation of NASCAR's progressive integrated marketing and communications initiative that has helped draw together all elements of the NASCAR business model to form greater cooperation, teamwork and achievements in marketing, public relations, digital efforts and more.
Brian France is human. He makes mistakes on occasion. But the sign of an effective leader is to learn and go forward from those mistakes, and France has indeed done that.
That's why his shortcomings as NASCAR's top boss have been relatively few. And when those shortcomings came to light, France learned from them and made vows to not only correct them but to turn negatives into positives.
Here's the short list of France's shortcomings or disappointments as NASCAR's CEO and chairman:
* France tried to do the right thing by introducing a state of the art car late in the 2007 season—introducing it to a full-time schedule in 2008, a full season sooner than expected—with the so-called Car of Tomorrow. Disdain of the car was significant among fans, drivers, team owners and media.
To their credit, France and NASCAR developed the CoT to make racing more equal and bring greater parity to the sport, not to mention to save teams money (which never really seemed to happen). Still, France learned a great deal from the CoT debacle, and that brought about the car's highly praised successor in 2013, the Generation-6 car.
* In 2013, France suffered through one of the biggest scandals in the sport's history, the alleged manipulation of a race finish in the final qualifying race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup this past September at Richmond. While it took a few days to sort through everything that happened—not to mention a major media and fan outcry demanding action—France indeed delivered on that action by sanctioning Michael Waltrip Racing with the biggest fine in NASCAR history ($300,000), indefinitely suspending MWR's general manager Ty Norris and disqualifying driver Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase.
He also took the unprecedented action of adding a 13th driver to the Chase for the first time to essentially compensate for the scandal.
To his credit, France took action that needed to be done, took the heat from massive criticism and did his best to salvage an almost unsalvageable situation. The NFL's Roger Goodell could learn something from the whole fiasco and how France remedied it to the best of his ability.
* France expressed interest in possibly running an NFL team back in 2005, which immediately drew criticism and questions from fans, media, sponsors and team owners about his long-term commitment as NASCAR's leader. He has since scaled back his designs on owning an NFL team and has dedicated himself to running NASCAR with his full attention. Whether he'll oversee the sport for more than three decades like his father did remains to be seen. But for right now, it doesn't appear France is going anywhere anytime soon.
* His divorce battle with ex-wife Megan was both contentious and highly publicized, even with court-ordered sealing of records and the like. Finally, after more than two years, both sides reached an amicable agreement that was approved by the court.
* Finally, France had to endure criticism for the way he handled the indefinite suspension of popular driver Jeremy Mayfield for his violation of NASCAR's drug abuse policy. He took a lot of heat from fans and media, but he stuck to his guns, insisting Mayfield would be welcomed back to the sport if he would agree to go through the prescribed treatment program. To this day, Mayfield has failed to do so; meanwhile, others, like A.J. Allmendinger, have gone through the program and had their racing privileges reinstated.
If Brian France were to walk away as NASCAR's boss—and we're not saying that's likely to happen any time soon—he would leave the organization in excellent shape. Granted, the sport and sanctioning body have endured a five-year financial downturn directly tied to the U.S. economy, but France's efforts have helped minimize some of the damage that could have occurred had it not been for austerity measures, smart investment and, essentially, keeping watch on virtually every measure.
When NBC returns in 2015 to televise nearly two-thirds of each Sprint Cup season (23 of 36 races) plus the Nationwide Series, it will be yet another feather in France's hat. The revenue from that deal, a reported $4.4 billion over 10 years, plus the 30 percent boost in revenue from Fox Sports to televise the seasons' first 13 races through 2022, will leave NASCAR in perhaps some of its best financial shape ever.
France will continue to oversee the evolution of the Generation-6 car, but first and foremost will be NASCAR's No. 1 mandate on safety above all else.
We can also expect likely changes beginning in 2015, with perhaps a shakeup of the tracks that currently make up the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the potential addition of one or two new tracks (with races taken away from other tracks if necessary), added emphasis on growing interest in NASCAR internationally and Sprint extending its current run as title rights sponsor past 2018.
Bottom line, France has minimized damage that could have significantly hurt NASCAR during the most trying of economic times, learned from mistakes and built upon those mistakes to take the sport on a path back to its greatest glory days of the late 1990s through 2006.
The next Golden Era of NASCAR is likely on the horizon. It may take another year or two or three to get there, but France's leadership will continue driving the sport forward without having to look too much in its rear-view mirror to see if anything is catching it.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
Catch me this Sunday on "The Backstretch" from Noon to 3 pm ET on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Channel 90.
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