Friday, Aug. 2, is the 57th birthday for former NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian Z. France, and Monday, Aug. 5, marks the one-year anniversary of France’s arrest for a DUI and possession of a controlled substance. The latter date has also come to be known as France’s last day as head of NASCAR and the start of a new era.
France’s arrest stemmed from him running a stop sign in the Hamptons in Sag Harbor, N.Y. The arresting cop found France to be intoxicated with Oxycodone in his car. Following the incident, France announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from his roles in NASCAR, but it’s been a year and he still hasn’t returned. His uncle, Jim France, took over the job — interim at first, but it has since become his permanent post.
A few months ago, NASCAR announced it was buying International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which is primarily owned and controlled by the France family. It was discovered during this acquisition that Brian France no longer owned any shares of ISC.
This means we’ve likely seen the last of Brian France in NASCAR. While he could come back should his family decide to hire him, I highly doubt he will ever be the controlling figure again, a role that many NASCAR fans hated him in. The latter stages of the Brian France era have been marred with negativity, from the formation of the playoffs, to the stagnant schedule, to ownership charters. France was there when NASCAR signed its biggest ever TV contract and ratings were at an all-time high, but he was also in charge when ratings and attendance sank.
Now that we’re a year removed from Brian France’s exodus, it seems like a good time to evaluate the new era of NASCAR — the Jim France and Steve Phelps era. While both have been a breath of fresh air in their respectively roles, the reviews are mixed so far.
This is the first season in a while where television ratings haven’t significantly dropped, so it appears something has stopped the bleeding of the fan base. A significant positive moment of Jim France’s leadership was this February at Daytona International Speedway when he ordered the drivers to actually race each other in the Daytona 500 after a couple single-file parades earlier in Speedweeks. Brian France would’ve never done that — it was a miracle if he even came to a race. It has been huge for the series to have leadership that is actually visible and aware of what is going on in the races.
NASCAR leadership seems to react quicker to problems this year than in recent years. They’ve already gotten rid of group qualifying and reduced the ridiculous uncontrolled tire rule. In the past, we’d still be waiting on these rules to change. And if they did change, then it would somehow be for the worse.
In this new era, NASCAR now takes away wins for failing post-race inspection, something that Brian France and even his father, Bill France Jr., never wanted to do. In the first NASCAR-sanctioned race ever, Glenn Dunaway had the win taken away for having moonshine shocks, so instituting this new rule is a throwback to Bill France Sr.’s original vision for the sport. It also seems to be popular with fans, who were tired of trying to understand complicated rules and “encumbered wins.”
And that’s the part of the new NASCAR leadership’s initiative that is really working: they aren’t trying to force NASCAR into larger markets and transform it into stick-and-ball sports at the expense of longtime fans like Brian France tried to do. They’re catering more so to what the old fans want to see.
The other great thing they are doing is chasing after new manufacturers. The more manufacturers, the better NASCAR is. There is more money poured into more teams, so it forms more parity. There was a spike in competitive teams when Dodge reentered NASCAR in 2001 and again when Toyota came in 2007. Since Dodge left after 2012, we’ve seen the number of competitive teams dwindle. A large part of this new era of NASCAR’s success will bank on whether or not it successfully brings in new manufacturers.
But for all that good, there has also been bad. Phelps initially acted like the NASCAR schedule would feature more short tracks and road courses in 2021 and beyond, something countless fans have been begging for. But more recently, Phelps seemed to back off of that sentiment, saying the schedule changes wouldn’t be that significant. Instead, we’ve now got a racing package that has improved the racing at the cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half tracks (which was a needed improvement) and worsened the racing on short tracks and road courses. I sincerely hope NASCAR isn’t hoping they can brainwash fans into thinking the intermediate tracks are better so they can keep the schedule as is. That would be a devastating move.
The other problem Jim France, Phelps and co. have been unresponsive to is the lack of new owners. With the current crop of owners getting older, there needs to be some young blood in the way of ownership. However, the only new owner we’ve seen recently is Spire Motorsports, a marketing agency who does a lot of work within NASCAR and who took Furniture Row Racing’s charter — the most valuable charter there was — after no one else wanted it. The fewer potential owners there are, the more the charter system will fail. Leadership has yet to offer any kind of solution to this problem.
And the reason no new owner wants to be involved is also the greatest reason the new era of NASCAR leadership is failing: the team’s aren’t getting enough revenue to make it an appealing investment. Back in the 1990s, there were people like Brett Favre itching to get involved in NASCAR, but star athletes who have made millions can’t afford to be in NASCAR anymore — it’s a billionaire’s playhouse. The costs to run a team are substantial and the prize money doesn’t give enough return on that investment.
Part of this problem falls on the owners, who idiotically spend more money than they can afford to make their cars go faster, thus making the cost of sponsorships too high for new sponsors to come in or longtime ones to stick around. The teams need to get a bigger slice than just 25% of the TV money and there also need to be changes made that drop the costs. Laying off one guy on the pit crew doesn’t make that big of a difference.
So far, Phelps and Jim France have done nothing to help the teams out in that regard. In fact, I heard the other day that the switch to the 2021 car could cost teams somewhere around $5 million per car. That’s the opposite of what these teams need, and it guarantees we won’t see any new car owners in the lame duck 2020 season.
So while the new leadership has done a great job at racing-related problems, they really need to step it up on the business end. They’re currently “pulling a Brian France” on those issues. But it’s only been a year, so I guess we need to give them more time to work out these major kinks.
Regardless, it’s still a better leadership than Brian France. It’s a shame his tenure didn’t result in better because NASCAR and the France family need each other. There would be no NASCAR without Bill Sr. and it wouldn’t be a national sport without Bill Jr. I guess sometimes greatness skips a generation. But at least we got three good things from Brian’s era: no more racing back to the yellow flag, double-file restarts and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.