Aug. 5, 2018 at Watkins Glen International should have been a watershed moment for NASCAR and CEO Brian France. 22-year-old Chase Elliott, running his third full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, finally got over the hump.
The soon-to-be Most Popular Driver earned his first career victory on the road course, delighting a sold-out crowd with cheers and putting entire NFL stadiums to shame. The all-too-rare moment in NASCAR these days was punctuated by seven-time MENCS champion Jimmie Johnson, pushing an out-of-gas Elliott on the cool-down lap right down to Victory Lane.
You couldn’t have written a better changing-of-the-guard script if you tried.
And for a sport looking to connect to its old-time fans, there’s no better way to do so than with Elliott. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott comes from small-town Dawsonville, Ga., a multi-layered connection to NASCAR’s roots.
Any sport’s CEO would immediately look to capitalize on the opportunity, one of the few times all season the sport had a positive national story.
There’s just one problem. Brian France was nowhere to be found.
A mere 36 hours later, the world knew exactly where the sport’s CEO chose to spend his time: partying up in the Hamptons. France, who hadn’t been at the racetrack, was arrested for a DWI and criminal possession of a controlled substance that Sunday night. Officers found oxycodone pills and reported France posted a BAC higher than 0.18. For comparison’s sake, most state laws make it illegal for you to drive with a BAC greater than 0.08.
France hasn’t been seen atop the NASCAR hierarchy since, taking an indefinite leave of absence. His uncle, Jim France, is running the sport in his place, acting CEO at age 74. With that, a rocky and controversial stay atop the NASCAR ladder came to an end for this third-generation leader of the France family.
Or did it?
One of the biggest question marks from 2018, as we reach the halfway point of this offseason is who, exactly, will be leading the sport in 2019.
Shortly after France’s incident, NASCAR President Brett Dewar stepped down, replaced by Chief Operating Officer Steve Phelps. Phelps, not Jim France, was put in front of the media for the annual State of the Sport presser in November and did an admirable job.
Unlike the contentiousness the sport has seen from the usual CEO, he faced the music on a slew of questions about the sport’s decline and answered as honestly as possible. It was a thankless job, but one where he never lost composure.
Phelps appears to be going full steam ahead, spearheading the sport’s offseason push toward a new sponsorship model debuting in 2020. (There’s just one year remaining on NASCAR’s current title sponsorship with Monster Energy).
He’s also in charge of a schedule revamp that’s coming, rumors that include midweek races on the schedule and a return to more short tracks like the Nashville Fairgrounds. The initial read from sources I get within NASCAR is that he’s competent, a good listener and willing to tackle – not ignore – the problems at hand.
Along those same lines, all shapes and sizes of NASCAR people I’ve talked to have positive things to say about Jim France. Attendance for Brian at races was clearly an issue; Jim made it a point to be seen by stakeholders at the track. That’s an important point; if you have a problem, you want a face-to-face with the boss, not chatting with a mythical figure like the Wizard of Oz. For the first time in several years, it felt like the sport’s leadership was available.
Phelps made it clear in November Jim and Brian’s sister, Lesa France Kennedy, appear ready to revamp the sport over the long haul. Lesa’s son, Ben, has been mentioned repeatedly as a future candidate for CEO.
“The message that is being sent from Lesa and Jim France,” Phelps said then, “Is that we are going to double down on this sport because we believe in it. The best days are ahead of it. It’s going to grow.”
But the problem with interim leadership is you only have so much power until “interim” is stripped from the title.
Will Phelps, Jim France, Vice President Steve O’Donnell and others have a chance to restructure the sport? Or will Brian France, whose family has been the only owner in the sport’s 70-year history, quietly re-assume his role atop the totem pole this February?
No one, it seems, really knows. For all the goodwill gestures Phelps has made over the past few months, the most notable part of his tenure has been a slew of no comments. No comment on whether Brian will ever return. Mouth shut on a surprise announcement in November NASCAR is merging with its track arm, International Speedway Corporation.
No comment on whether NASCAR will then turn around and try a merger with Speedway Motorsports, Inc., whose tracks take up a third of the NASCAR schedule. And crickets on a potential sale of the sport, the biggest news whose rumors refuse to die down. The latest was a December report Boston Red Sox owner John Henry might be interested in purchasing a stake.
The end result is the sport doesn’t just have an elephant in the room. He’s squeezed into the corner with lions, tigers and bears also taking up space. Phelps, in all honesty, may not even have this job a few months down the road even with an A+ performance. A new company could come in, put their own people in charge and push old leaders out.
NASCAR, for its part, could clarify some of the issues by putting out some public statements. Phelps is not Jim France; while the acting CEO has been averse to the press, there’s nothing stopping the guy from talking. But there’s also a simple explanation to what appears to be continuing silence on a number of topics. Why speak when you don’t know what the answers are?
Where this uncertainty hurts the sport the most is in its continuing search for new stakeholders. It’s not just top-tier sponsors the sport is seeking. Several of its main owners are age 69 or older, a group that owns roughly 50 percent of the starting grid. Its 2017 championship team just closed its doors to a lack of sponsorship; no manufacturer has been added since Toyota entered the fold in 2007.
But if I’m any of these entities, from a Fortune 500 company to ownership interested in joining NASCAR, how do I know what the structure is? What is the plan for where the sport might be in three, five or 10 years?
Sure, the acting leadership can give me an answer that works for them. But if there’s negotiations on selling the sport happening 30 minutes later, how do I know that vision is realistic? Considering full-time car sponsorships are upwards of $20 million for top-tier teams, no wonder there’s hesitation. The economy is good but people won’t spend money if they don’t know where the ship is heading, let alone if it’s sinking.
NASCAR, for its part, has always prided itself on getting corporate sponsorship that far outshines the cars on the grid. But there’s been limited offseason announcements there other than a few notable departures. Click ‘n’ Close is gone as the official mortgage company of the sport after just one year. Fanatics ended their trackside merchandise deal, breaking a contract that was scheduled to run through 2024.
On the track, murmurs continue about car count for their lagging K&N Series in advance of a looming merger with ARCA in 2020. After Toyota hedged on backing NASCAR Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt, they allowed the driver to walk while Moffitt’s championship team brought in a driver with funding.
The Xfinity Series grid was reduced from 40 to 38 for 2019, largely because there aren’t enough sponsored cars. The sport’s charter system in MENCS is producing medallion sale values of less than $10 million, lagging far behind the $2 billion franchise value of NFL and NBA teams.
All of these issues need to be addressed by consistent, capable leadership assured to be there for the foreseeable future. Instead? We have a bunch of competent people filling the gaps with no real sense of permanence. The shadow of a CEO on a “leave of absence” looms over it all.
Is Brian in or out? As the sport enters 2019, the worst possible answer it keeps giving to stagnate its growth is Choice C, “no comment.”