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NASCAR's Brian France, on the state of the sport. But it's what isn't said that's enticing

NASCAR's Brian France, on the state of the sport. But it's what isn't said that's enticing

NASCAR's Brian France (R) and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   NASCAR's Brian France met the media here Friday afternoon to discuss his view of the state of the sport and share some of his plans.
   Generally it was a low-keyed presentation, short on specifics, with the assembled journalists unwilling to press the sport's CEO hard on any hard issues.
   France said he was "encouraged" by some of the sport's story lines, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerging as a legitimate title challenger and Jeff Gordon as a man now desperately needing to win several races in order to make the championship playoffs.
   However a critical analysis of the 15 minutes he spoke would have to focus on France himself, more than what he said.
   First, why just 15 minutes with the man who runs this sport? That however was longer than the five minutes he offered at Charlotte in May, his last press briefing.
   As is his style, he spoke from the dais, in a somewhat formal Q&A, seemingly designed to protect him from any aggressive verbal jousting or even hard questions.
   France's presentation was in stark contrast to Bruton Smith's presentation last weekend during the Kentucky 400. Smith of course delights in battles of wits with journalists, even provoking them.



   Pretty darned nice weather in Daytona....after that Kentucky heat (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Some of the obvious questions that were not even raised with France:

   -- The NASCAR CEO was at the Montreal Formula 1 race a few weeks ago, rather than at Pocono, where his own sport was racing on new 215 mph asphalt. Why Montreal? Is there anything NASCAR-related in the works?

   -- When will the four 2013 models be tested together on a track? (And when will Chevrolet finally unwrap its 2013?) Ford unwrapped it's 2013 in January and ran it on the Charlotte track, but since then the whole project has seemed to lag.

   -- With TV a big question, is NASCAR interested in or considering any PayPerView or season-subscription options?

   -- What about reports that Fox could kill off the SPEED channel, to create an ESPN-type all-sports channel; how would that affect NASCAR and all its auxiliary programming?

   -- What about reports that Fox may want to do some preemptive bidding on the new TV contract?


    Wonder how long Kurt Busch will be able to hang in this tight behind old buddy Jimmie Johnson without overheating? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   France's key points:

   -- He reemphasized the shakeup in the Charlotte R&D operation, which he says is to give that group "more autonomy" from the at-trackside competition department. Steve O'Donnell, who has become one of the most important men in the sport, is overseeing the 'new' R&D setup.
   The gist of that R&D move, which France first revealed in May, is to improve the racing product on the track, which has been criticized this season as generally lackluster. Drivers have at times put on amazing shows, Michigan for example, and Pocono, which would seem to belie questions about the machinery itself; and drivers have said they felt fellow drivers were 'gaming the points system,' because they say they 'live and die' by the points, that making the playoffs is more important in sponsorship and job security than even winning races.

   -- He pointed to technological innovations coming, like quicker track drying and 'glass dashboards.'

   -- He plans no significant changes to the 2013 touring schedules.

   -- He said he doesn't like "gimmicky things," like mandatory timeout cautions. However none of the media followed up with the obvious points that the rule for three green-white-checkered, and the 'lucky dog' free-pass, and the confusing 'wave-around' rule, and the double-file restarts are just such gimmicky things which NASCAR has created in the last few years to deliberately spice up the action.

   -- He conceded it is "understandable" that fans don't like so many commercials during broadcasts. However he offered no particular suggestions or possible solutions.

    -- He said NASCAR.com and NASCAR's other digital/social media operations would show "a big change" in 2013. However he offered no specifics, and he wasn't asked for any.


   Matt Kenseth: the king of Daytona? He's had speed....and the touch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- When France was asked about the new 2013 stock cars, which are to have more street-car design identification, to placate Detroit, he has no specifics except to say the Daytona 500 -- where the new model is to debut next February -- is the biggest event of the season and he thus expected "quite a bit of testing here in Daytona." Again, no specifics, and no media follow-up questions.
    The new 2013s were in the wind tunnel a few days ago, though with no official word from anyone involved or from the sanctioning body. Actually there apparently is only one 2013 right now -- NASCAR itself is supplying the basic car/chassis, and teams bolt-on various body parts. That is a very weird way of testing, clearly. And there is no word yet on when each of the four car makers will actually have 2013s race-ready to put on the track for testing, or where that testing might be. Chevrolet for example hasn't even unveiled its 2013, which curiously is to be an Australian-made rear-wheel drive limited edition something or other.



   Bill Elliott, the old warhorse....and Walmart! Now that's a sponsor! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    The big cloud hanging over the whole sport -- the TV contract renegotiations.
    NASCAR signed its current television package during the booming economy of 2005-2006. And it is quite unclear if NASCAR will be able to match that blockbuster deal, or if it would have to settle for less. It is also unclear what other networks might be in the bidding. NBC, with its new NBC Sports (Versus) cable channel is expected to be a potential player.
   Fox' eight-year deal ($1.8 billion, $225 million a year, for 13 Cup races, including the Daytona 500) is up at the end of 2014. But is Fox' David Hill willing to make a pre-emptive bid, and just what would he be bidding for?
    That could be a plus for the sport.

    But then comes another major item on this front -- A Wells Fargo's securities report this week says NASCAR's next TV package contract "could be disappointing."
   What that might be based on is unclear.
    In an earlier report the investment arm pointed to logical fallout from disappointing TV ratings, which team owners can certainly attest to: "Mixed TV ratings in the first four years of NASCAR's current contract appear to be modestly negatively impacting sponsorship agreements coming up for renewal."



Greg Biffle: the fastest man in NASCAR? He's getting another Daytona shot at teammate Matt Kenseth (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Meanwhile, checking some of this sport's bottom line, Brian France's sister Lesa France Kennedy, who runs the family's International Speedway Corp. (NASDAQ: ISCA), is reporting the ISC second quarter financials.
    For March-April-May -- and the races at Phoenix, California, Martinsville, Kansas, Richmond, Talladega, and Darlington -- Kennedy  says she's "pleased" with the financial results, but describes fan attendance "mixed."
   Kennedy says the attendance issue is related to slow job and income growth among the sport's core demographic.
   And she says she doesn't foresee any great changes in that.
   However Kennedy says the company doesn't plan any major changes in strategy and says she remains committed to capital improvements in the family's 12 Sprint Cup tracks. She says ISC spent $26 million on such improvements the first six months, including the Michigan repave and Kansas repave. Over the whole year she says she expects ISC to spend $80 million to $90 million on such capital improvements; and she says ISC could spend even more on capital improvements in 2013. Already on the docket are major grandstand improvements here at Daytona International Speedway.
   About the money -- $179.6 million in total revenues for the three months -- the income included two race weekends, at Kansas and Phoenix, that were in other quarters last year, somewhat skewing any comparison. She predicts total revenue for the year to be between $610 million and $630 million.
   She said income from the sport's radio contract with SiriusXM were "lower."
   But she said income from Kansas' new Hollywood Casino was $1.4 million for the three months, and she projected $3 million for the full year. ISC owns 50 percent of the casino.
   All in all, Kennedy said second quarter net income was $13.7 million.


     Denny Hamlin: a very sore back, after a bumpy Kentucky 400, so he sat out the Daytona Nationwide race. He's hoping for no surgery. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



What's with the NASCAR Media?

I have been very disappointed by the NASCAR traveling media over the last few years. I think as a whole they are a nice bunch of people, with a few exceptions I won\\\'t name here. But COME ON guys and gals. GROW A PAIR! Ask that doofus Brian and the other honchos in NASCAR some real questions. Press them on the issues, hold their feet to the fire. Make them damn uncomfortable. Another words, do your damn jobs.

I\\\'ve never seen such a bunch of wusses in my life as the majority of the present media.

I subscribed to Winston Cup Scene and it\\\'s various iterations over the years. I\\\'m used to writers like Deb Williams, Joe Whitlock, and Steve Waid, etc. Now those people could write and ask the hard questions. Mike, you\\\'re included in this group also.

All we get now is fluff from Brian, and fluff from most of the media. I\\\'m seriously disappointed in you guys and am calling you out to DO YOUR DAMN JOB and quit being so scared of NASCAR. Yeah, I know. You\\\'re worried about your Hard Card being pulled or something. Boo-hoo! Quit being France, Helton, Pemberton, et el suck ups and do some real reporting.

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