It is one of the most thrilling sights in sports television: 43 stock cars bunched together, racing nearly 200 mph, climbing up the massive 31-degree banked turn at Daytona International Speedway and heading back down for another lap. The swift spectacle goes on every February in Nascar's signature race, the Daytona 500.
Every once in a while—with the cars off the track, of course—Nascar Chairman and CEO Brian France likes to take a calm walk up that bank and look out over the venerable 2.5-mile oval. From that singular perch, at the track built by his grandfather, Nascar founder “Big Bill” France, it's hard to know what to focus on first.
“Going up in the turns, I'm able to see some interesting vantage points probably no one else gets to see,” he says. “It's pretty amazing.”
By exploring some interesting vantage points during his short tenure at the top of his sport, Brian France has been able to turn more heads than any parade of sponsor-decaled cars. A mere four years after inheriting his position from his father, Bill France Jr., Brian France has completely repositioned the way Nascar is viewed on the track and off.
An instrumental force in shaping and signing Nascar's last two multi-billion-dollar TV contracts, France has helped give networks their money's worth by creating the Chase for the Championship “playoff” format that now ends each season in the Nextel Cup, the sport's major league.
By continuing the work of both his father and grandfather, and truly turning what was a regional sports favorite into a well-reckoned national powerhouse, France is now being ushered into this year's class of
's Hall of Fame.
“Brian has always had a passion for the sport as a product in the sports world,” says Jim Hunter, Nascar's VP of corporate communications and a longtime racing official. “He put a lot of time and effort and early passion [into the idea] that broadcast is the medium—television in particular—to expose Nascar racing to the masses.”
Adds Richard Childress, longtime owner of Richard Childress Racing, who fielded championship cars for the late Dale Earnhardt, “I think Brian and the people he's surrounded himself with are carrying the sport to a whole other level.”
France may have been born into the sport, but he didn't take to it instantly. “This is how naïve you are as a teenager: I really didn't think it would be that big a business opportunity,” he says of his post-college days in the mid-1980s. “This was 25 years ago and it wasn't the big sport that it is today. I looked at it and, when I got out of school, I went out to the West and worked in the grassroots of it and I sorted out that it was really good for me.”
The feeling would be mutual. Having excelled in the areas of marketing and promotion, France began to apply his expertise to a business that had long made its name for the charms of remaining old-school.
Bill France Jr., who had succeeded his father at the helm of the sport in 1972, had signed some TV contracts, along with a long-term title sponsorship with Winston, and larger sponsors began creeping in over time.
But national acceptance of the Southern-based sport, and respect for its long-standing power to market to the most committed audience in American professional sports, didn't begin in force until the late 1990s.
By then, Brian France had already helped lay the groundwork for the victories that would follow. He had, in his early 20s, begun signing major-market radio stations to broadcast races on the sport's Motor Racing Network (MRN).
In his journey through the sport's hierarchy, he managed a track out West and worked on the sport's minor-league weekly division series. He also played a large role in introducing, in 1994, one of Nascar's three top-tier competition series, the Craftsman Truck series.
But he truly proved his mettle by working tirelessly for three years to engineer what became, in 2001, the sport's $2.4 billion television contract with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports.
“We needed to consolidate our own rights, and it was a matter of explaining to the industry how important that was,” he says. “But it was also explaining what we would expect if [networks] were to get these rights, forgetting the financial elements for a moment, but the level of promotion and commitment to make it a true franchise sport, which it had never been to anybody.”
The list of his accomplishments and honors since then helps explain why Nascar continues to be the second most popular spectator sport in America after the NFL, and how France managed to grow Nascar into a global giant. The sport's current $4.5 billion TV contract with ABC/ESPN, Fox, FX and TNT began this season.
The 2003 title sponsorship deal signed with what is now Sprint/Nextel was a perfect forward-thinking choice with a communications company. The Chase for the Nextel Cup, running from mid-September through season's end in late November, brought greater relevance to the season's latter third, as it competes for fall ratings with the NFL and the World Series.
Digital innovations that allow fans to listen to in-race transmissions between drivers and their crew chiefs foster a level of access unknown in other sports. Nascar's Research and Development Center is among the country's premier technological facilities devoted to safety in racing.
Televised races in Mexico and Canada have extended the brand's international reach. And a successful diversity program is helping increase Nascar's profile as a great American sport, appealing to all fans.
And yet, with these recent triumphs, France has had the most bittersweet of years. Bill France Jr. died in June after a long battle with cancer; Brian's brother-in-law, Dr. Bruce Kennedy, perished a month later in a plane crash. But Brian continues to be guided by the family principles, with a view to the exciting challenges of the long road ahead.
“We have some real threshold issues that we still have to break through,” he says of Nascar. “But they're in sight for us, and we have an opportunity to turn the corner.”
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