Ever since Bill France Sr. formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, his family has majority owned and headed it. In the past few months, rumors surfaced about the France family looking for potential buyers. Then, this past Sunday (Aug. 5), NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France, Bill Sr’s grandson, was arrested for a DWI and possession of Oxycodone and announced a leave of absence from his position. Many have been critical of France’s leadership since he took over from his father Bill Jr in 2003.
These events bring us to this week’s question: Should the Frances take this cue to finally give up their NASCAR empire or should the family hang onto it and right the ship with a different family member?
Why Go Down with the Ship When You Can Just Change Direction?
Sports fans are, by and large, the most impatient clusters of people. When a football team hires a new coach, there’s palpable optimism that generally doesn’t last too far beyond the first kickoff. Then the demands for immediate success start rolling in.
It’s a results-driven industry, no doubt.
Being well connected can get you in the door but it can’t keep you from getting shoved back out of it. Nor should it. When things don’t go well, attention immediately turns to the organization’s leadership. The longer they have been in their positions without the expected level of success, the shorter the leash tends to be.
Brian France is as well connected as one can be. When your grandfather created an organization that became one of the largest spectator sports in the country, you are born with one foot in the door.
But under Brian France, NASCAR has experienced its most significant downslide ever. Attendance and viewership dwindled. The number of teams, manufacturers, and sponsors participating has shrunk at an alarming rate.
It’s time to set aside the tradition of handing the reigns to another family member and get someone whose qualifications aren’t merely genetic.
When your father helps turn that league into a billion dollar organization reaching fans across the globe, you have a tough act to follow. Maybe anyone put in this position was doomed to struggle a bit.
The most practical reason to involve someone outside of the France family’ is that racetrack conglomerate International Speedway Corporation (ISC) is controlled by NASCAR’s founding family. With the schedule front and center on the list of grievances many fans have, the public likely will have a hard time believing that there isn’t a major conflict of interest here. When the hand that writes the schedule and cashes the checks is the same, who can blame them?
There needs to be an aura of transparency surrounding the sanctioning body. Few things have eroded faster than the trust between NASCAR leaders and its fan base over the recent years.
The figurehead of the sport needs to be a heavy-handed, steadfast person — one that can stand before the track owners and television executives and say, “I don’t care what you want. This is what we will do because it’s in the best interest of NASCAR and its fans.” There have been many changes of late that only made many people feel as though NASCAR had no idea what their fans really want.
Or worse: that NASCAR did know what they want and just didn’t care.
So where is this potential savior of stock car racing? There’s a bevy of talented individuals out there who are capable of righting the ship.
Mike Helton is the obvious choice. Helton, the vice chairman of NASCAR, has served in a variety of different roles since joining NASCAR in 1994. He spearheaded the increased safety push after the passing of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, and the sport hasn’t experienced a fatality in a national touring series since. Helton brings the experience necessary to take the helm and steer NASCAR in the right direction.
Want a dark horse candidate? If it were up to me, I’d give IndyCar’s President Jay Frye a call. Under Frye, IndyCar has seen a surge of popularity in the United States. Frye is a former NASCAR team owner and executive at Hendrick Motorsports. Frye also helped negotiate the deal with Verizon as the title sponsor of IndyCar. With the Monster Energy deal expiring soon, someone with some expertise in this line of work would be an immense asset.
Regardless of who ends up in the big chair, it needs to be someone who is qualified based on more than just their last name. The France family had a good run. They still belong in NASCAR. But it’s time for a change at the top. -Frank Velat
Help Me, Ben Kennedy, You’re My Only Hope
For 70 years, the France name and NASCAR have been synonymous with each other, and that needs to continue for the time being.
Yes, Brian France did a terrible job of running NASCAR, but every family has a black sheep. Hopefully, his days of lackadaisically driving the organization into the ground are over. If they aren’t, and he gets to keep his role in the sport, then the family needs to go. But if the rest of the Frances cut him out of the loop, then they deserve a chance to right what he has wronged.
The Frances deserve to keep NASCAR because, without Bill Sr, there would be no NASCAR. Everyone who loves this great sport is indebted to the mastermind behind it. And many of us wouldn’t even know what NASCAR was if it wasn’t for Bill France Jr. propelling it out past the Southeast origins and into the national spotlight.
People are quick to forget how much respect the two Bill Frances commanded and deserve, all because of an entitled descendant of theirs. Yes, those two men are gone and can never run NASCAR again, but they have other family members that can do a good job.
Jim France, Bill Sr’s other son, has taken over as interim CEO of NASCAR while Brian is on a (hopefully permanent) leave of absence. Much like in monarchies, being the second-born son essentially made Jim the overlooked one. His brother, then his nephew got the nod over him to run NASCAR. But all the while, Jim has been behind the scenes. This is finally his chance to shine, and given that he’s been around to experience the sport’s highest and lowest moments, he probably has a lot of insightful input.
The only catch with Jim France is that he will turn 74 in two months. So while he could give NASCAR a shot of its roots, he is not a long-term answer. That is where Lesa France Kennedy and Ben Kennedy come into play.
Lesa, Bill France Jr’s other child, seems to have a much stronger work ethic than her brother, Brian. She has worked for ISC since 1983 and been its CEO since 2009. I hate that ISC, along with SMI, has taken over most of the tracks and left it so the NASCAR schedule is extremely stale, but it greatly benefited ISC — a testament to Lesa and her employees’ business skills (granted, it helps when your brother runs NASCAR).
But the future of NASCAR should like in Lesa’s son, Ben Kennedy’s hands. At just 26 years old, Kennedy is not the immediate answer, but he is already being groomed to one day run NASCAR. He started this year as the general manager of the Camping World Truck Series, and it seems like it was a popular choice for people inside the sport.
Kennedy has a likable personality, but most importantly, he is extremely relatable. Like his great-grandfather Bill Sr, Ben was a racer. He raced his way up to the NASCAR XFINITY Series and even won a CWTS race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is no easy task.
Another hat that Kennedy has worn is that of an owner. Ben Kennedy Racing fielded a team in CWTS for a few races and has had teams in the K&N Pro Series East and West for several years, developing drivers such as Kaz Grala and Spencer Davis.
So Kennedy can take what he’s learned as a driver, an owner and as someone who has grown up in the sport and apply that to his leadership style. It would be much better to have someone in charge with that knowledge and experience than an outsider with little NASCAR knowledge.
Say the Frances did sell there share and someone else took over, who would it be? It would likely be a company like Comcast who would only attempt to make the sport more commercial and turn the drivers back into talking billboards while disengaging fans further.
The Frances gave us a great first 55 years of NASCAR — just because their leadership hasn’t been as great the last 15 years doesn’t mean we should abandon hope and demand change. Brian’s incident might just be the wake-up call the family needs to steer the sport in the right direction. -Michael Massie
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