France Dishes On Dirt, New Cars, Tweets, More
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
NASCAR’s “cool factor,” its Gen 6 race car and the quality of racing were among myriad topics discussed by chairman/CEO Brian Z. France and Steve O’Donnell, the sanctioning body’s vice president of racing operations, during a press conference Saturday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Here is the complete transcript of what has evolved into NASCAR’s season-ending “State of the Sport” address.
STEVE O’DONNELL: “We announced previously an age limit change in the (national) tours where we went to 15, and based on the opportunities for a lot of young drivers out there that are coming up through our system faster and faster, you’re seeing it in the tours, you’re seeing it in our D For D program. We’re going to move the age restrictions that currently exists for the (Camping World ) Trucks from 18 down to 16, and that rule will be in place for road courses and any tracks 1.1-mile or less.
“We announced (Friday) the addition of Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Great addition for us. Keeps our national series presence in Canada, which we said was important to us and we wanted to do, and as for the schedule, in its totality, we’re working on a couple of new facilities. I can assure you that wherever we go, the proper safety measures will be in place. There’s some exciting opportunities still out there, and we expect to announce that very shortly. Proud to have Canadian Tire on board and more importantly happy to see the path for younger drivers to come from the tours up to trucks at the age of 16 next year.
“Second, I want to talk about our Gen 6 race car, and you’re going to hear our chairman, Brian France, come up in a minute and talk about that. But one of the things we’re proud of is the collaboration that you’ve heard throughout the industry with NASCAR, the race teams, the manufacturers and ultimately everything we do is for the race fans. What you’re seeing up here today are some changes to the look of the car, and this comes about from a working relationship with the race teams. We know that we needed to offer them some additional space, some additional things for sponsors in this day and age, so you’re going to see some different areas where the sponsor will be able to put their logo, particularly on the roof that has not happened in the past.
“One of the other additions that we’ve looked at that we’re proud of, especially as we look to younger drivers coming up in the series, is the driver’s last name on the windshield. So starting in Daytona you’ll see that as an addition to every car, as we said, into the 2013 season.
“And then last but not least is certainly the manufacturer presence. It’s important for us to make that car look as much as we can like the production vehicle you see on the streets, so moving some logos around with the manufacturers, moving some numbers off the headlights and taillights, again, all in an effort to have that car reflect what’s on the street and most importantly make it easier for our fans to identify who’s in that car race-in and race-out.”
BRIAN FRANCE: “Let me just start off by thanking or congratulating James Buescher and his Turner Motorsports team for their (Camping World Truck Series) championship that they won last night. Also certainly going to settle the Nationwide Series later on this afternoon, three drivers in contention for that series, looking for hopefully an exciting conclusion.
“And of course on Sunday we’ll settle the Sprint Cup championship, and much like last year, there’s two drivers that are set to really go chase that championship. And it’s an interesting contrast because you’ve got a five-time proven champion (Jimmie Johnson), you’ve got a young driver (Brad Keselowski), a team that hasn’t been together all that long. One is the underdog in terms of the points situation, and the other is chasing but with a lot of experience, which should be a great, exciting conclusion to a really good year.
“And as Steve mentioned, while this is a time to certainly celebrate 2012, it’s also my time with you to talk about, A, what’s happened a little bit in this season and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2013, in particular since what we’re now calling the Gen 6 car is in play in terms of it’s getting an amazing amount of acceptance. There’s been an unprecedented amount of collaboration to get here, to get that car in-step with what the manufacturers believe is the best-looking race car, having enough technology in that race car.
“But the missing and final piece, which we’re working on now, is to improve on the quality of racing, which as everyone knows is a stated goal of ours – to have the closest, most competitive, tightest racing that we can and that’s what we’re testing now. Those are the rules packages that we’ll be building around the car that I’m seeing the kind of things that I was hoping to hear in terms of the performance of these cars and how that’s going to help us achieve our goal.
“We’re excited about that. We’re excited about concluding the season. We’re excited about a number of things from a business standpoint, which is our television agreements with FOX have been secured. We’ll be talking to our other partners as we go down in the coming weeks and months. Plenty of encouraging signs there.
“The tracks, economy still is what it is. We’re still disproportionately affected by sponsorship; in particular most of the other sports leagues don’t have nearly the reliance on that, and obviously that’s still under a lot of pressure. Teams will tell you, we will tell you, we’re working to do all the things that we can to make that challenge, to get through that challenge as best we can.
“So with that, I’m happy to open it up to any questions.”
QUESTION: Can you just talk a little bit about your vision, the opportunity, the possibility of NASCAR racing on dirt in the future? I understand that’s one of the possibilities for the Truck Series next year.
FRANCE: “Well, you know, it’s part of our history at a high level. It still is at the weekly level. And that hasn’t been completely worked out, but that’s a possibility. That would put a unique twist on the Truck Series if that is able to be worked out. But it’s a part of our history. We have a lot of fans that that’s what they grew up watching and seeing at their local short tracks. I ran a short track, a dirt track in Arizona when I first got there; it was a dirt track. I’ve got a little experience at knowing how to get the track surface in some order, especially in a hot, dusty place like Arizona, very difficult. So it would be fun, fun to see if it happens.”
Q: After going more than a decade, or at least talking about going to common templates, when Dodge came back into the sport the first time, what took so long in the evolution to get back to having cars look more like they’re from the showroom rather than just strictly a combination of four manufacturers and losing that identity? Why the push now?
FRANCE: Well, we’ve been at this for a couple years. It takes a while. It takes a long while, in particular if you’re going to solicit the interest of an – the input rather of the car manufacturers, the teams and everybody else that’s affected. It just takes time.
“We’ve been hearing for a long time that our fans like rivalries within the manufacturer group. Obviously the car manufacturers like more identification the better, and that’s good for them. And then if we can have a trifecta where we can do all those things and then really put a rules package together that I’ve said recently uses a lot more science than art to get closer, tighter competition, then we’ve got a home run package, and that’s what we’re planning to have.”
Q: With the changes forthcoming in SPEED and the dot-com of NASCAR.com changing and the TV deal partially done and the different ways that fans are watching the races, what do you envision leading into the future with the television side of things and the media side of fans watching? What do you see as the innovation to continue the coverage of our sport to increase the ratings?
FRANCE: “Well, we’re going to be working together with all of our television partners and all of our media partners to do two things _ to continue to present our sport in innovative and broader ways than they currently do now, and they want to do that. And then we’re going to be talking about all the places that sports content is going to be consumed by race fans and potential race fans, both digitally and otherwise, and how all that sort of marries up with building our fan base and satisfying and interacting with our fans, and it’s an exciting time. It’s an exciting time for anybody that has high-end, valuable sport content to be in that position to look at all the things that are coming and make the right decisions hopefully to make sure we don’t miss one of those opportunities that goes by.”
Q: Two questions about things that happened this week – the incident with Jeff (Gordon) and (Clint) Bowyer (at Phoenix International Raceway), kind of a fine line; you can’t really have guys using cars as weapons, but it did generate massive amounts of attention for NASCAR, so you’re walking a fine line, I guess, in what is and isn’t allowed. It’s sport but it’s entertainment. So what do you do? How do you sort of handle that because you’ve got the “boys-have-at-it” policy?
Q: So what does NASCAR do? And the (Brad) Keselowski (cell phone) thing, I understand the rule, it’s not tweeting, you can’t have – it’s not the phone itself, but it’s great for the fans that he can provide that access in the car. Is that something that NASCAR can do going forward?
FRANCE: “Sure. First part of the question, really not that fine a line. We have a stated approach that this is a contact sport. We expect contact, especially late in the race. But I always say there are limits. Drivers know what those limits are, and you can cross those limits and that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. It was very obvious and very easy for us to figure that out and for everybody to figure that out, and so we deal with it. That doesn’t change the idea that we’re not going to walk away from _ including Sunday, we expect there is going to be _ there was contact last night at a pretty significant level late in the race. That’s the history of this sport, and we’re going _ there will be limits, the drivers know where the limits are. If they have any confusion on that, they can certainly talk to us directly or look at our calls and how we’ve dealt with _ when we think that those limits have been broken, and that will be that.
“The second part of your question, we are the most aggressive in social and digital media in terms of our drivers and teams and tracks taking part in that. The trick is that in the cars today, and particularly in the future, now with fuel injection, we’ll soon be talking to you about a digital cockpit that will be coming down the road as early as 2014 and smart devices and smartphones and other devices can have an effect on manipulating the technology that is now going to be in the cars; we have to be careful with that. And so that’s why our policy is that you’re simply not going to be able to take a device into the car with you.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be the most aggressive at hoping, pushing that they have big social media plans and they take full advantage of it. Brad is one of the leaders of that with 300,000-some Twitter followers, and so we’re going to keep pushing for them to do just that.”
Q: In the ’50s and ’60s there was a lot of concentration on the cars in this series, manufacturer rivalries, Ford versus Chevy fans fighting in the grandstands, et cetera. Then we kind of moved into more of a driver personality focus. Now it seems like we’re moving more toward emphasizing the cars and trying to bring fans in through that gateway. How do you see the balance now between those two things? Are cars more important than drivers now?
FRANCE: “No, we don’t look at it that way. I think we arguably – by the new car (Car of Tomorrow) in 2007, arguably we didn’t help ourselves with the manufacturer rivalries that are always important, and so we want to try to elevate that back up to where it traditionally is. That’s number one.
“The drivers are always going to be, as my dad used to say, the actors on the stage or the stars on the stage and so on, and that’s – we’re doing a lot of things to elevate their star power and that’s the number one connection to our fan base and always will be, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that our drivers get the right attention and accolades, and not only in NASCAR but throughout all of sports. There are no competing goals here.”
Q: Go back to the cell phone thing. After Daytona when Brad Tweeted during the red flag, NASCAR was pretty forthright about like this is a really good thing, and this is something we want to see more of, and then this week the message kind of changed a little bit. For fans that you’re trying to reach through digital media, when you talk about being tricky, is that where it’s a difficult line to balance?
FRANCE: “No, it didn’t change a bit. It evolved. That was the first time at Daytona that we had seen somebody in real-time Tweeting during a red flag at that point. We love that. We just know now that we have things in the car that could be affected by devices, smart phones and the like, that we have to make sure that we don’t interfere with that and give somebody an opportunity to – even if it was unintentional, to manipulate some portion of digital devices that we’re going to have in the car. And now with electronic fuel injection.
“And so we immediately loved the idea, loved the attention that brought to the sport, encourage it but have to balance it in the competition end to make sure nobody gains an advantage.”
Q: When you talk about digital cockpits and the glass dashboards that you’ve mentioned in the past, is there going to be an opportunity for social media through that?
FRANCE: “I fully expect that we have one of the real incredible opportunities because of how information, telemetry and all kind of things that are integral to the running of each race, and for us to be able to share that information down the road in very, very interesting ways with our fans. We are in the best position in sports, just because we have so much of that information that is so relevant. So I fully expect that to be a part of it, sure.”
Q: You mentioned earlier, talking about the new car, one of the goals is obviously going to be better competition, if you guys are able to give the teams the tools to provide that. If you look at the view of the Car of Tomorrow, it took a while for teams to get comfortable with that and to really make improvements on it so that the competition could grow, get closer. Are you concerned that there’s going to be that period of learning and that the competition is not going to be what fans are going to expect when the new car hits the track?
FRANCE: “You know, I’ll tell you, we learned a lot and I learned a lot personally on that particular debut of that car, and the collaboration – I thought it was fairly high at the time, it wasn’t as high as it needed to be. The testing, the way we’re doing it, manufacturer support, I thought it was pretty high. It wasn’t high enough, it wasn’t even close to high enough. Today that’s totally changed and I expect the drivers to have a lot more time under their belt _ we’re also not phasing it in as we did as you recall in ‘07, which made it more difficult. One week they’re running one thing, next week they’re trying to adjust back. That made it more difficult.
“So it’s fair to say as we are going down the road today, we want to change that. But don’t underscore, there’s one more thing on that car that we did not attempt to do with the ‘07 car. You’re talking about body style, safety innovations, those are all good things. Common templates, we can all debate that a little bit. But the emphasis on the cars driving better differently, and the ability to have hallmark close competition and particularly on the mile-and-a-half is what we’re really seeking here, and we’re going to make _ I’ve told the team-owners and we’ve talked to obviously everybody, that these are going to be pretty significant things. Whatever the collection of things that we’re going to put on the car, they will be designed to have tighter competition. It’s as simple as that. Not every driver will like that per se, because some drivers like the exact rules packages, notwithstanding the look of the car that they have today.
“And I hope we’ll be very successful at that. I know we will be over time. I hope we are earlier than that.”
Q: You noted in your opening statement how much more NASCAR as an industry is dependent on the economy, and the owners out here assume so much risk. Judging by what I see on this new car, it seems like there is a push being made to offer a greater platform for the sponsor. What else can NASCAR do or what responsibility does the sanctioning body have to make sure that the owners have that platform that they can sell to corporate America?
FRANCE: “Well, we have traditional things that you would think we would have at our disposal, making the space available differently and smarter on the car. That’s one thing, being ever-mindful of the cost issue being another. But we’re not going to be in a position to change the economy, how just about every company is being much more judicious and careful with their advertising expense, no matter how well they work. They’re not in a position as they were a few years ago to make big bets out over long periods of time at the level that they were. It’s understandable.
“And then you throw in from an economy standpoint that our fans, the best in the world, drive the furthest, they stay the longest, they often as you guys know build their race weekends around family vacations and all kinds of things. Well, the cost to do that and the unemployment, when you don’t have a job and the costs are still going up, it isn’t hard to understand why we will be in a little bit different position. So we’re working on all those things and we’re doing everything we can. Things will get better on that, and they have gotten better in some areas.
“We’ve put a lot of new companies into the sport. We’ll always have some attrition, too, so a lot of these companies are starting to get early good results, like 5-hour Energy drink being one and there are a number of companies that we have. But we’re more reliant, there’s no doubt about that, on corporate sponsorship.”
Q: You’ve talked a lot about the science and technology going into the new car, digital cockpit. Brad’s incident sort of brought that to light, as well. With the development of the new car, do you ever see a future where NASCAR may allow real-time telemetry during practice on competition weekend in order to hasten the development of the new car?
FRANCE: “You know, that’s obviously something that _ that and more in terms of how information flows throughout the event and how that affects competition, cost and the like. But I think we’re going to try to figure all that out. You’re seeing it with fuel injection, you’re seeing it with, as I said, a digital cockpit. We have Sprint as our lead partner in the wireless business, so they’re helping us figure that out. So we’ll manage that differently than we did in the past, but we’ll still have to be careful of if we don’t get some unintended consequences with _ we’re still race team versus race team and we don’t disturb that competitive balance.”
Q: In the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr. having to sit out two races because of concussions, are you considering and/or implementing any changes in your medical procedures as it relates to the diagnosis or treatment of head injuries?
FRANCE: “Yeah. Well, we do look at that policy, head injuries and obviously concussions which are a pretty big topic in a few different sports currently.
“I was very pleased the way Dale handled that. Obviously we’ve said that. There’s a personal responsibility if you feel like you’re not yourself and there’s some things that your body is telling you that you just don’t play on and race on, and it starts there. So I think he took a big lead example. We have independent doctors that do review, and we have a very clear policy that if you’re not feeling like yourself, in particular if you’ve had a hard crash, that that’s _ follow Dale Earnhardt’s exact plan. He’s in the Chase, he’s Dale Earnhardt, he could have taken all kinds of different approaches but he took the right one. And so we’re going to continue to look at it, but it’s obviously an individual driver or team that must figure out those early symptoms.”
Q: Before the common template, you’ll remember that manufacturers and drivers would come and lobby your officials, and when they didn’t get satisfaction they’d come here to us and lobby us.
FRANCE: “Thanks a lot. I forgot to criticize you for that years ago.”
Q: What procedures _ everybody is nice and playing well now, but what happens when the competition starts after Daytona and they want changes? What procedures are in place to make sure that there will not be that similar type of lobbying?
FRANCE: “You know, I bet it’s exactly what happened in the past and that’ll be fine. We’re going to _ we have an R&D Center that we didn’t have years ago to examine who’s ahead or behind in terms of aero and every other conceivable thing, so we’ll have a much better handle on, A, getting it right in the first place, and B, correcting things that go wrong. We’re OK with that. That’s part of the sport. We’re not going to run around and complain that somebody has grabbed a media member and doesn’t like a certain situation.
“As long as our drivers and our teams don’t criticize the integrity of the sport, they may not like certain things, they may think we’re running a little slower or may make a bad call or two, we certainly will do that. But as long as that’s not the case, we fully expect there to be lots of back-and-forth.”
Q: What’s good tomorrow for NASCAR, a Brad win or a Jimmie winning a sixth championship? And who do you think will win at the end of the day?
FRANCE: “Do you really expect me to answer both those questions? I’ll say this – look, Roger Penske is an unbelievable owner and person, and what’s surprising is he hasn’t won more championships, multiple championships so far, and this would be obviously his first, so that would be a tremendous thing. Brad would be –I can say that it’ll be earned no matter what because both drivers, what we’re finding out in the Chase, what always happens is that certain drivers – Tony (Stewart) and Carl (Edwards) did it (last year) and Tony to a little higher level, elevate their game. And if you remember, there was a lot of discussion, well, that really doesn’t happen in motorsports and it really can’t happen, and everybody is trying as hard as they can and you can do anything you want and that really wouldn’t get better performances, and we now know better than that.
“So tomorrow, whoever is on their game, both teams, one mistake, we all know what happened last week, there’s going to be some contact out there going on, and you know, we’ll just have to see.”
Q: Statistics currently show right now that only 16 percent of chairmen and CEOs are currently utilizing social media. Do you have plans to aggressively start to interact on Twitter with fans, drivers, et cetera?
FRANCE: “Well, you know, we do. NASCAR has lots of ways that we communicate with our fans. I’ll be careful myself of how I want to do that directly, but I fully expect to have lots of ways that I’m going to be interacting with our fans in a digital way.“
Q: What’s the time frame currently to be able to have a digital integration in the cars for social media?
FRANCE: “Well, we don’t have a timeline.”
Q: I was at the SEMA show recently where O’Donnell was on a panel about motorsports. The whole talk was about the future of motorsports, and it seemed – and things you’ve mentioned here with the dashboard and the digital and all, the thing that came out of it is NASCAR has kind of lost its “cool factor,” especially trying to bring in the younger audience. And they’re talking about shorter races, shorter schedules and things like that. Are you looking at things like that to try to bring back that “cool factor,” and does a driver such as Brad Keselowski, who whether he wins it or not because he does some of these things with the phone and all that, does that bring some of the “cool factor” back?
FRANCE: “You know, I think, sure, young people today, young potential fans, the younger you go, I tell our guys all the time we’re in the middle of a conference room and the computer breaks, go call a 12- year-old. That’s who can get us back online.
“The idea that young fans are digitally engaged and getting excited about things much differently than they used to, not just plopping by the TV watching sports and other entertainment, sure, that’s all changing at a rapid clip. We’re going to do everything we can to stay apace with that and take advantage of it. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the objective of putting the driver’s last name on the windshield of the car and what you’re looking to accomplish with that?
FRANCE: “Yeah, it’s just – we are striving for raising their awareness all the time and every time, and we’re striving for continuity. As these paint schemes have had to change more frequently than they used to, the continuity of Jeff Gordon in a flamed No. 24 DuPont (Chevrolet) is a little different now, and so we’re trying to do things that will build their star power and at the same time have a little continuity for our fans to follow their favorite drivers.”No Comment