NASCAR Chairman Brian France met with the media at Homestead-Miami Speedway to discuss the state of the sport ahead of this weekend's season finale. Here is a transcript of his opening remarks, and a following question-and-answer session.
BRIAN FRANCE: Good morning, everyone. One way or the other this weekend we're going to make a little bit of history or a lot of history depending on how it goes. Jimmie Johnson could make history with his fourth consecutive championship, quite an accomplishment. We could make history if Jimmie has a problem and Mark Martin wins, he would be the oldest champion in NASCAR history to win a title. We could make history either way if Rick Hendrick, and he will, wins his ninth championship and ties Richard Petty. Either way, however it goes out this weekend, it will culminate a good season of racing and we're excited about that, whatever the outcome is.
Obviously the big thing is the dominance of Jimmie Johnson, the 48 team, what they've been able to accomplish. I don't think even historians in the past that were looking at different things in any particular season could have predicted how successful they are, how good they are. Everyone at NASCAR certainly congratulates them.
We have had, on balance, a very good season. You expect me to say that, but it has been. We're not without our ups and downs. In a long season, as many races as we have, we're going to have some of those. But we're real pleased with a lot of the things we did accomplish through what still remains a very difficult economy, very difficult on our race fans.
We continue to be pleased with the initial promise to the teams that we were going to react in an accelerated fashion, if we could, with everything from testing to rules packages and everything in between with policy to see if we could take additional cost out of their race operation budgets. We've done that in a lot of ways. We'll be doing more of that because, obviously, it's important and obviously we don't believe that 2010 looks, from just a pure economy standpoint, an awful lot better.
So, we'll be having that accelerated thought in mind for our teams to continue to help them as they have. The sponsorship front is getting better. There are companies joining the sport. That's encouraging. But it's still not what we all anticipated and hoped it will be in the future.
The tracks, I want to say, have reacted to these issues very well. Here in South Florida or anywhere on the circuit, tracks have taken an incredibly big step to be mindful of this economy. They've cut ticket prices pretty drastically. They've worked with hotels in every market to try to get better fares, better rates.
They've worked with all the pricing that they possibly could control to lower prices, whether it's merchandise, whether it was food and beverage, trying to do everything they can, particularly in a lot of places where we race like Michigan or California, that have been very hard hit, harder hit than other parts of the Midwest, the Northeast, mindful that a number of places we go unemployment is high, they're hearing that from their ticket customers, all the rest. My hope and my belief is that they will continue that.
We will continue our part in making it more affordable for the teams to race. We'll be working with them in a substantial way to help the sponsorship piece, which they're so reliant on, we're all reliant on, do as well as it can do. Certainly with the car manufacturers, we're certainly happy that all the car companies have stabilized. We didn't know this a year ago, what all would have occurred, transpired, but it did. The good news is they're out and doing business, doing better than they had been in the past. It's a very encouraging thing. They're a very integral part of what happens at NASCAR.
We've worked carefully with all of those companies to make sure that they stay in NASCAR, they're a good value, we're a big part of what they do in the future. On balance, that was all achieved. No small thing on everyone's part.
When you look at all the things, when I talked to you in February, we're going to have full fields in all national divisions, there were a lot of question marks there, this was going to happen, that was going to happen. On balance, we got through things fairly well, not easily. But we're poised to get onto the off season, give everybody a much-needed break, including people in this room.
With that, I'll be happy to take questions.Q. We're all familiar with the challenges in the economy going on these days. Where do you see opportunities for NASCAR that maybe you haven't looked at before or new things coming on deck for 2010?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, to me it's about making sure that race teams, starting with the teams, that they have their new business model figured out, because it's changed drastically. Same with our tracks. So I would say that's still the priority.
Obviously, we're on our way to doing some things that are going to be more appealing to what we see as an emerging green economy, where new companies, new technologies are coming out. They're going to need to build their brands, build their companies' awareness, their technologies. We're going to be a very, very important place for those companies to invest in in the future. We're doing a lot of things in that area that will give us a chance to convince them to join into this sport.
And then, you know, we obviously have a variety of things. We've got a new car coming online that everybody is very excited about in the Nationwide Series. We have the car in the Sprint Cup Series, I think where most of the teams and drivers have now figured that car out and then some, and the racing always can be better, but we're looking to keep building on that.
Then we're going to have an historic thing. It's very likely that Jimmie Johnson is going to be a reigning four-time champion. I can't say that with any more admiration than I have, what that means to the historic dynamics of this sport, and can he go for number five? We'll be looking at all the things you would expect us to look at in the off season to make the racing in 2010 even better.
Q. The hot topics this year were the Jeremy Mayfield situation – how confident are you in the drug policy you have? And also Talladega, the drivers were so critical there. What are you looking at doing specifically there, if anything?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, look, taking the first things first, on the drug policy, we believe that we made the right decisions to make an already tough policy even more tough. We think we have to do that with the circumstances that go on in the country today and in sports in general, and the fact that we have a 200-mile-an-hour racecar, we think it was very imperative that we improve our follow, which we did. We will stand behind that, very clearly.
In the future, when it comes to Talladega, there were a lot of things that were sort of in my view mispresented. We had an exciting race. I know a lot of people will debate that. In Talladega, when you look at lead changes, whatever else, we had an exciting race. But we always look very carefully at Talladega in the fall, because it changes. It was the bump-drafting that we didn't create a new rule, but what we obviously did was made sure the old rule was carefully followed.
But usually what comes out of Talladega in the fall, as to what we adjust, if anything, but usually we'll make adjustments going into Daytona, because it's a similar package for the teams, the superspeedway, plate racing, all that. We always learn things out of the last Talladega race that serve us better when we kick off the Daytona 500.
I know our group has already had some tests. We tested Monday and Tuesday after with various packages at Talladega. We'll be looking at those in the future. Those are our signature races, no question about it. Starting with the Daytona 500, going to the Pepsi 400, going to Talladega twice, those are the highest television-rated races. We've got to make sure that the racing is safe for sure, and then we need to make sure that it's a typical Talladega, Daytona kind of race. That's what we'll be working on.
Q. Brian, I'm sure you saw there was a story this week talking about how a lot of top teams still have inventory available for sponsors next season. By my count there are at least five teams that ran the full season this year that are either going away next year or looking to scale back because of sponsorship. With all that in mind, do you think there will still be full fields next year? Is it a case that maybe NASCAR needs to adjust its business model for a Sprint Cup team? It seems, with the economy getting back in things, the cost structure is out of whack.
BRIAN FRANCE: The cost structure is a function of the free market and what is available at the time in terms of sponsorship, in terms of other related revenues that the teams can obtain. We had this same conversation this time last year when the economy was even worse. There were a lot of predictions.
There are always teams at this time of year that are under-funded, that are looking for sponsors. That's not anything new. I think clearly the sponsorship market is tougher than it's ever been in my memory. I don't anticipate that getting remarkably better. Although I will tell you we're starting to see, get inquiries in our New York group, the teams which do the selling of the sport, they're starting to feel the ice thawing on that. I think you'll see some companies over the off season that are very close to joining us at one level or another.
It doesn't mean it will be all perfect from a sponsorship standpoint, everybody will have everything that they want from a sponsorship on the car standpoint, you know. For that matter, the tracks are working hard to renew and secure their track sponsorships. They're doing a pretty good job of that.
My sense is it will be difficult, but it's going to be fine. It will get better because we still have the best value proposition in sports. Despite any of the other dynamics going in or around us, it's still the only place you can brand on the playing field in the manner that we do. We're very proud of that, and we've always built around that, and we will continue to.
Q. On the topic of cost containment, is there any low-hanging fruit left? If there is, what areas would you like to go into to contain costs?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, there's no low-hanging fruit, but it's a core competence of ours historically to be able to take costs out of the system. It's fundamental to us. We've been talking about it for 60 years. There are a lot of motorsports divisions that sometimes it's important and sometimes it's not, depending on who you are.
The reality is there are some things left. I talked about accelerating policy that obtains that. You'll be hearing about the scoring, electronic scoring, that we use, and we have used, and can we go fully electronic. If we did that, what would it save the teams who have to provide scores, other related things. It's in the millions of dollars. We'll be looking at that obviously very carefully. We'll be looking at anything we can on the track's behalf, on the team owners' behalf to do things that don't affect the quality of racing, per se. I understand that's sometimes a subjective proposition, but what are the things we can do to take their cost model down. We'll be working very hard on those over the off season.
Q. This has been the first full year of the no-testing policy. The policy is announced for next year. It relaxes the restrictions a little bit and broadens the universe of racetracks they can go to slightly. Do you anticipate looking at that on a year-to-year basis and perhaps as the economy improves to evolve back to the policy that was in effect prior to this year? Have you seen any perceptible effect of the no-testing policy versus testing on the level of competition?
BRIAN FRANCE: I would answer this way. There's some balance between no testing at all, which is the best savings equation for the teams, for sure, and having testing the way it was done in the past, which was a lot of testing. There's more publicity for the markets when teams are testing, getting the events revved up in advance. Rookies, teams that are behind from a competition standpoint, can make up some ground in the testing deal if it's available to them. So there's some perfect balance.
We obviously have chosen to go the route of the cost savings, knowing that that has some consequences that are not perfect for all the things I just described.
As we can dial it back, as the economy gets better, we will. I don't think we'll dial it back to the level we were two or three years ago where there was an enormous cost, some benefit, but too much cost. So we'll be dialing it as we go, as we watch the economy.
Q. The Chase format was intended to do a lot of things, like get more publicity during the time when football is starting up, the baseball playoffs, so forth, maybe cause more excitement. With Jimmie about to wrap up his fourth straight championship, there's a lot of people complaining it's become boring. This year particularly there hasn't been a whole lot of excitement. What is your feeling about the Chase? Is the format right? Does it need changes?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, look, what I wouldn't want to do is take away the accomplishment that Jimmie, his team, as I said earlier in my remarks. In this format, to dominate four straight years is incredibly difficult to do. But we could not have predicted anyone having as good a performance as Jimmie has had, to be able to achieve what he did, therefore taking away some of the things that the Chase will deliver in normal sets of circumstances.
To me, it's all in how you want to look at it. If you want to look at it that some of those teams that you would think would have been closer coming into today, you're missing that, yes, but you're getting a performance that's historic. You know, you can certainly look at it any way you want. But obviously we look at the adjustments in terms of the format every year anyway. You've heard me say that. We will be looking at that again to see if we can make it better.
But we love the premise of the Chase. History, specific performances dictate how it plays out. That's where we are today.Q. For maybe 18 months or so you've said you want to open it up, let these guys get back to being personalities, whatnot. Last weekend we saw some old-school retaliation in the Nationwide race. What did you say to Brad Keselowski? How bad does the sport need that old-school kind of payback fun?
BRIAN FRANCE: Look, we don't go into private discussions we have in the trailer with our drivers. But suffice it to say what we want is drivers who are driving hard, who are driving to win. When that happens you're going to have some situations where there's contact. We're a contact sport. You didn't see us over-respond when that happened. What happened in the Nationwide race in Phoenix, what you're always worried about, with retaliation, all those things, is escalation, unintended consequences.
But on balance, there's no question, we're encouraging drivers. When Carl last year made the last-lap attempted pass, Kansas City, you heard us applauding that. You didn't hear us saying anything other than that was a daring move by one of the better drivers. So we're pretty much committed.
But we also regulate the events. You have to make sure that there are limits to hard driving and rivalries and whatever. But we certainly want them. We know how important they are. We're going to do what we can to encourage them with some obvious limits as we go along.
Q. Brian, in regards to scheduling in 2011 and for the foreseeable future, I know Kansas wants a second date, Kentucky wants a date, some tracks are struggling to sell tickets. When that schedule comes out for 2011, do you foresee a major shake-up at that point?
BRIAN FRANCE: It depends on what you say is "major." For some people one race moving anywhere is major, certainly major for the track that loses a race or one that gains it.
It's certainly possible. Kansas has got a nice track record of a fan base they've built, success in their market. They have a big proposal that is going to be voted on shortly on a casino, a variety of other things, to expand that whole facility. My sense is that that all comes forward, they'll be wanting to have another date there. We'll talk about that, try to make the best decision we have. Kentucky is in the same boat in terms of wanting another date. We've long had a realignment policy that we have worked with the tracks.
It's tough because we balance the historical interest of the sport with the current realities of markets that work better in one place than another. We try to make sure that all works out, that the fans get what they want, which is the right racing at the right place at the right time. We'll be working on that as we always do. But it's certainly possible that changes could happen in 2011.
Q. This weekend can turn out to be pretty significant in terms of the Hispanic attendance, let alone the Hispanic media attending the event. Where do you feel NASCAR is in terms of reaching out to that Hispanic fan base? How important is it to get to that niche?
BRIAN FRANCE: In our situation, we've got a lot of diversity plans and programs that you're familiar with. They're working well. But ultimately, we get graded on the fact of who makes it to the national divisions, and from there what drivers of a diverse nature succeed. You know, having Juan Pablo (Montoya) have the success he's had this year is very helpful to that. There's no question that he has an affinity with the Hispanic fan base.
As the future unfolds, our diversity programs will deliver drivers, and there's several now that are recognized in the farm system of the major teams, that will ultimately – it's hard, because there aren't many seats in the national division, but they will. We'll inevitably have somebody that is going to change the look and feel in a good way, in a very good way.
Juan Pablo has done that sure but steady. My strong belief is in the future, maybe over many, many years before these opportunities reach a place where someone is having success on the big stage, but it will happen.
Q. Brian, obviously dynasties can define glorious eras in sports. You have been very pointed in stressing the historical significance of a Hendrick ninth title and Jimmie's likely fourth. Hasn't NASCAR lost something valuable with the disappearance of the underdog? Do you not see kind of a downside in this dominance, the fact that all the teams legitimately challenging Hendrick or have their engines built by Hendrick are certainly not underdogs?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, look, I'm sure every sport would have that same sort of dilemma of, you know, watching some dominant performances occur at the expense of smaller teams or others. Those are always questions that you would ask, How do you get to the perfect world?
All I can say is what is here upon us, it's historic. It is an incredible achievement that Jimmie is putting forward in NASCAR. That's what's before us. The rest of it, would it be better if this happened, this happened, that's up for other people to decide. I just can grade the performances as they come.
Q. Brian, in terms of the affordability to the teams, is NASCAR looking at boosting the purses in the Camping World Truck Series in terms of you putting the money in the purses yourself?
BRIAN FRANCE: You mean me personally (smiling)?
You know, the purses are part of the equation. The sponsorship is a bigger part, frankly, of how you sort of keep teams well-funded and whatever else. It all obviously comes together.
We've been pretty pleased with the Nationwide support. Frankly, they may be a benefactor as sponsorship values get pushed down or pushed around, that they're going to be a place that it's easy, more affordable for some companies. That's always been the case. It's probably highlighted now with a tough economy.
But we're looking at trying to get their costs down as best we can. We certainly help on the revenue side for them whenever we can, with television revenue or other ancillary revenue, sponsorship revenues. But where we can be the most impactful is helping them control costs with policies we write that affect their teams. That's what we're going to continue to work on during the off season.
Q. Brian, the very first year of the Chase you probably couldn't have planned it any better, you had five guys eligible going into the last race with a shot at the title. Since then we've seen Jimmie's dominance. Do you think the true value of this format won't be known until you look at it over a 10-year period?
BRIAN FRANCE: Probably. I think that's fair. Any models we ever did on anything of how things would likely play out never included somebody who would be so dominating at the right time. It's pretty incredible what they have done. Like I said, you can look at that a lot of different ways. The only way I think that is fair is to recognize it for what it is, not to pick apart the format. This isn't a formula exercise in a computer all the time to get you some result that you want. This is about sports and live things that happen by the best drivers and the best teams in the world and who performs at a high level and when.
You have to say that is what we look at ultimately in deciding what is a good outcome or not a good outcome.
Q. Brian, what are your hopes for gains you can make from the banquet being in Vegas in a couple of weeks versus New York? Do you anticipate somewhere down the road the banquet itself being open to fans?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, there is a fan component now because we had the room to do that in Las Vegas. There will be some number of fans. We're obviously happy about that. We're going to be looking to expand that over time. We want to walk before we run here.
But, look, Las Vegas will be a nice, refreshing thing, a shot in the arm a little bit this time of year for us and for the industry. It's going to save a lot of money, starting with that, which is important in this economy. But also the fact that the city of Las Vegas is so welcoming, the Wynn hotel has been incredible. My anticipation is it's going to be a fun week and attendance is going to be at an all-time high, in part because we have the capacity to expand because the venue lets us do that, and in part because I think people just want to come to Las Vegas in December. So we're looking forward to getting there in a couple of weeks.Q. NASCAR has always been described in the past as the benevolent dictatorship. At this tough time, it seems that NASCAR is listening to the fans more than ever before. Is that true? How do you balance listening to public opinion, not tipping your hand, altering how you would have run the sport in the past?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, you know, I can comment to my time at running NASCAR, since 2004. I said when I started that we were going to be the most inclusive that we have ever been in our history. We did that with a new car. We did that with a lot of things. We continue to do that. We've started the Fan Council where we speak directly to 12,000 fans every week on a variety of issues, and obviously with our teams, which we've done town hall meetings, we'll do more. The idea is to get as much input as we can.
In the end, you know, you want it to be where we can be decisive and make decisions, and we are. That's the way you get progress and you get to move forward. You want to take all the information in. But, look, we're a sport where there's a lot of opinions of how to do this, that or the other thing. And 43 teams in each national division all have different agendas. They have different goals of how things affect them, who likes this rules package better than the other person or this tire or whatever it is.
So the good news is we have a lot of people that have been doing this for 10, 20, 30 years, who understand how to filter the opinions, the reactions, and the advice that we get into a way that gets the best outcome for the sport. We're not perfect. We'll make mistakes. But by and large, year after year, we will make far more good decisions than we will poor ones. And the poor ones that we make, we'll try to fix them as fast as we can.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the car. Do you feel like you need to make any tweaks to the car or do you believe it's good enough as it is? There's also been talk about allowing the manufacturers a little more freedom with the body. Is that a priority? How close are you on that?
BRIAN FRANCE: We did have, as I said earlier, some very fluid, good exchanges in our town hall meeting that Mike Helton and I chaired in May. We had most of the team owners, a lot of the crew chiefs, some of the drivers. It wasn't just on the new car, or the car, but obviously there was a lot of focus on that.
What we came away from it with was there probably were some things that we could consider, but there was no unanimous, Boy, if you just did this, it would improve that, whatever. What we netted out was we will take a look at some things in the off season as you would expect us to do. There are a couple things we'll be looking at.
But one of the things we felt strongly about is if we change something in May or June, it would counter what we had said in the beginning, which is the car is going to take a little while to figure out, but when you did, we were going to have better racing by far and we were going to have safer racing. If we change things too much too fast along the way, we'll never get everybody comfortable with what they have.
So that was the decision that we ultimately, after listening to everything, because there's not anything that – most of the drivers are getting comfortable and they don't feel like they need a lot of help one way or the other. But we will look at some things, in the off season, going into Daytona, to see if we can make a car and the racing better than it is now. That is absolutely our goal, and it's always our goal.
Absent having passes every three seconds and photo finishes every race, which we would prefer, love to see that, if we don't achieve that, then we're going to keep pushing forward and looking at ways to achieve somewhere between great racing that we have now and Utopia, which is up here.
Q. Brian, I wanted to ask you about the Jeremy Mayfield case. His attorney this week publicly made the comment in light of NASCAR asking the judge to make a judgment on the pleadings, his comment publicly was a desperate attempt by desperate people, referring to NASCAR. I wanted to ask you about that comment and also their side, looking at additional depositions, including yourself, but also including your exwife in that, your feelings about that situation.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I will say it this way. You know, I've had a lot of experience with trial lawyers, more than I would like, and I didn't see the comment that you're referring to, but with trial lawyers, I've never been surprised with them, what they will say, to get some outcome for somebody that they're representing.
We're going to deal with it like we said we would. We made all the comments we can make in terms of what we think has happened. We are going to go forward. It's regrettable. Our preference is never to be in litigation over anything. We make rules and we hope everybody abides by them. If you go get a trial lawyer and you go do something, that's out of our control. Our only control at that point is to do the best we can in representing the entire sport's interest in matters that affect them. We will continue to do that.
Q. The ratings from the beginning of the year to the end of the year seem to just take a gradual decline, even in the Chase. I'm wondering if there are some structural factors outside of the Chase that you're looking at to sort of steady that, especially as the season sort of winds down in the final 10 races?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, look, there are a lot of reasons that ratings go up and down. You've heard me say, you know, there are literally a dozen different things that factor into that. I won't get into all of them. Needless to say, if you're a sport that has rising rates or slightly declining rates, you want to be mindful of all of those things and do the best you can to help drive interest in your sport. We're going to do all those things that we possibly can and more.
It's important to note that, you know, with our ratings, you know, on any given weekend we still remain the second or third, depending on which weekend it is, most popular sport. While we always want to be having our ratings go like this, an upward trajectory is not always possible. Because of those 12 variables, different headlines and so on, you're going to have some things in terms of peaks and valleys.
You measure it over a very long time, and you work on the things that, as I said, can create more interest and create more viewers and, frankly, create more people going to events, more people buying merchandise, more people interesting in NASCAR in general. That's a core, fundamental issue that we take very seriously. We're going to spend a lot of time in the off season seeing how we can improve. I think any sport league does that. I think that's a cornerstone of the popularity of a league over time.
Q. Even with the economy, what has occurred in the last 24 months, when you look at the overall numbers, would it make sense to back off this 38-week schedule, this monster that has been created, have a stronger core product rather than depleting it to the numbers we've gotten to today?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, it's easy to think that this late in the year, at the final event. We're all tired a little bit. It's understandable to think that.
I think you have to look at it a couple steps back and determine that, you know, we don't have the amount of volume in terms of games that other leagues have. We don't have 30 games a week, 40 games a week. We have one big event or more per series per week. When you start dialing that back, it has a lot of effects on you.
It's certainly understandable to be a little fatigued this time of year. But I think when you pull back, like we do, the teams do, there's great value in having events that happen once a week, where they happen, to keep the interest level where it is. Normally that outweighs some of the reasonable positions people can have to want to dial an event back or off the schedule. Usually the other things totally outweigh that, the benefits outweigh it.
Q. Would there be any interest in looking at shortening some of the races and even shortening some of the weekends, having more two-day weekends? You talked earlier about Juan Pablo Montoya, what he's meant. It looks like there's a possibility Danica Patrick will come to NASCAR. What do you think that would mean to NASCAR if she did?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I would sort of say reducing some of the lengths of the events, we've done that in the past at Dover, some other places. We have done that, when that makes sense. All of it would be, Does that make that a better race for the fans? We wouldn't just cut the laps back or the distance back unless we thought it would make a big difference. We'll be looking at that, working with our tracks to come up with the same conclusion that we might if that were to be the case.
Juan Pablo, I said earlier, I think he can be a star here with his credentials, his aggressive style, his connection to the Hispanic population is very good for us. I've always said that. The question is, is he good enough at this style racing to be a star? And I think he is, but he's got to prove that. I think he thinks he is. He's done a lot to put his best foot forward this year.
Danica, you know, she has obviously taken a very hard look at this sport. She's obviously a very recognizable, accomplished driver in her own right. I would love to see her compete at the highest form of racing in the world. I think she's thinking about it. If she does, you know, as they say, that's why you play the game. I don't know how well she'll do.
She has a lot of talent. She will be good for NASCAR. How well she will perform is like any other driver who comes through the front door and sits in the car: you never know until they do it. She probably doesn't know. We'll see what the future brings, but she's certainly very welcome in NASCAR. I've told her that directly and I know others have, too.