CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brian France didn’t expect to spend his 10-year anniversary as chairman of NASCAR sorting through the biggest credibility crisis in the sport’s history.
As he waded through the intricate layers of race teams manipulating the outcome of a pivotal event, France was forced to make unprecedented rulings. He spent the actual anniversary of the day he succeeded his late father, Bill France Jr., using his authority as head of the family business to expand the 12-driver field for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs to accommodate wronged driver Jeff Gordon.
The next day, on the eve of last Sunday’s opening race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, France angrily faced the competitors.
France told the drivers the scandal had reached NBC Nightly News, which had called NASCAR “fixed” in its piece.
The $8.2 billion television package NASCAR announced in July that begins in 2015 includes NBC.
INTEGRITY MUST BE restored immediately, France demanded.
At least one longtime participant thought France’s leadership last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway was not that different from his old man.
“I think Brian France did a great job, he stepped up and he said ‘I made the decision and this is the way it’s going to be,’ ” said Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 Cup championships. “It sounded like Bill – ‘I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen, and this is the way we are going to race from here on.’”
It’s been a messy two weeks for NASCAR, which heads today into Round 2 of the Chase, one of France’s very first creations after taking over the post his father held for 31 years.
What began as an attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to manipulate the outcome of the Sept. 9 race at Richmond to get one of its drivers into the Chase field blew wildly out of control even after NASCAR issued one of the largest penalties in history against Waltrip’s team. At least one other instance of race manipulation was uncovered and France, who doesn’t always take a hands-on role at the race track, had a front and center presence in two days’ worth of damage control at Chicago.
BUT AS NASCAR’S credibility was called into question, and France ordered drivers to give 100 percent in new rules prohibiting the artificial altering of events, the damage continues. NAPA Auto Parts on Thursday said it was ending its multimillion dollar 12-year partnership with Waltrip, and MWR is now fighting for its survival.
Waltrip declined Friday to second-guess NASCAR’s handling of the scandal, but indicated France’s meeting with competitors last week has closed any loopholes in the rule book.
THE THIRD GENERATION France to lead the racing series formed in 1948 by his grandfather, the late Bill France Sr., Brian France has a more open-door policy than his father ever did during his three decades leading NASCAR, particularly since the disastrous debut of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007.
France views that car as one of the biggest mistakes of his reign, and since has tried to rely on more input from team owners, drivers and manufacturers on important decisions.
“I think Brian’s done a good job. I work with him. Sometimes he listens. He doesn’t listen all the time. We debate issues sometimes. I’m proud to say sometimes I win. I’d like to win all the time,” said Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the late Bill France Jr.’s biggest adversary. “But I don’t. We’ll continue to go down the road with him.”
Brian’s vision often differed from his father’s in that France thought bigger and broader from an early age. His first big coup came before he was chairman in a move that helped NASCAR take the final step away from a regional niche sport.
France ended the practice of individual tracks negotiating their own television deals with NASCAR’s first national TV package in 1999.
The deal with NBC Sports, Turner Sports, FOX and FX cable tripled the number of Cup races shown on broadcast television when the contract began in 2001.
“Part of the evolution of being a regional sport and becoming national, getting international recognition, you have to elevate your game, and those are things Brian recognized from the very beginning,” Jim France said. “He’s done a masterful job of shepherding NASCAR through the changes. I don’t think there is another motorsports organization in the world that has all of the disciplines that NASCAR has, and a lot of them started before Brian took over the role from Bill, they were things he was working on before his current role.”