The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series spent the weekend in Martinsville. You can bet your butt that NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France didn’t.
NASCAR’s leader prefers to watch from afar. He’ll show up during Speedweeks in Daytona and for when the Sprint Cup trophy is awarded at Homestead, but his stops on the NASCAR calendar are few are far between.
When we do hear his voice, it’s as if someone put down a recorder on the table and pressed play — nothing but sound bites.
It’s certainly a different leadership style than either his father, Bill Jr. or grandfather, Bill Sr., imposed. Bill France Jr. and Sr. had a hands-on approach. They were at the track, so they were in tune with what was ailing the sport, and respected by those in the garage and in the grandstands.
Brian leads from the shadows. He’s held his position since 2003, yet most fans still know very little about him. Brian wants it that way, he wants the focus to not be on him, but on the racing, which makes sense.
Meanwhile, in the shadows, Brian plots. He hasn’t been shy about transforming the sport. Under his tenure, NASCAR has signed multiple record TV deals and has switched to fuel injection and 15-percent ethanol blend fuel, and has made a number of safety improvements across the board. Most fans would agree that those were successes. The results might be a little more split on changing the points system and most of all, the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff system.
Brian France’s latest success appears to be the Generation-6 car.
Despite all of this, NASCAR fans cringe when they hear “Brian France,” the same way they would North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
It all comes down to trust. The same way Americans don’t trust North Korean’s dictator not to drop the bomb on us, they don’t trust Brian France not to drop the proverbial bomb on the sport.
And that’s where Brian’s mystery may be impacting his legacy. The environment has changed drastically since the time Bill France Jr. and Sr. roamed the garage on race weekends. Brian’s marketing and business savvy has benefitted the sport, but his obscurity has not.
In 2008, NASCAR started a fan council to allow supporters to voice their opinions about the direction of the sport. Good move, right? Not so much. During a press conference in November of 2010 (at Homestead of course), France was asked about race fans who prefer the old points format to the Chase?
His response was, “You met somebody who’s telling you that?”
Yes, Brian we did. It’s half the country — and had been for the last six years. How could the chairman and CEO of NASCAR be that oblivious?
But that’s been the status quo. And with answers like that, fans have painted a picture of Brian France as someone who really doesn’t give a crap about NASCAR and its tradition, a billionaire who’s just cashing checks.
How could they not? From 2004-10 at least, he clearly wasn’t listening to fans concerns. And if there’s one thing that is going to truly infuriate a fan base as changes are made and traditions are lost, it’s not be listened to on top of it.
Brian doesn’t have to walk the garage area every weekend. He doesn’t need to show up at every race (although a few more appearances wouldn’t hurt). He just needs to listen and give fans the idea that he understands their concerns — instead of hiding in the shadows and ignoring them completely.
The decisions made in 2013 haven’t done him any favors. Brian recently took credit (weeks after the fact) for the ridiculous disciplinary action levied against Denny Hamlin earlier this season after Hamlin mildly criticized the car. It was a nice of him to step up and take the blame, but he just further asserted himself as a villain in the eyes of NASCAR fans.
Villain is the word. He fits the mold perfectly. He has all the money, all the power, lurks in the shadows, acts as if he is superior and does what he pleases without consequence — sometimes to the ire of the masses.
Brian France has been in charge 10 years, and his true legacy hasn’t been creating the Chase, revising the points system or increasing safety, it’s been sending chills down the spines of NASCAR fans who neither relate to him or trust him to lead.