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NASCAR's Brian France Speaks: and the state of the sport is....

   Brian France (R) and right-hand man Mike Helton (Photo: HHP Photos for Lowe's Motor Speedway)

By Mike Mulhern


   NASCAR's Brian France typically helps kick off the sport's annual January pre-season media tour, but this time around he opted to host the windup event, Thursday afternoon….and perhaps unexpectedly the sport's CEO had little earth-shattering to say.
   But then France's approach to things last year was pointedly low-keyed, following several years of high-profile changes, such as moving the sport's annual Labor Day weekend race from Darlington, S.C., to Los Angeles (and now to Atlanta), and introducing the controversial car-of-tomorrow….a number of things that angered and aggravated many of the sport's traditional fans.
   And that under-the-radar game plan apparently won't change any time soon.

   France's state-of-the-sport address here was crisp and quick, focusing on the positive, and pushing the focus toward the track itself:
   "It's been an interesting and challenging off season for everyone, but the Daytona 500 is just around the corner, and fans will once again start debating on-track topics rather than off-track topics….
    "….like whether three-time champion Jimmie Johnson can win a fourth Sprint Cup title?
    "…can Ryan Newman win the Daytona 500 again? 
    "….when will Jeff Gordon get back into victory lane? 
    "…how will two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart fare as a driver-owner? 
    "…will Carl Edwards pick up right where he left off last season, when he won three of the last four races?"

   However France and his men realize the struggling American economy, and the fallout in this sport, may dominate the first few weeks of the season, particularly if ticket sales are as weak as they appear to be – unless the action on-the-track is stepped up a notch.
  "In tough times like these, strong people tighten their belts, put a little extra zip in their step, and focus on the things they do best," France says. "And no one does it better than our drivers and teams. 
   "Last year I stood at this podium and pledged we would hold the line on major changes, and we have. 
   "The sport and the fans have been through a great deal of necessary change over the last 10 years.
   "Now we're letting those changes mature.
   "And the changes are working well -- the new car, track realignment, and the chase are proving to be good for the sport and good for competition."

    France says his men have been facing the economic challenges by working with team owners "to keep our sport moving in the right direction.
    "One of the key areas we're zeroing in on is helping the teams develop a new business model to fit today's changing economy -- exploring ways to manage costs much smarter, working with our media partners to explore additional ways to take our product to our fans, meeting with our tracks to brainstorm new promotions, and continuing our efforts in diversity, to facilitate opportunities for minorities and females," France said.
     And, in a twist, France pointed to the environment as a new topic to address: "That's increasingly important to the industry of NASCAR, to make this sport greener and more environmentally smart. 
    "We want to do our part to be a better partner with the environment.
    "That's not only important to NASCAR but it's really important to our fans. They've told us not only are they concerned about preserving the environment but also concerned about high fuel costs, global warming, and energy independence. 
   "We recognize this must be one of our priorities."
   Last June France said he met with former vice president Al Gore to discuss the subject "and ideas for what we can do as an industry to become greener and smarter.
   "One of the recommendations was to have a point person. So NASCAR has hired Mike Lynch as a managing director for 'green innovation.'"
   Just what might be at the top of Lynch's agenda is not clear but image means a lot in this part of the game, and there has been a push, from the outside, to get NASCAR to put 'greener' cars out on the track as pace cars – which Toyota and Ford are pushing themselves.

   On the business side of NASCAR, the France family's newest division, the Grand American Road Racing tour, kicks off this weekend with the 24 Hours of Daytona (3:30 p.m. Saturday). It's unclear the long-range picture for the series under the NASCAR banner.

   France is stepping up his now-six-year-old Drive for Diversity program, an operation that has changed management hands and will now be run by Max Siegel, the former DEI boss. Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's managing director of public affairs and one of the sport's highest ranking African-Americans, pointed to the success of the 2008 class: 14 wins, 43 top-fives, 90 top-10s, four poles, and the program's first-ever track championship.  How much of that D4D thing is simply for marketing-and-PR, and how much is really aimed at getting minorities to the highest levels of the sport has long been debated, particularly in light of the general failure of the sport to milk the amazing marketing opportunities surrounding former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya, who has yet to be given racing equipment commensurate with his talents.


   NASCAR's new Drive for Diversity lineup: (L) NASCAR's Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR CEO Brian France (eighth from L) and Max Siegel (seventh from R), and drivers (L-to-R) Mackena Bell; Kristen Bumbera; Michael Cherry; Jonathon Gomez; Katie Hagar; Paul Harraka; Laura Hayes; Juan Pitta; Megan Reitenour; Natalie Sather; Jonathan Smith and Emily Sue Steck. (Photo Credit: Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

   France is also pushing the Charlotte Hall of Fame project, which is expected to open for business in May 2010. Winston Kelly, the man in charge of the Hall of Fame, offered a major presentation here about the project, which covers more than five acres in the heart of Charlotte, just across from the Convention Center, and linked by a large pedestrian bridge.
   The project will include more than just the Hall of Fame; it will feature a NASCAR Plaza, a 20-story office tower that will house NASCAR's media group, complete with studios. There will be a 5,000-man ballroom, which will be used for major non-NASCAR events, like the National Rifle Association's convention next year. And there will be a number of interactive NASCAR exhibits.
   France also talked about the issues facing NASCAR and its teams because of economic problems facing the car makers:
   "We were very happy they got the initial bridge funding as part of the rescue package," France said, "because it's really what it means to this entire country, all the jobs it represents. That's what has our attention -- to make sure we're as good a partner with all the manufacturers as we possibly can be, to make them successful, get them through a difficult time.
   "…because if something were to happen, the bigger issue isn't NASCAR or its teams, rather what it would mean to those millions of jobs."
   And Steve Phelps, NASCAR's chief marketing officer, addressed what NASCAR is doing to help struggling teams: "It's our responsibility to try to help the teams, and I think we do a good job of that. 
   "Two key departments are doing the lion's share of sales and marketing: the New York office, headed by Jim O'Connell, and the lead generation they do; and our industry-marketing group, headed by Jill Gregory (now in Charlotte).
   "Our industry-marketing group is relatively new over the last two years. We thought we needed a stronger presence in Charlotte, where the teams are, and create stronger marketers -- and create packages the teams could go out and sell themselves.
   "They're also responsible for trying to help the teams develop research, through our research group headed by Brian Moyer.
    "It's more important what they do now, more so than any time in its history."

    France said the basic game plan in Daytona was, well, pretty simple last season: "We wanted to stick with the basics, and hold the line, because we wanted the focus to be what happens on the track.  We feel that was successful."
   So that's the game plan again this year: "We've been in business over 60 years, so this is a business model and a sport that will endure. 
    "Yes, there are changing circumstances with the economy -- we have not seen this difficult in a generation.
    "So it's accelerating our efforts to take cost out of the system.
    "The more things we have to change often cost money in the short run, so we're trying to hold the line."
    Robin Pemberton, the man in charge of competition for NASCAR, agreed that "This year everything is under a microscope."
   So when asked about possible rules changes, Pemberton said "We're holding the line on the Sprint Cup series. We don't anticipate any rule changes at all.
   "Nationwide series is roughly the same."
   The Truck tour, though, could be different, Pemberton said, because of the need for more "cost savings with their travel budgets, and possibly people they take on the road."
   One big question, of course, is NASCAR's no-testing policy. Yes, teams have flown to Arizona, to Texas, to Florida, and else to test at non-NASCAR tracks, which is legal. But NASCAR president Mike Helton insists the feedback he's getting is that the ban essentially works to cut costs.
    "The suspension of testing has accomplished a lot," Helton said. "It is a big impact. 
    "I had a driver tell me his own personal expenses in January were down almost $200,000.  I had a car owner tell us just in the month of January his expenses were down almost $300,000 because of not testing. 
    "That means that decision was a good decision…even with the lack of the ability to define 'no' as broadly as we might like to."
    France, though, conceded that the ban would slow development of drivers new to the series, like rookie Joey Logano, whose team owner J. D. Gibbs has been politicking for more practice time each weekend for such rookies.
    Yet, despite the economics of scale that make large NASCAR operations more logical, France made clear he still plans to hold to the four-team limit.
   "These economic times don't change that," France said. "There will be a four-car limit.
   "There are clear lines how to be a 'supplier' in the sport, to help teams get started, to amortize some of your costs if you're an existing team owner, to export some of your services or engineering ever, and we still permit that. 
    "If there is any confusion, we'll clear it up." 
    On the other hand, three big stories at the moment are the demise of Petty Enterprises, the cutbacks in the Wood brothers' operation, and the decline-and-merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
    "We have very limited ways to influence that," France insisted.
    "It is disappointing to see traditional teams, like the Pettys or the Woods….But they haven't entirely gone away, of course.
   "The economy has spotlighted teams that were struggling -- mostly in performance on the track -- and now that sponsorship is even more difficult to come by."
   Helton added "Richard Petty is a huge brand in NASCAR, part of our heritage. And whether or not Richard Petty is represented on the track, he will always be a big part of our heritage. And so will Bud Moore, Glen Wood, Lenny Wood.
    "But if you step back and look at NASCAR as an industry, others in other industries have struggled and had to shut their brand. From time to time you have that happen in a business cycle."
    NASCAR's new drug testing policies, France said, are going well. "We've mandated every driver be tested, and we've had over 130 drivers submit to tests. 
    "All team owners are required to have their crew members tested.
   "And we've implemented random testing, on about 12 individuals per series. We anticipate probably in Daytona alone, at least 36 to 40 tests. And that will continue at each track." 

    However one basic question in this sport clearly concerns the action on the track, and that action has been criticized at times the past few years as not being as good as it could be, or should be. 
    Still, NASCAR's general reaction has been same – to deny the validity of those criticisms.
   "I think the competition is pretty dad gum good right now," Helton insists.
    "We run a 36-race schedule, and we run it at a variety of playing fields. So circumstances -- like weather, like whether 15 drivers are on their game or only four of them that particular day -- play a role in how good a race might be.
    "But I think competition is as good today as it's ever been, as a whole."
   And despite complaints by drivers and car owners about the car-of-tomorrow, and requests for changes, such as taking 25 or 50 or 60 pounds off the right-side of the cars, to make them handle better and to help the wear on the right-side tires (which was a major issue in 2008), requests for minor aerodynamic changes like a 'wicker' on the front nose, to increase downforce and make the cars easier to turn in the corners, Helton is steadfast:  "I feel very strongly that this car is right."
   And he said complaints are diminishing: "It's a lot less today than this time last year, a whole lot less.
   "That comes from us not messing with it.
   "Because once we move that target, everybody has to start over again chasing it. 
    "If you leave that target alone, and they know that's the wall they're running to, then they've got a better shot at making that product work."

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