NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer Brian France met with reporters Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Here are highlights from that session:
BRIAN FRANCE: We started out the year with a couple of goals.
One being the obvious that we wanted to roll out the car of tomorrow successfully. We think we have done that. ... The other thing we wanted to do was that was important to us was to elevate winning and make winning mean more and to get that to translate to the track with the drivers competing harder. I think we’ve gotten that, too.
Jimmie Johnson, what he did at Texas and other places stepping up his game, then Jeff Gordon throughout the year. I think to start the year the drivers understood the emphasis on winning and the points we put on it. That was important for us.
We had, by definition, a very good year. Whatever happens today, in terms of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, let me say one thing: Jeff could win the championship, but we obviously know that Jimmie Johnson would have to struggle in some way. But if that happens, the way the structure is set you would have to say that Jeff earned that right to be in position to take advantage. He had six wins and was near the top in the points for the entire year.
So whatever happens today will go down as very, very good year for NASCAR that will give us momentum as we go into 2008 as well.
Q: How concerned are you about a substantial drop in television ratings and polls showing indications that older and presumably more long-term fans are leaving the sport?
France:They are not leaving the sport, but they are getting their NASCAR fix and information differently than they did before. There are lots of different ways to watch, read of pick up video clips about what goes on. That has some impact on your ratings.
I would tell you about ratings, you have to put it in some context. We’re still the No. 2 sport on television. Everyone has had ratings erosion and I am just not talking about sports – shows in prime time and “American Idol” and lots of big franchises.
That’s the nature that we are seeing with the rich content. Obviously, with the Internet, the choices that are there, and it’s clearly harder to build and grow audience. But we like our position and where we’re at.
We do want to work harder in the future with our fan base who likes NASCAR the most, our die-hard fans, to make sure we’re not missing anything. ...There’s always the possibility that you’re not focused on the core fans enough, and we’re going to make sure we’re doing that. But we like our position going forward.
Q: Perception becomes reality sometimes, and for years there the perception – the “buzz” – around NASCAR was all positive. Whether it shows up in specific numbers or not, that’s changed and now the “buzz” around NASCAR is about downward trends. How do you deal with that and set about trying to reverse that?
France:We try to keep it in context. We know where we are at, where there are areas we can improve. What’s important to me is to have a general understanding of what’s going on in all of sports. When we do that we start to understand that you may see a headline here or there, but this is a very strong sport with a very strong fan base.
We have had more commercial interest in the sport than ever. More companies coming in and we’re oversold if you listen to teams, in some respects, in how many quality sponsors are here. Some of them don’t get on race track and that’s regrettable, but it shows how much interest is here.
You also have to keep in context in terms of the economy. Energy prices are up and some parts of the U.S. are more affected. ...Despite that we were up in crowd count at a number of events – at Texas and Phoenix, year over year. This event has been sold out for some time.
... You have to keep it in context. You can’t just look at the headlines and get confused.
Q: This is the end of the fourth year of the Chase for the Nextel Cup format. How do you think it is working?
France: Our preferred outcome is if all 12 guys are within 20 points and so on. That’ s the best outcome. If you’re (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell you want a 34-31, high scoring Super Bowl between your two best teams with lots of drama. That’s what everybody wants.
But we’re a sport, and when somebody puts a dominating performance forward like Jimmie Johnson is ... he is having a run that in the modern ear is maybe unmatched. That’s the kind of thing that deserves the focus, not the format. The format is fine. You could put any kind of format forward, when Jimmie Johnson does what he’s done ... winning the past four, you guys have seen the numbershe is just at a different level and I think it’s hats off to him.
Q: Can you speak to recent rumors about possible NASCAR management changes involving you or members of your family, or about a potential sale of NASCAR to some outside interest?
France: I will be real clear about this: The beauty of the Internet is that you have a lot of information flowing around. The unfortunate thing is people have lot of time on their hands to speculate.
I am committed to my job for the foreseeable future. That's years, not months or whatever.
Our family has absolutely no interest in selling NASCAR or International Speedway Corp. ... We can put that rumor right to bed.
Our management team is the deepest and best it has been, from Mike Helton on down, the people who run this sport are committed for the long run.
Q: Have there actually been inquiries about whether NASCAR might be for sale?
France: All of the time there are inquiries, but we do not take meetings. We're just not for sale. We can't be any clearer than that. The family is committed. My uncle (Jim France), my sister (Lesa France Kennedy) and myself. We lost my father and naturally questions come out. You just need to hear it from me as directly as you can, NASCAR is not for sale.
Q: One complaint you hear from fans is that the penalty structure in recent years has taken some of the "personalities" out of the sport. Do you plan to look at that?
France: We're going to look as we go down the road at being careful. We obviously want to put out the appropriate penalty when somebody does something wrong, to guard against things escalating where one thing leads to another.
I think we're going to be very careful not to stymie the personalities and keep the drivers so worried that NASCAR is going to levy big penalties. It's a fair point. This is an emotional sport, they're out there with 42 other drivers and lots of things happen. We have to make sure that their personalities and emotions aren't missed as part of what people like to see about NASCAR.
Q: Will you change anything about the top-35 rule and qualifying procedures?
France: We're going to look at the qualifying. We're not going to make many changes in the off-season. I doubt there will be anything on the Chase, for example. But we always look at various policy issues.
I think the qualifying, not just the top 35, but in general will get a good review for us. It has been generally the same for many, many years and we're going to see if we can make it a little more exciting and little more relevant for the weekend. I am not sure what that is.
In that review we will look at the top 35. I will tell you the top 35 does a lot of things for us that are positive.
Q: Can NASCAR do anything to address a seemingly general dissatisfaction with elements of the television coverage?
France: We obviously have a vested concern on behalf of the industry to make sure our TV partners are presenting sport in a way we think is best. That's suggestive, there's a creative element in that.
I will tell you that the networks, generally speaking, are a bit guarded about the leagues and people like me judging and having a lot of opinions. They listen to us. ... But there's also a "church and state" there. ... It's like going to a restaurant. You might like the meal better than I do. We have to do that carefully when we have a need to voice our concerns.
Q: What is your vision for what will now be called the Nationwide Series?
France: Whatever changes we have looked at the past, and we have looked at a lot of things, we didn't want to do anything until we secured a series sponsor. That took us into the fall, which defacto makes anything in '08 impossbile.
It's the No. 2 motorsports series in the country, without question, so when you're on the way to changing things and it's working that well you need to be careful anyway. I think we want to distinguish that series for what it is. It has incredible comeptition.
We will deal with the Cup drivers who're in it in some way. I am not sure what we will do. We will look at everything from the format of the events ... it doesn't have an all-star race, so we'll talk about that. We will look at a way to energize the manufacturers better, who we want to play even a bigger role in that series. We will look at a lot of things to enhance that series. We will do that ... probably looking at '09.
Q: With Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchasing the New Hampshire track, it is ultimately Bruton Smith's decision on whether to move a date or not?
France: It is not his decision in the end. He certainly could - for '09, not for '08 because the '08 schedule is set - petition NASCAR as part of our realignment policy. He has done that before successfully. When we look at that, we look at what is in the best interest of most fans and at the rest of the schedule. ... There's a ripple effect ... that comes into play. He could certainly do that. He has not indicated to us that is on his radar screen.
It's a little too early. My understanding is that he wants to get in and look at the operation and give some time for consideration. If he does, we will take a look at it.
Q: Have you or would you consider naming a commissioner who is not a member of the France family to run the sport?
France: We want to manage the sport in a way that works for everyone. ... In a family business, not only in sports but across the board, most of the time they are able to take a longer view.
Between my uncle, myself and my and sister you have 60 years of experience or whatever the numbers are.
We grew up in the sport and understanding this sport carefully. My own view is that I like our management team and ... the way we are structured. If we’re not getting results, one day, then we’ll consider anything, whatever changes we’d need to make. But we’re happy with our current team.
Q: In the first year of the Chase, you had several people with a chance to win the championship coming into this race. But the margin between first and second has grown every year. Does that indicate you need to make changes in the format?
France: If somebody comes up and dominates in a given time frame, that’s what you’re going to have.
Right now in the NFL, you have a very dominant team in the Patriots. If they get to the Super Bowl they’re going to be heavy favorites and you’re going to hear people say they’re going to have to fumble a lot or make mistakes. That’s sports.
Everybody wants to isolate out as some special phenomenon.
Jimmie Johnson and his whole team are having a fabulous year. He’s better than everybody else is right now.
We’re not going to put a system out that gives somebody an advantage who is not better. To me it takes away from what he’s accomplished. We’d love to have more people in play, but Jimmie Johnson is having one of those years where he is just better right now that everybody else.
Q: In the overall picture, including all of the ways fans can keep up with the sport, do you think interest is up, down or flat?
France: We’re just like everybody else. We’re not immune to waves of ups and downs, we’re not a rocket that goes up at one speed. We’re not immune to the economy.
We just like the way we’re positioned in the context of all the sports and all the mediums out there. This sport is in very good shape.
Q: With teams asking about changes to the car of tomorrow and the tires they will run on, is NASCAR willing to look at things like that?
France: They’re the best drivers in the world. Our job is to give them equal equipment. They will figure out how to make whatever car we give them drive best.
Our challenge isn’t to accommodate them to every comfort level of the car. It’s to keep the playing field event and get the costs, hopefully, down and the safety up.