Can Brian France reverse NASCAR’s slowdown?

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By Edward Martin

Illustration by Ralph Voltz

Brian FranceGetty Images

Brian France became CEO of NASCAR in 2003, the last year that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. sponsored the main racing series. Since then, TV viewership and track attendance revenues have declined by about half. His uncle, Jim France Jr., 73, and sister, Lesa France Kennedy, 56, have bigger stakes in the business, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

Glasses clink as tuxedoed Brian France grips a banquet lectern. Parked to the right of the CEO of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is a car with the number 78, but otherwise, this December gathering at the Wynn Las Vegas resort hotel could be any of the city’s 20,000 annual conventions and shows — except for this one’s backstory.

In 15 seasons, Martin Truex Jr. won occasionally but always finished just short of superstardom. In 2017, the remissive cancer of Sherry Pollex, whom he describes as his life partner, returned. His team owner suffered a heart attack, and a crew member died unexpectedly. Still, Truex, 37, won eight races.

Tonight, his doggedness will be rewarded. Brian France will crown him champion of NASCAR, the pinnacle of stock-car racing. The driver stands waiting in the wings.

France pivots from the lectern, strides sharply toward Truex and brusquely thrusts the championship ring at him, bolting offstage without a handshake or congratulations. The startled driver arches his eyebrows, flashes a quizzical grin and lifts his hands in a puzzled, palms-up gesture. He glances over his shoulder at where France exited.

“I’ve been in a hurry the whole damned year, haven’t I?” he quips.

Racing is a $6.2 billion segment of North Carolina’s annual economy. Most can be traced directly or indirectly to Charlotte Motor Speedway and surrounding towns and counties where more than 20,000 men and women work for nearly 30 race teams and hundreds of supporting spinoffs. Some call it NASCAR Valley, and three out of four motorsports employees in the nation work here.

“When the racing environment is healthy, that makes the general economy healthy,” says David Miller, executive director of Concord-based North Carolina Motorsports Association. Members include race teams and suppliers but also universities, tourism bureaus and banks, underscoring racing’s reach.

Now, seven decades after stock cars first circled a red-clay track near today’s Charlotte airport, the uneasy future of that business rests largely in the hands of family-owned NASCAR’s third-generation scion.

Brian Zachary France, 55, is an enigmatic figure who’s steering stock-car racing full throttle away from its deep Southern roots. Supporters say that’s the solution to NASCAR’s malaise. Critics say it’s the cause. France might be better known in New York City, where he lives part time in an Upper East Side apartment, than in Charlotte, Daytona or Darlington.

He has ditched his grandfather’s greasy coveralls — mechanic and racer William “Big Bill” France Sr. founded NASCAR in 1948 — for custom-tailored suits, frequently skips races and sometimes draws disapproval for being more attuned to Wall Street and Hollywood than pit road and the grandstands.

Nevertheless, he has been named one of the nation’s top five sports executives by prominent trade journals. North Carolina has a huge stake in Brian France. Some credit him with keeping NASCAR’s demographically gray hair and blue collar above the rising waters of generational change. Richard Petty, probably racing’s most renowned figure, praises his bottom line.

“Young people today have a lot of choices for entertainment, and how they view that with phones and computers,” he told Business North Carolina. “We’re looking to stay on top of that, and maybe we’re ahead of other folks in that part.”

Business North Carolina

Others praise France for bringing 21st-century credentials to a hidebound 20th-century sport that’s struggling for its share of limited disposable income, particularly among its prime blue-collar audience with an average household income of $70,000. To attract interest, NASCAR has ardently recruited and groomed diverse young guns, some still in their teens,
as marketing bait for a more diverse crowd. It was unclear why France cold-shouldered Truex at the banquet, but the veteran driver is not part of the NASCAR youth movement.

“There’s a sense of teamwork and collaboration between drivers, teams, promoters and NASCAR we didn’t have 20 or 30 years ago,” says Marcus Smith, CEO of Charlotte Motor Speedway and corporate parent Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns eight tracks nationwide. “Brian deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Young or old, France faces a race for fans. In the last decade, tracks nationwide such as his family’s Daytona International Speedway shrunk capacity by about one-fourth to conceal vacant grandstands. Daytona, one of the 13 tracks of the France family’s publicly traded International Speedway Corp., removed 45,000 seats as part of a $400 million renovation in 2016 that improved sightlines and added restrooms, concession stands and luxury suites.

February’s Daytona 500, which NASCAR calls the “Super Bowl of stock-car racing,” had a Nielsen rating of 5.3, the lowest since coverage began in 1979. The race’s 9.3 million viewers compared with the National Football League Super Bowl’s 103.3 million. Ratings for subsequent 2018 races were down by as much as a third from 2017.

France also is confronting the loss of corporate sponsors such as telecommunications giant Sprint and Mooresville-based Lowe’s Cos. They’re not only abandoning teams — after 17 years, Lowe’s booted superstar Jimmie Johnson in March — but the racing circuit itself. Other corporations that have dropped out include retailer Target and Lowe’s prime competitor, Atlanta-based The Home Depot Corp. Lowe’s ended its $35 million naming rights deal with Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010.

Corona, Calif.-based Monster Energy Co. paid a bargain $25 million for naming rights for NASCAR’s top series, The Monster Energy Cup, in 2016. “They had well over a year’s notice that Sprint was leaving,” says someone familiar with the negotiations. “NASCAR has a fierce sales machine, so you know they talked to everybody and got nothing. Monster came in at the 11th hour.”

Racing-industry sources say Monster is paying about half of Sprint’s outlay and a third of the price paid in the mid-2000s by previous sponsor Nextel. In mid-April, NASCAR said Monster’s contract would probably end in 2019, a year or two earlier than expected, as the racing organization develops marketing bundles that provide more exposure to more sponsors.

Many in the business of NASCAR are convinced such anecdotes exaggerate problems. They say it has improved competitiveness by breaking races into shorter stages to keep cars more tightly spaced. To make the sport more collaborative, the circuit has formed driver and team-owner councils. France is credited for allowing race teams to buy and sell each other.

Two key additions occurred this spring: The nation’s sixth-largest bank, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc., signed up to be NASCAR’s official bank sponsor, succeeding Bank of America, which had the title from 2007-15.

St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch LLC signed on as the pole-award sponsor. Financial details weren’t disclosed. Meanwhile, NASCAR says about half of Fortune 100 companies invest in the sport, the most ever, and that social media use, including interactions such as Facebook sharing, has reached 345 million.

If NASCAR is still capable of revving excitement with big-money backers, Brian France didn’t want to make the case personally: Over two months, NASCAR promised BNC that France would respond to requests for an interview or reply to written inquiries but then reneged. Unlike commissioners of other major sports, France rarely discusses business issues in any depth. NASCAR limits the amount of information disclosed publicly, including race purses or attendance figures.

In a rare interview six years ago with a New York business reporter, he said, “If you’re going to drive the ship as it was before, then you’re probably the wrong person for the job.”

France still controls an enormous balance sheet. Television rights through 2024 will exceed $13 billion, and executives of several major tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Smith, say ratings are overemphasized in an era of changing media habits.

All prime-time television viewing was down 8% in 2017, the NFL was down 10% and NASCAR, 11%. “The Nielsens don’t tell the whole picture of who’s watching and their level of intensity,” says NASCAR consultant Doug Perlman, CEO of New Canaan, Conn.-based Sports Media Advisors LLC. His clients include Major League Baseball and the U.S. Tennis Association. “NASCAR has a massive following and a passionate fan base. No matter how the media landscape evolves, that’s the coin of the realm.” But livestreaming of races reaches a relatively small group. About 51,000 viewed the Daytona 500 via phones or computers, a 28% increase from a year earlier.

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Brian France’s NASCAR of 2018 is a striking contrast to its history. It’s a network of offices in Charlotte, Daytona Beach, Manhattan, Los Angeles, Toronto and elsewhere, built mostly since the NASCAR boom of the mid-2000s. Before then, the Daytona headquarters was more modest.

“The Frances were old school,” says Tom Mueller, former competition director of the American Motorcyclist Association, NASCAR’s two-wheel racing cousin. He was also Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s public-relations manager for two years. While scheduling motorcycle events, Mueller would meet with Brian France’s father, Bill France Jr.; his older sister, Lesa France Kennedy; and Jim France, Brian’s uncle and chairman of the corporation. “We used to call them the benevolent dictators.”

Sometimes during the meetings, Bill France Sr., who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1992, would appear. “He’d ask for some walking-around money,” says Mueller, now a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone. “They’d give him three or four grand and he’d put it in his pocket and leave.”

Mueller’s sessions with the Frances were sometimes testy but ended good-naturedly. “They’d have food cooked up in the back room and say, ‘Y’all go out there, get a plate and help yourself.’”

The family never let anyone doubt who was in charge of their sport. Bill France Sr. kicked out one of the sport’s legends, driver Curtis Turner, for attempting to bring racers into the Teamsters labor union in 1961. In 1969, he crushed the Professional Drivers Association, an effort by Richard Petty to organize drivers protesting unsafe conditions at the Frances’ Alabama track, now called Talladega Superspeedway. Stars boycotted, but the elder France staged the race with second-tier fill-ins.

“Big Bill would kick butts and knock anything down that got in his way,” says H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway from the mid-1970s through 2008. He’s now chairman of his own consulting firm in Cornelius. “He was smart, stubborn and not afraid to get down in the mud, blood or whatever else it took. Brian’s of a different generation. It’s bad enough if your father was good, but your grandfather too — that’s a tough deal.”

Brian France’s father and grandfather demanded he and Lesa get their hands dirty before inheriting corner offices. She sold race tickets as a preteen. Several years later, after dropping out of the University of Central Florida, Brian painted racetrack walls, dumped trash cans as a janitor at Talladega and promoted races at several small, family-owned tracks. While he runs the racing circuit, Lesa is CEO of International Speedway.

Numerous sources describe Brian France’s management style as just as tough and perhaps less benevolent than that of his predecessors.

“NASCAR was built by people who knew about racing,” says Tom Cotter, a sports marketing industry consultant whose clients have included Ford, Mercedes-Benz and NASCAR. “Bill Senior knew how to grip the steering wheel, and Bill Junior, Brian’s father, wasn’t a racer, but his father made sure he got behind the wheel.”

In contrast, Cotter says, “Brian has surrounded himself with professionals who aren’t racing people. They’re MBAs from Procter & Gamble or some other industry. They’ve never paid to see a race and sat in the grandstands with a box of fried chicken. They know theoretically what they need to do to increase attendance, but in actuality, they don’t.”

Losing colorful veterans to retirement in the last two years, including fan favorites such as Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., hasn’t helped. Their replacements are mostly young NASCAR-screened newcomers. “I expect to see one show up with his sponsor’s logo tattooed on his forehead,” chirps Wheeler, who calls “corporatization our biggest problem.”

NASCAR’s diversity program encourages teams to add minority drivers and, in some cases, young teenagers competing in races sanctioned by the business. The teams typically assign handlers who oversee the drivers’ schedules, including frequent promotional events. “I’ve got this guy I know in Mesquite, Texas, with crooked teeth and a burr haircut,” Wheeler says. “‘He don’t talk right,’ but he’s as good [a driver] as any I’ve seen. He’s terrific, but he’d never get a sponsor because he’s not Hollywood.”

Wheeler recalls meeting a determined, unpolished 21-year-old from Kannapolis named Dale Earnhardt Sr. “I doubt Dale could get a ride today.” (Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a racing accident at Daytona in 2011.)

NASCAR’s desire for change was evident when France, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, invited 50 notable Hollywood personalities to the March race in southern California. Among the group was transgender personality Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner.

As in other professional sports, wealthy investors who’ve made fortunes on deals, not wheels, are making big plays in NASCAR, including ownership of two iconic teams. Andrew Murstein, co-owner of New York-based money manager Medallion Financial Corp., co-owns Welcome-based Richard Petty Motorsports, which Forbes recently valued at $50 million. Chip Ganassi Racing of Concord, whose drivers include young star Kyle Larson and veteran Jamie McMurray, is co-owned by Rob Kauffman, a co-founder of New York-based Fortress Investment Group LLC, a private-equity firm. Since 2014, Kauffman has chaired the Race Team Alliance, 14 teams that leverage team-owner bargaining power with the Frances and the racing circuit.

While NASCAR touts a new era of collaboration, Brian France still rules his family empire with a strong hand. Seven of the sport’s top drivers declined requests for comments about France or the sport, some citing a NASCAR rule that allows him to fine drivers up to $50,000 for dissent. Tony Stewart, a veteran driver and team owner known for a hot temper, received a $35,000 fine after he complained about a rule change that enables cars to return to the track after pit stops with loose wheels. “We shouldn’t be playing games with safety,” he said.

There’s also little benefit to discussing France’s record given NASCAR is the only stock-car racing game in town, sanctioning races at more than 100 U.S. tracks, of which 13 are owned by International Speedway. The only significant competition is Smith’s publicly traded Speedway Motorsports, which had about $453 million in 2017 revenue, compared with $671 million at International Speedway.

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The infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway has hosted generations of fans who parked campers, hoisted six-packs and grilled burgers. On Sept. 30, for the first time, stock-car racers will roar off the track’s banked oval turns onto a road course twisting 2.28 miles through the infield. The speedway is known for such innovations — lighting for night races, its successful four-abreast zMAX dragway, grandstand condominiums — and that’s what Brian France is counting on to pump up NASCAR.

“Brian deserves a lot of credit for creating a culture where there’s collaboration and willingness to push forward, to try new things,” says Marcus Smith, 45, who succeeded Wheeler as Charlotte Motor Speedway president in 2008. “All the stakeholders have had an input.”

This is the conundrum for France and the state’s multi-billion-dollar motorsports industry and its thousands of high-paying jobs: Can NASCAR usher in a new generation of fans without abandoning its passionate mill workers, truck drivers and retirees who’ve been its backbone?

“Managing NASCAR has got to be one of the hardest jobs on earth,” says Smith, whose father Bruton, now 91, famously cajoled bulldozer drivers to work faster to build the track to be ready for its opening in 1959.

“It’s different than when I first went to races with my dad when I was 5 years old. Today, you can sit here at Charlotte Motor Speedway and you’ve got the race in front of you. Our fans can now rent or buy FanVision headsets, sit in the grandstands, listen in to drivers and crew chiefs talking, see what the driver sees from in-car cameras and have replays. We’ve got the biggest LED TV in sports, 200 feet wide. It’s all just part of modernizing the sport.”

NASCAR will adapt even if Detroit’s thumping V-8-powered cars vanish, he says. It already allows engines tuned to burn environmentally friendly ethanol-laced gasoline. Other racing leagues, including international Formula One with hybrid technology and a circuit for electric cars called Formula E, successfully demonstrate that fans value competition more than technology.

France is engaging younger fans in different ways, such as an internet-based fantasy racing league, bringing speedways like Charlotte and Daytona into the digital age, says Perlman, the NASCAR consultant. “You have to look at the bigger picture, and my strong sense is NASCAR’s doing well if you step back and look at that.”

NASCAR Valley has massive racing infrastructure in place that bodes well for its future in North Carolina. Concord’s Ford Motor Co. Performance Technical Center employs some of motorsports’ top engineers. Nearby, Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and others broaden the region’s motorsports industry, fielding cars for the IndyCar series, Le Mans and other international circuits. UNC Charlotte, Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, Winston-Salem State University, community colleges and others offer racing-related degrees.

On a sunny winter day, Wheeler is at the wheel, cruising through South Carolina on the way to the Daytona 500. Initially a representative for tiremaker Firestone, he recalls how the Indy 500 car industry drained from the Los Angeles area overnight when technology abruptly changed.

“We want to keep what we’ve got,” he says. “We need to keep on top of this. Now, the way these deals happen, some crackerjack economic developer in Mississippi comes along with all sorts of land and stuff, all free; four or five teams move, and momentum shifts.”

Mounting pressures suggest changes could be afoot. Wheeler notes that Formula One racing was bought in 2017 for $8 billion by Denver, Colo.-based Liberty Media Corp., whose holdings include Sirius XM radio and the Atlanta Braves.

“The France family is in its fourth generation now, and the Smiths in their third, and if you look at sports teams and leagues, that’s about when these things get sold,” Wheeler says. “There’s a tremendous lot of cash on Wall Street geared toward entertainment and TV content. I can see the people in NASCAR saying, ‘Oh my God, this is a sinking ship, we should get out before it loses more value. The golden days of NASCAR are behind it.’”

Such speculation riles many in NASCAR, and Brian France isn’t commenting. No one disputes that NASCAR has indeed been golden to its latest generation.

In a 2008 divorce filing at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, lawyers estimated Brian France had a worth of $564 million and was in line with his siblings to inherit $1 billion from his father, Bill France Jr., who died in 2007. The report of holdings listed 10 homes, three airplanes and a $5.2 million yacht.

NASCAR, the lawyers argued, had been good to the Frances in the more than 70 years since Brian’s grandfather, Big Bill, closed his Washington, D.C.-area garage during the Depression, drove south, and opened a filling station in Daytona, where he stopped and settled.


Will racing lose its roar?

Brian France’s ultimate challenge might not be ratings but even bigger forces. “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday,” is a weathered racing maxim that has prompted auto manufacturers to spend billions of dollars over the last 70 years to field powerful — and noisy — V-8 equipped racecars similar to the ones they sell to the public.

But Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. — NASCAR’s big three — and others are gradually replacing V-8 engines with quiet, efficient electric or hybrid models. Meanwhile, numerous studies conclude younger people are less interested in driving and owning cars, and manufacturers expect to increasingly supplant human drivers with autonomous technology.

Does North Carolina’s vaunted racing industry risk losing the sport’s fundamental technology foundation?

On a spring afternoon near Charlotte Motor Speedway at UNC Charlotte’s N.C. Motorsports and Automotive Research Center, in a classroom filled with race cars and engines, students prepare for the future. Lots of work remains available as the university adjusts to changing automaker priorities. About 100 graduates of the program already work at shops such as Mooresville-based Team Penske, while director Mesbah Uddin recently hired two additional faculty members. One will teach battery propulsion, the other autonomous technology.

On another day, 5 miles from the track at Kannapolis-based Stewart-Haas Racing, which fields five top NASCAR teams plus a $1 billion Formula One effort, the engines at Charlotte Motor Speedway sound like a distant artillery barrage. That’s the sound of Brian France’s greatest asset, but also one of NASCAR’s biggest challenges.

“One of the things about those engines the fans love is the noise,” Uddin says. “If you take it away, will the thrill be gone?”


Auto attraction

Glory Road is high-banked like a NASCAR superspeedway, and visitors to the exhibit can experience vertigo looking up at the cars, if they don’t succumb to time warp first. There’s a classic Hudson Hornet from the 1950s on the same track as the black Monte Carlo of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., along with the No. 48 Camaro of modern-era star Jimmie Johnson.

Many visitors agree Charlotte’s $160 million NASCAR Hall of Fame is dazzling. But eight years after opening, its trajectory bears similarities to the sport itself. City leaders had high hopes that the attraction would draw more than 500,000 visitors a year, following a study by UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton. Attendance peaked at about 278,000 during the first year. Last year, about 157,000 came, according to the latest annual Carolina Publishing and Associates survey of Tar Heel tourism draws. Executive Director Winston Kelly says attendance statistics don’t paint the full picture, noting the venue hosted more than 300 events and 14,000 schoolchildren in 2017.

“We’ve entertained almost 1.5 million people since we opened, and 90% come from more than 50 miles away,” Kelly says. A majority of out-of-town visitors spend a couple of nights in

Charlotte. The hall deserves credit for helping spark $2.8 billion in downtown development, while augmenting the adjacent Charlotte Convention Center, he adds.

“What country music is to Nashville, NASCAR is to Charlotte,” says Marcus Smith, president of track operator Speedway Motorsports Inc.

The city of Charlotte issued bonds totaling $237 million in 2009 to build the hall, with maturities extending out 30 years. That debt, which now totals $120 million, is mainly repaid by a 2% countywide tax on hotel visitors. The city has paid down the debt with proceeds from selling land and private contributions. Bank of America and Wells Fargo forgave $17.6 million in debt in 2015.

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