For Brian France, Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, hurtling down a racetrack at 200MPH - in a souped-up stock car - is the mainstay of the family business. Ironically, he told Off The Cuff, “I enjoy watching more than I enjoy driving. You saw me parallel park - you'd understand why.”
France is the grandson of NASCAR founder and race car driver William “Big Bill” France Sr. “I get asked all the time ‘didn't you ever want to be a race car driver? And I knew pretty early on that I was going to be on the other side of that equation,” he said.
When he was very young he wanted to be “a cowboy, wrestling steers in the West,” or James Bond. Later, “I didn’t look at our business as a big opportunity for a career. I went to a couple of events with my dad for sure, and I grew up in Daytona where the races ran twice a year. But I never thought – even into my twenties -- that this was going to be a big enough career for me. Then the sport started to grow up. I was able to make a contribution, and it just evolved.”
He joined the family business at the age of twenty-two, when his father, Bill France Jr. was the chairman. It was Bill, Jr. who grew NASCAR into the phenomenon it is today. As for working with his dad….Brian let out a sharp whistle. “My dad was a tough man. I think that would be putting it mildly. Short on praise, short on communications. Long on leading by example. Lots of integrity, and lots of passion for things. But he was a tough guy.”
One widely-reported incident illustrates this. Brian France was speaking at a news conference in 2003, when his father, frustrated with his son’s presentation, interrupted him from the audience and addressed the crowd directly. "I told him I was disappointed that he thought he needed to make his point at that time," Brian France later said.
Still, eight months later Bill France, Jr. turned the wheel over to his son. As Chairman, Brian France has transformed NASCAR from a sport into an entertainment powerhouse. Its races are broadcast in more than 175 countries and in 25 languages, and they bring in estimated annual revenues of $3 billion.
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“It's a multi-billion dollar industry run by our family.” France told Off The Cuff. ”That gives us some real unique advantages. We know our sport and our industry better than anybody else. We have the values from the original days. We understand how our stakeholders win and lose in a big way. So I think gives us an advantage to be family controlled, family owned,” he said.
But the recession has hit NASCAR hard. “It's had a disproportionate effect on us,” France said. “The reason is that we're more reliant on sponsorships for team partners. And our fans travel further, they stay longer. So high fuel prices, high unemployment, often means that vacation - they may take less of them.” The Charlotte Observer calculated that ticket sales revenues at NASCAR’s three largest tracks fell by 38 percent over the five years leading up to 2012.
France is hoping 2013 will be a pivotal year for NASCAR with the roll-out of the Gen-6 race car. In some ways, it marks a return to NASCAR’s stock racing roots. These look like cars you might find in a showroom anywhere in the country, but on steroids. They’re recognizable as Toyota Camry’s, Chevrolet SS’s and Ford Fusions but they have wider bumpers and are more aerodynamic. Also, NASCAR is investing in other new technologies, like a customizable glass dashboard, and a track drying system which uses compressed air.
The company is trying to diversify its fan base -- which has been predominantly white and male – as well as its drivers. “We've got some promising drivers that will change that,much like Tiger Woods did with golf, said France.” We want everybody in this country to be a NASCAR fan. You know, take the Hispanic population. They really resonate with us. And they love cars, generally speaking. They're family people, we're a family-driven sport.”
For the first time in NASCAR history, fifteen races this season will be broadcast in Spanish, on FOX Deportes.
As for his own family, France, who has four children, hopes NASCAR will appeal to the next generation – on his side of the track. “With my genes, I can't imagine that I'm going have a future driver come out of my stable. We'll see.”