ONE: BRIAN FRANCE
Such is the vituperative nature of the 24/7/365 news cycle nowadays that when I get a “breaking news” alert on my phone, I’m almost scared to look. When I read the headline that Brian France had been arrested for DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance there was part of me that was relieved – because the news wasn’t something more immediately terrifying regarding the balance of power in the world. But then, almost immediately, my thoughts turned to the implications for the sport I both cover and love.
The really big question is: What happens now?
Does Brian France return as leader, perhaps at the end of the season after a stint in rehab and recovery. Or is now the final curtain for a man who has been chairman and CEO of NASCAR for fifteen years?
And if it is the end, where does that leave the France family? Is this crisis the moment to sell? To cash out, retiring to a private Caribbean island or an idyllic spot of their choosing?
Or, is this moment the worst possible time to do that? There’s no easy answer here.
“I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night. Effective immediately, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from my position to focus on my personal affairs,” said Brian France in a statement released post-arrest.
On a human level, I can’t help but feel a little sad for France.
Sure, it is easy to knock France’s actions here — and on a number of other occasions, too, in the boardroom. But I can’t help but feel Sunday, Aug. 5 speaks as much to his personal demons as much as anything else.
How much money you have, how fancy your home is, how nice your cars are and how privileged your family name is mean nothing when it comes to addiction. How many chances you’ve had, deserved and undeserved, make little difference if you have a problem you struggle to control.
Not to say that this battle in any way excuses France’s behavior. But, in the wider context, perhaps there’s much more to the story here than we know.
I can almost hear people yelling at me, so what? What does this son of privilege know about challenges, about making ends meet, or about the day-to-day struggle to get by?
To them, I’d respectfully say it’s not that simple. Addiction, if that’s what this instance indicates, doesn’t consider your bank balance or your last name. It is, unquestionably, a cruel mistress.
But as the public figurehead of a company, built on the values of good people working hard, this kind of public indiscretion is hard to overlook – even more so when it’s not an isolated incident. It’s one thing to do it to yourself. It’s another altogether to endanger lives of others by getting behind the wheel of the car under the influence.
“Remember who you are and what you represent” is a quote attributed to David “Rocky” Rocastle about what it meant to play for the historic Arsenal Football Club of the English Premier League and it’s relevant here. France has a duty to represent the great sport of NASCAR in the manner it deserves and that’s something that applies in or out of the office.
Elsewhere in the business world we’ve seen CEOs fired for poor behavior – witness Travis Kalanick’s recent ouster at Uber. NASCAR is a family-owned business but France, according to the most recent public documents, owns no shares. With his money invested in other parts of the sport replacing him is easier than you’d think.
“Boards are putting tighter boundaries around what is acceptable and what behavior is unacceptable, acting on that and making it more public,” said Bryan Tayan, a researcher for the Corporate Governance Research Initiative at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in a recent Bloomberg piece on the topic of CEOs being let go. France’s behavior, for years, has been less than acceptable in the public sphere. This arrest is simply the icing on the cake.
So where does that leave us, the sport, and more specifically, Brian France?
For an answer, the NASCAR community will have a say. Some have already been itching for a transition.
“If I could make one change, it would be that the leader of the sport is at the racetrack every weekend,” 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski said during Charlotte’s preseason media days. “That would be my change.”
As is often the case, Keselowski’s honest and forthright assertion makes a lot of sense. France never seems to be spotted at more than a handful of races per year. Socially, he’s been distant from his sport’s major athletes competing weekly. It’s ironic on a day the sport experienced a sold-out crowd at Watkins Glen, France was nowhere to be found. A first-time victory in front of deafening cheers proved worthless when France’s actions on the other side of the state tore it down.
Playing that thought out, a “disengaged” owner taking an extended leave of absence after another horrible public incident (and mugshot) says one thing to me: France isn’t likely to be coming back.
On one level, you have to wonder if he even wants to return. I obviously don’t have any insight into France’s thinking but nothing I’ve seen or read suggests that NASCAR is a burning passion he can’t live without. He certainly isn’t a fixture at the track, that’s for sure.
“It’s important for any company that relies so heavily on outside partners to have a direct interface — this is such a big ship with so much going on week to week,” added Keselowski. “With some respect, I would say that it’s impossible for the sport to be managed with someone being here every week because of the travel situations being what they are and the different things that come up and I completely understand that. But I think, on the other side of that, to some extent, you have to be here.”
And I think Keselowski’s right.
NASCAR, a sport so reliant on the marketing dollars of Fortune 500 companies, needs a champion in change – a visible and clear presence at each and every race. The sport needs someone at the top who radiates the sport from every pore; someone who lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, dreams and obsesses every waking minute about NASCAR. It needs someone to engender confidence in the boardroom – both in Daytona Beach and amongst its partner sponsors. Someone to inspire new companies to want to get involved in auto racing. Does this person have to be perfect? No, far from it.
But it needs to be someone who is out there pushing for everything. NASCAR is on the verge of losing millions, both in a sale and potential sponsorship. Someone powerful and charismatic must be out front to stem the tide. It’s reminiscent of that epic speech from Al Pacino before the championship game in the movie Any Given Sunday (1999).
“On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our finger nails for that inch. Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the ***** difference between winning and losing between living and dying.”
Yes, it’s a dramatic a reference, I’ll admit. But the essence of what is said – the fight for every inch or, more accurately, marketing dollar, if we’re getting back to the point, is one that has to happen at every possible opportunity.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, as the adage goes. And where better to fight for that inch and dollar that then at the track? I’ve long said if you take someone to a NASCAR race and they don’t enjoy it that much, you’ll never make them a fan. But if you’re like so many of us, that first whiff of burning rubber or the first throaty roar of the engines firing up is all you need to form a lifelong bond.
Aside from the question of leadership, there’s the question of selling. We’ll start with a tweet from ESPN Sports Business reporter, Darren Rovell:
Brian France taking an indefinite leave from NASCAR. Probably cost his family couple hundred million. Makes it more important to sell sooner rather than later, take what they can get now.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 6, 2018
According to multiple reports, selling is what the family is strongly considering, even going as far as hiring investment bank Goldman Sachs to advise.
Some reports say they’re just looking to sell a percentage, less than 50 percent, while other reports argue they’re open to selling the whole kit and kaboodle.
There is recent precedent with the Liberty Media Group buying Formula One in 2016 for a multi-billion dollar fee, roughly $18 billion, after a 40-year stretch at the helm for Bernie Ecclestone. But F1 is a different beast altogether and although numbers have declined in the last decade, the global unique viewing audience was in the 350 million range – about 25 million more than the total population of the United States.
For the France family that has ideated, birthed, nurtured, grown and controlled NASCAR for seven decades it is a massive decision. In the short term, France’s uncle Jim will take over as President and CEO but is it a role he, or indeed Lesa France Kennedy, the chief executive of the International Speedway Corporation and vice chairperson of the board of directors of NASCAR, would want to assume permanently? My guess is no.
Sponsors will be able to sniff that out now. Companies that had no idea France was an absentee CEO will see a sport left rudderless with no public reassurance. It leaves NASCAR in a precarious position and gives the powers that be some very tough decisions to make.
The immediate future of Brian France is just a part of this crossroads. If Lesa or Jim don’t want to take the reins either is this week the start of the end game for the France family? Is new ownership and the fresh impetus that would inevitably just around the corner?
Some will want immediate answers. I don’t believe any major decisions will be made before we see out the 2018 season but I wouldn’t be surprised to see major changes made this offseason. And the results of those decisions will have tremendous ramifications for the very survival of the sport.
Strap in, folks; my guess is we’re headed for some turbulent times this offseason.
TWO: Awesome Bill is Back
In more “breaking news” this past weekend, the story emerged that Hall of Famer Bill Elliott will return to driving duties in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series race at Road America on August 25. The 1988 Cup champion will pilot the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevy, running for former crew chief Mike Beam. In the process, he’ll make his 829th NASCAR start – his 44th at the XFINITY Series level — a streak that goes back some 37 years all the way to January 1976.
“We are thrilled to welcome Bill to the GMS Racing family,” said Beam, the president of GMS Racing. “Bill has many years in NASCAR and it’s going to be great to watch him come back, especially in GMS equipment.”
The last two Cup starts Elliott made both came six years ago in 2012. In a numerical quirk, Elliott finished 37th both times.
“When this opportunity came up from Mike [Beam], I had to jump on it,” noted the elder Elliott. “Chase [Elliott] has ran a handful of races for the team so I figured I would give it a shot at Road America. Beam and I have worked together in the past, so it will be exciting to get back behind the wheel and bring back some old memories.”
It’s worth noting, too, Road America will be the first time an active NASCAR Hall of Famer has competed in a race. Part of me does wonder why Elliott’s doing it but then again, why not. Life is short; you need to take all the opportunities you can get and, where possible, not let age define you. My one wish (other than a fairytale win) is just that a true NASCAR legend makes it through the race safely. No matter what, he’s made this XFINITY standalone a must-watch event.
THREE: Rain Tires
In what was a compelling XFINITY Series race from Watkins Glen Saturday afternoon (Aug. 4) we got to see rain tires for the first time in a couple years and only the fifth time in NASCAR history. For the record, the previous four occasions were: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal (2008 and 2009), Road America (2014), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2000) and now Watkins Glen. It’s fair to say it’s a really small sample (at least for NASCAR). But wow, wasn’t it so cool to watch? It’s a thought that was echoed by Christopher Bell:
#NASCAR … Christopher Bell to his team on radio about driving in the rain: "This is fun. This is awesome. This is so bad ass."
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) August 4, 2018
Yes, Mr. Bell, yes it was. It’s a shame we don’t see it more often (there’s no chance of rain in northern California in June for Sonoma). But on the rare occasions the rain tires and windscreen wipers come out, it really is compelling racing TV.
FOUR: Next Up, Michigan Part Two
Next up, we head back to Michigan International Speedway for the second of two 2018 trips in the past nine races. It will be Cup race number 99 at the D-shaped, two-mile oval nestled in the Irish Hills. In the sport’s previous visit this season, the race was won by Clint Bowyer, who led the final eight laps on the way to his second win of the year (to date).
Among active drivers, Kyle Larson, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and 2004 title winner Kurt Busch have the most wins at the venue with three. Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano each have a pair of victories.
One driver to watch will be Watkins Glen winner Chase Elliott. He has three second-place finishes paired with an eighth and a ninth in five career races. Could the 22-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver make it two for two, having made a long-awaited breakthrough to Victory Lane this past weekend at Watkins Glen International?
FIVE: Chasing Glory
Finally, this week since I’m on the topic, a quick word on Chase Elliott who finally got his long-awaited first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. Ironically, Elliott achieved his first win in his 99th Cup race – the exact same number it took for Kyle Larson to win his first.
Making it a true family occasion, father Bill was part of the spotting crew at Watkins Glen. As he noted, the first race Awesome Bill won was also at a road course (Riverside) all the way back in 1983.
“Holy cow, I don’t know what to say; just so thrilled, so emotional, so much relief,” said Elliott in Victory Lane. “Working on three years, I hadn’t won one.”
Judging by the loud and sustained roar from the crowd, it was an extremely popular victory; you could genuinely feel the monkey lifted off Elliott’s back. Of course, the real challenge now for Chase is to do it again and again. But with a big first victory finally under his belt you suspect the next one will take far fewer than 99 races.