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France: No Big Changes For NASCAR in 2012

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 26 2012

Brian France was an upbeat boss on Thursday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

NASCAR is so strong, and on such an upswing after the 2011 season, that no major changes will be implemented for the 2012 season.

That was the gist of NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France’s state of the union-like message during his annual address to the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday afternoon.

“Last year at this event,” France said, “we announced a number of changes we believed would build interest in story lines and most importantly would make it easier for fans to understand the championship race. We’re very pleased with how all those changes played out.”

Those changes included the new, simplified points system; the “pick a series” in which teams must declare which of the three series in which they will compete for championship points; and adding the wild card factor to the Chase.

France said that those moves helped lead to exciting racing and the close championship race which led to a revival of interest in the the sport.

“So we enter this season, as you’ve heard and you know, with great momentun,” France said. “We’re coming off arguably the best championship battle ever, and our focus for 2012 is continuing that momentum. We’re very pleased with the changes we made last year.”

France said that NASCAR is not sitting still, however. He talked about how the series will move ahead with moves like the implementation of electronic fuel injection; the attack on tandem racing at restrictor plate racing tracks; the development of the 2013 cars which he said will closer resemble showroom cars; safety innovations; and upgrading the sport’s marketing plan with sponsors and media.

“The sport is in a very good place right now, no question about that,” France said, “and we’re working hard and even harder to achieve the very best things for the sport of NASCAR well into the future. We expect to have another highly competitive battle for the championship this year with our biggest stars and many new faces in the mix, and as you heard, aligned with some new teams.”

France and NASCAR president Mike Helton then field a number of questions from the media. What follows is a partial transcript of the Q and A:

Q. Brian, when you look at the three series, we’ve seen some contraction, fewer competitive teams in each series. Are you concerned about that and is there concern that we’ll see short fields in Cup?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, the economy will do that. It will have an effect on the sponsorship model, the funding of the teams, and various reasons teams also move around or get smaller. I don’t anticipate short fields, but obviously a very difficult economy that’s lasted so long has had an effect, and that will continue at some level.

Q. Brian, can you characterize the degree of input drivers and owners have in the policy making processes as you go along with these annual meetings you have with teams now that you’ve been doing that for several years?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think for us it’s a collaboration that is unprecedented in terms of — that we sit down with, as you know — and not just formally this time of the year but also when we have something very significant to deal with, and it’s been really good.

The answer is they have a lot of input. What you also need to know, which is pretty interesting for me, is the amount of disagreement on things, honest disagreements that happened. People that see it one way or another way on anything important is always surprising. You would be surprised at all of our meetings; someone’s idea of saving money is someone’s idea of not saving money, or whatever it might be. So we have to make sure that we’re hearing that input and obviously matching it up to our goals.

But they have a lot of input, and they should.

Q. Brian, can you talk about what went into your decision to make fines public, and do you anticipate still fining participants when they make critical comments about the sport?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I hope that we don’t. I think you’ve got to look at it in the context of how other sports operate in that manner. In terms of going public with it, we were frankly — we didn’t have a real strong position on that. It seemed to bother some people in November when we talked about this. I talked about it with you. So we’re not — we didn’t feel strongly. That’s something that people think is a good thing, so we were happy to do it.

Q. For either one of you gentlemen, this might be something better aimed at the competition department, but I’ll throw it out there for you guys. We’ve kind of gotten an understanding of what the auto makers hope to accomplish with their 2013 models when they debut. From NASCAR’s standpoint, the move presents an opportunity to continue to improve the series. What areas are you looking at with regard to the new car to possibly improve competition, specifically as it relates to the mile and a half tracks?

MIKE HELTON: Yeah, first of all, I think the optics of the 2013 car will be very significantly recognized and very popular, and the effort with NASCAR and all of the manufacturers collectively working on this together, the four manufacturers in a room with NASCAR and NASCAR saying we would like for you to help us design this race car in a way that you would like it. And that was a bit of a surprise to them, for us to be that open with that process.

But as the time went on and we all were engaged in it, it was obvious that that was going to be great benefit to NASCAR in general because of the relevancy and, oh, by the way, the energy that it created at the manufacturer level of being excited about being in the sport, and that can’t be anything but good for the entire sport.

The competitive things that we can learn from past experiences and apply any time we have a new body on a car is important, and it depends a lot on the conversations we have about the tandem racing or the mile and a half racing. NASCAR is constantly working on being sure that our product, race cars on racetracks, is as absolutely good as it can be. But it changes on us. The resurfacing of a track can change the circumstances on us.

But all of those things we’ve learned ourselves, the input we get from the teams and their body guys or engineers and the resources that you have today from wind tunnels and everything help you make small changes that can make a big difference. But those big differences may not last very long depending on what racetrack you go to next, what size and shape it is, or whether it’s a new surface or an older surface or even the Goodyear tire that gets molded on the car. So that’s something that we constantly have to chase.

But I think today more than ever we use the resources of our own knowledge but certainly are open like we are with our stakeholders with the teams because we’re all collectively on the same page. We all want to produce the absolute best race we can. The teams want it to be them that come out ahead, and we understand that.

But I think we can take advantage of — any time we change a body like this and make the racing better, and that’s our mission, I couldn’t sit here today and tell you exactly what we will do, but there’s a lot of folks working on that nonstop along with the manufacturers and the race teams, because we all understand what we do on the racetrack is still paramount.

Q. Brian, I’ve heard you say that the good story lines were something that you cited in the increased TV ratings for the Chase, but even before the racing got really good and the championship battle got really exciting, the ratings were seeming to go up for the Chase, and at the same time ESPN was doing side-by-side commercials and there was also some later start times in the Chase. With the later start times and the commercials the way they did the format, do you believe that played any factor in increasing the ratings at all?

BRIAN FRANCE: Sure. All that plays a factor in it. You want to try to get all of that as right as you can. But even when you do all those things, if you don’t have close competition, exciting races and hopefully good story lines that are produced out of that, that can only take you so far. So I still think the story lines are what drives any — interest in anything, frankly, any sporting event.

But all that is true.

Q. Brian, you mentioned earlier in your speech the Freescale and McLaren technologies on board in this fuel injection system. Is this the final piece, or is there ongoing development maybe that we’ll see at the end of the season a different injection system than we see at the first race in Daytona, and what is NASCAR doing concerning cost control in the engine department?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, let me say, we’re pretty confident in what we’ve chosen – it’s been tested pretty carefully – that we will be in good shape. If we’re not, if there’s some change, then we’ll look at that. But we’re pretty confident that we’ve got the right package on that.

Let me tell you something about fuel injection that you might not have thought about. Fuel injection excites the manufacturers. It excites technology companies, and between that, as Mike said, and the various things we’re doing with the 2013, our expectation is the car manufacturers are going to increase their support for the teams, increase their activation, which is great for all of us, and they’re excited to do that because they feel good about it.

So it’s not all what kind of cost we lay in on the front end. You have to look at the entire puzzle over time. And the other thing is we’re going to be careful with technology in terms of what it does, the cost of it for the teams, et cetera. But we’re going to have to look differently at not only the car companies but all the other technology companies that exist want to feel like this is a place that showcases some of that technology.

So to attract new companies into the sport, we will have to take a bit of a different view on that, and we’ll have to — we’ll balance the cost for the teams carefully, but that’s the mission we’re on.

Q. With the TV contract ending in 2014, do you expect to get the new deal done this year? Kind of what are the key issues or hurdles in that, and can you kind of talk about how digital rights issues relate to the negotiations?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, you know, we’re excited with our current — we really like our current partners. My expectation is they want to renew their involvement with NASCAR, and my hope is at the right time we’ll figure that out together. The sports landscape in general, as you know, has heated up quite a bit, so we will be in a good position at the right time. I don’t know when that will happen. If it happens early, it’s possible, or it might not. We’re having conversations.

And on digital, it’s very important to us. Very important for us to manage those rights carefully in the future. Obviously between digital and social media, it’s the new medium to develop that deep relationship with our fans and communicate with them. So we will be taking a very, very active role, already are, and not just us but the rest of the industry. This is one of these things where the industry has come together on many things, but this is an important one where the industry is working together, the teams, the tracks, NASCAR and so on, to formulate the right social media strategy, the right digital media strategy for the future. And we’re quite confident that we will manage those rights in a way that takes the most benefit forward on behalf of the industry.

Q. How confident are you that the current rules package you have in place for Daytona will greatly reduce or possibly eliminate the tandem drafting, or is that going to be kind of a moving target going forward in speedways?

MIKE HELTON: I think we have some confidence that the tandem racing that we saw ’11 conclude with won’t be a part of the Daytona 500. But as mentioned earlier, Robin mentioned, we’re not going to write a rules package that prevents the drivers from racing close to each other. That’s NASCAR racing that fans expect. So we think the Daytona 500 will be more in line with the fans’ expectations, and you’ll see more than likely cars push each other, but that was happening in 1959 and 1979.

So we’re going to be very careful and not write a rules package that promotes a driver not racing close to each other in Daytona. But I also expect there could be some tweaking that has to take place along the way, and the drivers and the teams know that because we’re all on the same agenda, to make sure the Daytona 500 is what it deserves to be and what the fans expect it to be.

Q. Brian, was there a red flag any time within the last few years which made you realize, hey, we need to listen to the owners and the drivers and the fans more?

BRIAN FRANCE: No, it’s just the way we manage the sport. I think it’s been incredibly helpful, and that’s my style and Mike’s style, as well. What we really did was make a determination that, although we talk to them at the track every weekend, which is kind of an unusual thing in sports, that formalizing our meetings from time to time and also letting them interact with some of the people they may not see at the track who are playing an important role in helping in whatever it might be grow the sport, that would be a better concept for us, and it has been, and it’s been — I look forward to them actually. So that’s working well for us.

Q. On the abolition of secret fines, will you now still fine drivers but publicly for disparaging the sport, and if so, how would you categorize that given that those comments probably happen outside the realm of an event? Is that still an action detrimental to stock car racing?

BRIAN FRANCE: If you challenge the integrity of the sport, we’re going to deal with that. You know, we have to deal with that. And I think what’s really interesting is I can’t tell you how many owners or drivers come up to me and say thanks for doing that because some of these comments were irresponsible and unhelpful to growing the sport.

Now, having said that, we give the entire industry an unprecedented amount of — we’re not talking about who’s critical of NASCAR. You can be critical of things you don’t think we’re doing well, in particular a race call. You can say I don’t think I was speeding; I disagree with that. We understand that. It’s when you go after the integrity of the sport is where we will step in, and they will be public.

Q. Today Wal-Mart announced they’re going to sponsor a car, and Bill Elliott said it’s as big a news as when the stock cars went to Indy for the first time. And Miller today announced their sponsorship of the 2 continuing. What I want to ask is about what corporate America is looking at NASCAR like today, what you think the corporate sponsors are thinking now, and if you think we’ll get to the day that we’ll have cost containment to get one sponsor on these cars instead of so many rotating again.

BRIAN FRANCE: Cost containment is not a function of splitting the car up with different sponsors. That’s a financial decision frankly that the teams have made from time to time. It’s our preference to see more primary sponsors for sure, and I’m very happy, as you just said, about Miller joining, and I think it started last year when we did have a number of renewals, including a very large one with Sprint.

You know, I think everybody has always realized the value in what they can get out of NASCAR, and we’re very pleased that a number of companies are renewing that. That’s good news.

Q. On the topic of manufacturer interest, cars have been evolving, and you recall 30 years ago there was an experimental LR car, and the cars of today tend to have 1.62 liter. How much further are we along from seeing compact cars running perhaps city streets to attract young people, à la the drifting? How much closer are we to seeing a series for that?

MIKE HELTON: Well, you’ll see some of that in Daytona this weekend. The GRAND-AM product now that NASCAR is very much engaged in I think gives us the opportunity to look at what you’re talking about, whether it’s a C class or a B class automobile and gives us the ability to showcase that type of racing and that very specific type of environment, which is historically sports car racing.

And we get that. As we become more merged with the stock car part of NASCAR and the sports car part of GRAND-AM, there’s a lot of opportunities for us to do things like we’re talking about. There’s a level of interest not only in the current manufacturers but others in the opportunities that exist with B and C class type cars in some kind of a competitive format.

But tomorrow’s race is — how many cars do you have in the Continental race tomorrow, Joie (Chitwood)? 80 cars in the Continental race, which is part of the Rolex 24 this weekend, and that’s an example of what you’re talking about.

Q. In the ’90s NASCAR had phenomenal growth and then in recent years it’s sort of plateaued, and as you said 2011 was a great year, got a lot of momentum back. What are maybe some of the next big things you’re looking at? Are there any new tracks on the horizon, new markets you want to get into, new manufacturers coming into the sport? What’s kind of the next big thing you see coming down the road?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I don’t know that there’s one big thing that we’re pointing towards. What I can tell you is all the things that we’re doing that we’ve announced today and have announced in the past. I can tell you that the industry has never been more united to growing the sport of NASCAR on everyone’s behalf. And that’s going to be our job.

Obviously you’ve heard a lot about digital and social media as an enormously important place. We’ve reformed our communications efforts to reach more fans. So you’re going to see us and the entire industry get more aggressive. You’re going to see youth initiatives. You’re seeing the fruits of diversity start to be right around the corner. That will really advance us if we can get a breakthrough, which I’m very confident we will, at a national level. So there are a lot of things out there that are all going to point to us being able to either grow our audience with a new demographic, whether it be a younger demographic or more diverse. We’re doing the things that we think you have to do to put yourself in a position to grow in the future, even though when I say grow in the future, it is a very, very difficult landscape for any sports property to build on. It’s just very competitive.

So we’re having to be at the top of our game to make sure that we’re delivering what the fans want, what our partners need, and what new fans will get excited about.

Q. Can either one of you update us on the green initiative?

BRIAN FRANCE: Green initiative is really well. I think we’re — obviously the biofuel and ethanol a year ago, fuel injector to a small level. Let me tell you, we’ve had a big summit in Miami in November, brought a bunch of different companies and brands together in the technology space and the green energy space that would have never looked at NASCAR in the past, and they’re taking a hard look at that. We’ll be announcing some new companies that are coming in.

You’re aware of all the recycling and all the things that the industry — that we’re marshaling all the resources to get us to a place that’s very important to the car manufacturers. We’re getting some acclaim for that for taking an offensive-minded strategy in a smart way as an industry, and so I’m real proud about where we’re at and more importantly where we’re going.

Q. For Mike or Brian, in press conferences this week and even here today, we’re heard talk about the 2013 car making it more relevant for the manufacturers in discussion with EFI. Talk about making that more relevant to the manufacturers, which kind of begs the question of something was not as relevant before those two things. My question is how did we get that way, or perhaps as Mike said earlier, is it simply a facet of the general evolution of the sport?

MIKE HELTON: Yeah, I think it’s a couple of things: One, as you walk through this Hall of Fame and you watch — are able to visibly see the evolution of a race car and you see how it went, for a lot of good reasons, and primarily for safety’s sake, the evolution of the race car became more motorsports orientated than it was a transportation orientated vehicle.

So we tooled along and everything was working good, but along the way, not just for the 2013 car but along the way, the manufacturers said, well, what about this and what about that. But we’ve never had a collective effort like we started a couple or three years ago that showed up first in the Nationwide garage with the pony cars and the muscle car look. And obviously that was very successful for our relationship with the manufacturer but with the car owners and the fans and the racetrack. So that kind of stepped in then to the Cup side.

Well, what can we do at this level, and by then the manufacturers were saying, okay, NASCAR wants us to help them, and we did ask them to help us. So that collective effort produced what we’ll see — we saw it Tuesday with the Ford and we’ll see the other three makes as the season goes on. That collective effort kind of migrated back toward the relevancy, and a lot of it also had to do with technology, the ability of whether designing products or using different forms of technology for us to regulate like a fuel injection system, where we were ten years ago afraid of going down that road because of fear of not being able to regulate it, the technology, and NASCAR is embracing technology to make rules and regulations. And oh, by the way, just the technologies of fabricating parts and pieces that are now more common in NASCAR than they might have been 15 years ago led us to the ability to create the 2013 car with the manufacturers.

BRIAN FRANCE: I would add one thing to that. Their business has changed quite a bit in the last three or four years even. You see leadership in a number of areas. They have different expectations. As Mike said, there’s been a flight to technology on their behalf. It’s their stated goal, flight to green, to be smarter about emissions, and that’s a lot of it, so we’re going to make sure that we’re delivering on the important promises that they want to get met.

Q. Brian, with all the positives that you enumerated about EFI, is it NASCAR’s desire and are there plans to bring EFI to the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series?

BRIAN FRANCE: I think over time, absolutely, that will be something that will be important.

Q. This kind of goes to Jim’s question: Where did the process start or where was the moment where you said, okay, we need to move toward another car, this idea of the 2013? Did it start with the manufacturers or fans, or did it happen in a boardroom in Daytona? Where did that process start?

MIKE HELTON: Yeah, I’m not sure that you could draw a line on a calendar and say here’s the date and here’s the location or here’s the person that said that. I think it’s just in our DNA to constantly look or try to be able to look around the corner. So as we focused on the car that we race now, and particularly around the chassis of that car, that was the mission that was to be accomplished. But even while that was coming to fruition, and once it got into the Cup garage, and we knew it would eventually expand to Nationwide and probably to other types of racing series down the road, that the thought process was, okay, what’s next.

And along with, as Brian mentioned, the leadership and the OEMs that we’re involved with started saying, what can we do, then from that collective conversation came the idea of the optics side. Sooner or later the manufacturers are going to have another body design or another change, and we’re seeing a lot of things happening on their level that are — that our fans and their customers are excited about, the cars that Ford and Dodge and Toyota and Chevrolet are putting on the street.

So it all just came together, if you will, at the right time for us, we think. But it’s been a two- or three-year effort and will be another year before we see it. But I think it’s more just like being in our DNA to continually pursue what’s next.

Q. A lot of the discussions and changes that have been made over the last couple of years have been traced back to what you’ve talked about the fans are asking for, and it strikes me that perhaps maybe the fans and what they ask for may not always be good for the sport. I’m thinking about the change in the car in 2007; the reaction initially was, well, we’re tightening up the rules, and this is manipulating the competition. But now fans are asking you to do exactly the same thing, manipulate the competition and break up the two-car draft or change that at Daytona. How do you look — what principles do you cling to and hold to as you’re wading through this changing tide of fan opinion?

BRIAN FRANCE: Well, you know, we don’t always obviously react to every request that the fan base would like to see, because you’re right, some of them are either not practical or wouldn’t work properly. But it’s kind of real simple for us; we’ve been doing this for over five decades, so we have a pretty good feel for — we certainly have a great feel for our — the values of NASCAR in terms of close, competitive racing. So if we think there’s something that we can do that enhances that promise that we have and it matches up with cost and all the other things, relevance and all the things you hear so much about today, then we try and do that.

And if it’s something like tandem racing where it’s overwhelmingly, where they just don’t like that style of racing, they like the old style, naturally we will try to — by the way, that’s consistent, because we like the old style ourselves better. It evolved into something that no one saw coming, and now we’re going to deal with that.

There isn’t a new change in that. It may seem that way, but the reality is we’ve got our values, we’ve got our mission, and just because you’re collaborative, that’s a really good thing. I don’t ever want us to think that we’re headed down a road because we listen to people a lot more and that somehow that’s going to foul us up. It won’t. We’ll make sure of that.

MIKE HELTON: And to Brian’s point, I think what we maybe should be most proud of today, we being NASCAR, is being more open minded to all stakeholders, to the racetracks, to the race teams, the broadcast partners, sponsors, the media. I think what we have tried to do over the past several years is to become more open minded, so we don’t look at it as a fan asking us to change something. We look at it more as saying to the stakeholders, which include the fans, what do you think and what do you like and what do you dislike, and then we digest all of that across the board from all of our stakeholders and try to make decisions that we feel like will fit best for the next step that NASCAR takes.

It’s not — a team comes to us and says you need to change this, and we say why, and the question that they ask us isn’t as important to us as the answer that they give us once we say why, and then we can follow it through.

Same with fans. We don’t react necessarily to a fan saying you’ve got to change this as much as we say, well, why, and then hear what the answer is. And if that answer makes sense, we’re going to go to work on it. If it doesn’t make sense, then we have to go to the next question.

KERRY THARP: Before I excuse you from the stage, we just got some very sad news, the passing of Dr. Joe Mattioli up in Pennsylvania today, and I know Brian and Mike are very close to that man and what he meant to the sport, and Brian, I know that he goes back a long ways with your family. I just wanted to pass that on and didn’t know if you had any comments you and Mike would like to say on behalf of Doc Mattioli.

BRIAN FRANCE: He was a friend from the very beginning with my grandfather. It’s very sad to hear that, and we’re very close to the Mattioli family, and obviously our hearts go out to them. He was a great man, and he really, really cared a lot about this sport. He’ll be missed.

MIKE HELTON: Yeah, there’s no question that Doc was very symbolic to the passion of our sport. When you say Pocono, everybody has their own different interpretation of your first reaction to saying Pocono. But it’s certainly the character and the passion and the impact that Doc and Rose Mattioli and that Doc made on our sport will be forever engrained in it, and it’s sad to hear of his passing, and like Brian said, all of our thoughts are with Rose and the entire Mattioli family right now.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 26 2012
One Comment

One Comment »

  • CavScout62 says:

    It’s way past time that EFI was implimented in this segment of racing. It’s also way past time for favoritism to be done away with though I don’t see that happening as long as the france family is in control. We all know after Rusty Wallace and the Masturbator did the interview where they admitted that the winners are picked before the season even starts that the france family and all thier “good old boy” friends MUST be removed from this series before we will ever get back to real racing. Oh well, it will not happen in my lifetime but maybe our grandchildren will have some honest American Stock Car Racing to watch in the future.