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Brian France: looking toward NASCAR 2012, with an 'aggressive' game plan

  Brian France, inducting Cale Yarborough in the new Hall of Fame (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  The greatest NASCAR season ever?
  Certainly there is a sense that 2011 might well have been a turning point in this sport's evolution.
  Graphing the popularity of stock car racing over the past 60 years, the ups and the downs, is an interesting project, tied in no small part to Detroit of course, though at times lately that link has seemed too much ignored.

   Now that link is expanding – witness the new 2013 stock car project, and the sport's electronic fuel injection project.
  Reviewing Brian France's recent 'state of the sport,' the NASCAR CEO not only offers a wide-ranging view of where he sees the sport heading and where he wants to push the sport, but he also offers some big-picture optimism too.
  He is vowing "to get more aggressive" in trying to expand the sport, looking for "a new demographic, whether it be a younger demographic or more diverse."
  France has an optimistic game plan.
  And with billion-dollar negotiations on a new TV package on the front burner -- for France, for his uncle Jim France, for his sister Lesa France Kennedy, and for another major stockholder in this sport, Bruton Smith – the clock is ticking.

NASCAR's Brian France is giving Detroit its head with the new 2013 stocker. This is Ford's first-look, with Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  But first….the greatest NASCAR season ever?
  Now that's an interesting question, considering the high drama over the many years this sport has been playing across America.
  The 1992 season springs quickly to mind. All the different winners, the unpredictability…and then the tense final miles of the final race of the campaign, and Alan Kulwicki's surprise rally to the championship.
  Maybe 1959, the season that Daytona opened…with that photo-finish (captured historically by T. Taylor Warren) that didn't uncover the real winner until days later.
  How about 1963, and Junior Johnson's 'mystery' engine.
  Or 1964, and Fearless Freddie Lorenzen.
  The 1969 season was certainly filled with big wins and hot controversy.
  Maybe the 1978 season….maybe 1979 and that snowy Daytona 500 Sunday…maybe 1984…1987 for sure deserves some votes, fast and chilling.
  And who can forget 1994, the year that Indianapolis welcomed NASCAR.
  Or pick any of Dale Earnhardt's championship seasons: 1980, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994….
  Maybe 1997, with the kickoff to the great NASCAR expansion, to Texas, and the return to Los Angeles…
  Yes, NASCAR has enjoyed some very dramatic and exciting seasons over the years.
   But seldom, if ever, has the incredibly long stock car racing season – February through late November – been filled with more twists and turns than 2011.

   The good ol' NASCAR carburetor, now heading into the history books (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Right from Trevor Bayne's improbable and delightful victory in the opening Daytona 500, just after Valentine's Day, right through Tony Stewart's nail-biting championship win over Carl Edwards four days before Thanksgiving, the 2011 NASCAR tour was packed with plenty of Bling!
   More Danica Patrick….secret fines….fights inside the NASCAR hauler….a series of unexpected victories…more escapades by the increasingly notorious Busch brothers….
   Heck, Edwards even leaped off the top of the tallest building in Las Vegas.
   So France could well make a solid case for NASCAR 2011 as the best season ever.
   Certainly he has some reason to stand back, smile and make that case.
   The sport's boss says it was "fantastic to have 18 different winners in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, including five for the first time."
   He calls the Stewart-versus-Edwards Homestead finale "an incredible show.
   "In the end, it came down to race wins, and that's exactly how it should be."
   Next up, the Daytona 500, with SpeedWeeks opening this week with Thursday's annual Media Day mob scene.
   And with 10 different winners in the past 10 500s – Bayne, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, and Ward Burton – it might be a tough call to predict this Daytona.



That red thing: electronic fuel injection (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   All is not roses, though. "The economic climate around the country is still difficult, still presents challenges for everyone in the industry," France concedes.
   "I don't anticipate short fields, but obviously a very difficult economy that's lasted so long has had an effect.
  "But we're pleased with some of the positive signs we began to see improve last year: ratings increases across all of our national series…gains in attendance at a number of venues, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami and Phoenix…and the announcement that Sprint will be part of our series entitlement sponsor for a long, long time."

  Part of France' game plan for 2012 is obvious: "to strengthen our position in advance of upcoming TV negotiations."
  Clearly one nice plus would be for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to break out of his long slump. Again he's been voted the sport's most popular driver, despite a lengthy losing streak. A win in the kickoff Daytona 500 would be just the tonic France would like.
  But a larger piece to that puzzle seems to be NASCAR's big move toward tighter relations with car makers. France describes it this way: "the collaborative   effort between NASCAR, the manufacturers and the race teams is unprecedented."
    (It doesn't need to be pointed out that General Motors, for example, is spending more than $4 billion a year on TV ads, making it, along with Ford, Toyota and Dodge, a major player in the TV games.)
   Two points here: the 2013 NASCAR stocker, with new, more Detroit-friendly, design cues, and electronic fuel injection, to be used this season in Sprint Cup cars at every race, replacing the venerable carburetor.
  And one potentially interesting idea being studied by NASCAR is how to expand the Grand-Am sports car series (since 2009 officially part of NASCAR) to promote stock car racing, perhaps with some type of road racing or street racing aspect for smaller Detroit models. Where that project goes, and how fast, is unclear. But it would certainly be another plus for the NASCAR-Detroit relationship.

    Kyle Petty, one of the few TV announcers willing to speak his peace (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   In the 2013 project NASCAR, apparently to a surprising degree, has delegated much of the redesign to the car makers themselves, instead of dictating, as it did with the controversial car-of-tomorrow. Of course that project has only been underway for less than a year, and it remains to be seen how long NASCAR officials can keep hands off. And it would be nice to see more promotion, by Detroit and NASCAR, of the new project, which seems so promising a marketing angle for the sport, especially after all the continued criticism of the look-a-like COTs.
   Meanwhile, NASCAR's unexpected sensitivity (as seen in that $50,000 fine levied on Brad Keselowski) to criticism of the switch to fuel injection might seem overkill, particularly since any major new technology like that should logically be expected to have birthing issues. Several top crewmen have reported stern warnings from NASCAR not to criticize the fuel injection project. NASCAR executives insist there is no official mandate that teams refrain from criticizing EFI, under pain of severe repercussions; however crewmen insist otherwise.
   From on-track performance, there is no real reason to switch from venerable carburetors to more modern electronic fuel injection. In fact the possibilities for tinkering with EFI systems would appear to be considerable.
   For years NASCAR resisted letting too much technology like this into this sport, fearful of teams playing tricks. However stock car teams and NASCAR execs now seem confident that the new EFI systems can be policed, and that dreaded traction control will not become an issue.

   The NASCAR TV command booth: is this where that new Daytona two-car draft gets lost in translation? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   One curious twist – NASCAR is apparently going to let teams look at many of the data point 'mappings' of rivals. If so, that would be akin to what NASCAR did with high-tech shocks, when some teams appeared to be gaining a significant edge over others – NASCAR, post-race, simply ordered teams to tear down their shocks for garage-wide inspection.
   (Of course there could be a good case made that traction control is just as modern as EFI on passenger cars and would make for better racing, but that's an issue for another day.)
   France is pushing EFI hard, signing big sponsorship contracts with companies like McLaren, and warning drivers and crews not to complain about EFI,
"because it's the next important step in making the cars on the track more like the production cars the fans drive every day.
   "It also helps us with smart technology at just the right time.
   "Fuel injection is no small thing to introduce, although we've been working on it for a couple years.
   "But we're pretty confident in what we've chosen; it's been tested pretty carefully. We will be in good shape.  If we're not, then we'll look at that. 
    "But we're pretty confident that we've got the right package."


X-Gamer Travis Pastrana: But can he drive a stock car? Maybe that's not the real question (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    One issue here: teams say that while the computer downloads from the EFI systems can indeed make problems clearer for them, they note that during a race if an engine issue occurs they will likely have to take the car behind the wall for lengthy analysis….where with carburetors there is an easier, clearer line of attack to in-race engine issues.
    What France is thinking, though, is logical: "Fuel injection excites the manufacturers, it excites technology companies.
    "And (because of that) our expectation is the car manufacturers are going to increase their support for the teams, increase their activation, which is great for all of us.
   "We're going to be careful with technology, in terms of what it does, the cost for the teams.
    "But we're going to have to look differently at not only the car companies but all the other technology companies who want to feel this is a place that showcases some of that technology.
    "So to attract new companies to the sport, we will have to take a bit of a different view on that."
   Gosh, isn't that something legendary Robert Yates has been preaching for years.....
    One reason for all this now, France says, is NASCAR has just completed "an 18-month deep examination of our industry," which he calls "significant," leading to a five-year plan for the sport:
   "The goal of this is to help us better serve our great fans, grow our audience and ensure that our sport stays relevant, vibrant and highly valuable to our sponsors and other partners."


NASCAR's Brian France: can't say he's not willing to make big changes and take big gambles (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Two more items to this point: Travis Pastrana and Danica Patrick.
   They might not be great racers but they certainly reach to highly desirable demographics. Now just how good a driver Patrick really is may not be the real issue; and just how well Pastrana might make the transition from X-games star to stock car racer likewise may not be the real issue. The two may simply be new variants of the game 'if you can bring a sponsor, you can get a ride:' if you can bring along a good demographic, you can get a ride.
   Which naturally raises the obvious issue: where is NASCAR's next Wendell Scott?
   It's been nearly 50 years since Scott's now historic NASCAR win, back in 1963.
   France kicked off a major NASCAR diversity program some 10 years ago, and many promising newcomers have been groomed over the years, though not with any great success on the track, certainly not at major league levels. And the current U.S. economic slump has hit hard at that project. Companies are cutting back on established teams with veteran drivers, and sponsorships for promising but still unknown newcomers is in short supply.
   Nevertheless France says he's "confident" the diversity program will eventually pay off for the sport.
   Point to consider here: the NBA has scheduled its annual All-star game the same day as the Daytona 500, and just up the road in Orlando.
   Whatever happened to the Magic Johnson-NASCAR synergies?
  Another issue still to be resolved is the success of the two-car draft at repaved Daytona and Talladega. The racing at those two tracks was amazing last season, and quite unpredictable…and many drivers consider it much safer than the big pack racing. It would seem hard to argue that Daytona and Talladega in 2011 had some great, classic finishes.
   However France, pointing to surveys that show fan dissatisfaction, has had his men working hard to find ways to break up the two-car packs "and return it to a more traditional style of racing on those superspeedways."
   To be honest, NASCAR officials were blind-sided by the two-car draft, and then unable to deal with it. But more importantly TV was – and this is remarkable, really – unable to figure out how to adequately cover the new form of racing visually, and TV's on-camera talent seemed at a loss too, unable to analyze it adequately for viewers.
   Now NASCAR officials seem stuck in a plan to try to reverse the laws of physics. Or at least persuade disgruntled fans that they are trying to change the on-track dynamics.

   At the heart of all this, though, is a very basic question, if unasked:
   Just how relevant is NASCAR in the great American cultural landscape?
   Stepping outside the forest, NASCAR's 'relevancy' is debatable.
   This sport was hot stuff, really hot stuff from 1994 through 2005.
   But since then, well NASCAR execs have made what in retrospect looks like some significant mistakes – many of those mistakes were made in the goal of expanding the sport by attracting new demographics, but which turned out to anger much of the sport's traditional, if aging, fan base.
   It would be nice at this point of this debate to have journalist David Poole still around to weigh in. However he's gone, and sadly so are virtually all veteran NASCAR journalist, victims of the collapsing newspaper industry.
   Finding journalists still in this sport who are independent of the business game itself is difficult….which means finding independent analysis of all this is not easy.
   And many of the journalists still in this sport are stuck 'in the bubble,' rather than dispassionate observers of the NASCAR scene.
   Just remember all this when SpeedWeeks kicks off in a few days with all that hoopla and general babble.


The Daytona brain trust: the NASCAR Frances, Brian, Lesa and Jim (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Why another article on this

Why another article on this disconnected supposed leader that is so deep in BS and head in the clouds thinking. If he can't even attend the races that have made him a millionaire how can anyone think he actually has a clue. He is just as out of touch as is that phony smile in the photo.

Fresh air

Fresh air .
Mike, your column is one that is a breath of fresh air. Not that I always agree with you, but I feel you are one of the few that are not under the iron grip of NASCAR administrators. It is almost sickening to read the comments of some writers and racers that never raise more than token criticisms of NASCAR. I am not a fan of Keselowski, but I did warm to him for stating the facts in that interview. But, due to the NASCAR punishments and threats, we will probably never get to hear an open discussion of their decisions again.

Mike, there are a LOT of

Mike, there are a LOT of times in the last two years I've wished David was around to hear his opinion on something going on in NASCAR. I didn't always agree with him but when he would explain his opinions I always at least understood where he was coming from. Other than "The Daly Planet" and yourself I'm not sure where else to find objective "Reporting" on the sport. The lack of objectivity has turned me off some of Sirius Radio, at this point I only listen to Chocolate, Moody and Pat Patterson since even though I may not always agree I understand the WHY behind their view. Brian France saying he has commissioned a Study and has a plan doesn't give me any confidence. I saw him recently doing a business interview where he looked less clueless than he normally looks talking about racing, so maybe he's not really as bad in the boardroom as he is trying to talk about the sport that earns him his riches. I really wish newspapers had found a way to monetize their sports writers in a way they could continue to do what had provided the richness the sport had in the "Glory Days" of my youth the 70s and 80s. I read every word of Winston Cup Scene, Speedway Scene and Speedway News and it was the richness of those writing that made those days the glory days. I hear about how "the racing wasn't better...there were 2 cars on the lead lap" but when i listened on radio or read the story it made for a much better show than what i get on TV today. Maybe if i had been at the track i'd have preferred to see todays racing, but it's not just the fog of time that made professional writers and announcers covering the race versus the likes of Darrell and Rusty whose driving talents are without question but whose opinions were not valued as more than something to stick as a headline seem like a better alternative.

True, its a bummer when a

True, its a bummer when a race is celald due to weather, but I can't help but be extremely happy for Matt Kenseth. They all knew it was only a matter of time before the rain was going to hit. What's the saying? I'd rather be lucky than good? I'd say he was BOTH on Sunday. Good enough to get to the front (thank you for the push, Kevin Harvick!) and lucky to be there when the race was celald. He could very well have won if the race had gone through to the end, or not. Yay for Matt!Hey, I've been reading your site for a little while now, and I LOVE it! Great to see a racing related site run by a woman, and one from my own town. Way to go!

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