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c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
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Feature Writing
First Place
Michael Knight, Arizona Republic

Leaders, Drivers Bullish about NASCAR's Future

When Bill France Jr., the then 44-year-old NASCAR president,  welcomed a sportswriter into his office five days before the 1978 Daytona 500, he was anxious to share his vision for stock car racing's future.

It was easy to doubt that vision.

The son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. -- who in 1947, largely through the strength of his larger-than-life persona (and intimidating 6' 5" stature), wrangled disparate factions into one organized series -- spoke of NASCAR becoming a true national sport. Drivers, he said, would be as famous and rich as stick-and-ball athletes. But there were no cable TV sports networks at the time and most races were in the southeast. Winston, the Cup series title sponsor, was restricted in how it could promote racing to non-adults.

So why was France Jr. so confident of NASCAR's success?

"Because," he said, "we work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year."

Vision accomplished

France Jr. died in 2007 but lived long enough to see his dream become reality, as, in retrospect, it seems he pragmatically calculated. From the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, NASCAR was a sports marketing moonshot.

Helped by IndyCar's two-series' civil war (which some say he encouraged), TV coverage of every event and Jeff Gordon's emergence as a transformational mainstream athlete/celebrity and rivalry with Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR raced coast-to-coast and became America's most popular and richest motorsport. New speedways were built near Los Angeles, Chicago, Kansas City and elsewhere. Ticket-selling success led to a second NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday's Camping World 500.

NASCAR did more than herald itself as second only to the NFL in popularity -- stretching research data to claim its fan base was 75 million -- commanding a $750 million series entitlement and $20 million Fortune 100 team sponsors. NASCAR, its leaders said, was an "industry" with a policy of "managed growth." They said it had become more than a sport or entertainment.

NASCAR was a "lifestyle."

Then it hit the skids.

Audience erodes

NASCAR's TV audience -- one of the most important metrics because viewership translates to sponsorship and rights-fee money for teams, drivers, tracks and NASCAR itself --  is down 45 percent since 2005. Nielsen reports that what had been an average of about 9 million viewers per race fell to 4.6 million last year.

Grandstands were dismantled at tracks that had overbuilt during the boom times.

There are as many theories why NASCAR slowed down as there are engine parts.

Among those most cited: Less-than exciting competition, too many (36) and too long (most 500 mile) races, lack of compelling rivalries, drivers' suppressing their emotions and being overly image-conscious because of corporate sponsorships, and cars that didn't mirror what's in the showroom (until the so-called "Car of Tomorrow" was replaced in 2013.)

For more than a decade, third-generation leader Brian France has been under the hood of his family business, trying to again find high gear.

Loyal fans

As Gordon, the four-time champion and now Fox analyst, is quick to point out: "It's far from being an all bad news situation. It’s still the best racing there is. We’ve got a lot of great stars and personalities and a loyal fan base."   

Indeed, it's different TV numbers that keep NASCAR strong. Fox and NBC -- in part to buy content for their cable networks competing against ESPN -- combined to pay a reported $8 billion over 10 years, through 2024.

Nielsen Sports SponsorLink found that 91 percent of fans are likely to consider a company’s brand, product or service if it's a NASCAR sponsor, compared to 61 percent of the general population.

FedEx (Joe Gibbs Racing, driver Denny Hamlin) and Shell-Pennzoil (Team Penske, driver Joey Logano) recently announced long-term sponsorship extensions. Aspen Dental has increased its involvement with Danica Patrick, although her No. 10 Ford still isn't fully-sponsored. Neither is teammate Clint Bowyer's No. 14, and others.

International Speedway Corp., the largest of the three publicly-traded companies that own all but two NASCAR tracks, is spending $178 million to modernize PIR.  Even though those three operators had about a seven-percent combined decrease in admissions revenues last season.

Brian France is adamant: "We're not declining."  

'Changing landscape'

"NASCAR is part of a sports landscape that is changing," France, chairman and CEO, said in an exclusive interview with azcentral sports. "You see that in ratings. You see that in media digital consumption. People are not consuming everything they like on television. They are getting it in social media, digital media."

TV ratings for most NASCAR races were down again in 2016. Even the NFL, though, took a surprising eight-percent regular-season ratings hit. The Daytona 500, two weeks ago, averaged 11.9 million viewers on Fox, up 5 percent from last year. Last Sunday's event at Atlanta Motor Speedway gained in ticket sales, was down slightly in TV audience, but still the top-rated sports event on a weekend that included a Duke-North Carolina basketball game.

"I'm a Duke fan and, until recently, I couldn't watch the games on TV," said France. "But I watched about a 10-minute reel on-line which was all the highlights. It was compelling. That's a different way for me to consume my team in basketball, and that's happening in NASCAR.

"There are new opportunities but there will be periods with uncertainty a little bit. The interest level is high but it's changing and challenging."

Roger Penske, American racing's most successful team owner who fields the No. 2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford for Brad Keselowski and Logano's No. 22, offers useful perspective.

"I ran (chaired) the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006," said Penske. "We had to add seats to get to 70,000 to have the minimum number. NASCAR has a Super Bowl 36 times a year.

"Since the (2008) financial crisis, our fan has been challenged because of his compensation. People are living longer, trying to pay to put their kids through school, you've got your father and mother living with you. There's much more social pressure which doesn't give you the option to buy tickets.

"We've had more interest in sponsorship in the last 12-18 months than we've ever had. I go back and look at five years ago, I think we're in a much better position to go forward."

Monster & millennials

Sprint, the Cup series sponsor for 13 years (originally as Nextel), gave NASCAR two years' notice it wouldn't renew for 2017. Its first 10-year entitlement contract paid a reported annual average of $75 million. Talk was the sanctioning body would seek a 10-year, $1 billion replacement. There were no takers at that price.

NASCAR, according to Steve Phelps, its chief global sales and marketing officer, contacted "hundreds" of brands. It wasn't until last December that Monster Energy drink was announced as the new title sponsor.

Monster Energy's commitment was only described as "multi-year" and no financial terms were revealed, but it's widely believed to be far below what Sprint was paying. What NASCAR is hoping, however, is Monster Energy's appeal to younger consumers will help attract a new generation of fan. NASCAR has made reaching Millennials -- those born after 1980 -- a top priority.

"They (Monster) are a youthful and energetic, fun brand," said Phelps.

"We've had some growth, from a small base, (with) Millennials . . . If we can grow a full point, which we did (2016 vs. 2015), as a percentage of our total audience, that's a win for us. That particular segment is about 10 percent of our audience."

NASCAR continues to outreach to Hispanics, aided by Daniel Suarez's Xfinity Series championship last year, the first Latin driver to win a national title. About 18 percent of PIR's ticket customers are Hispanic, up from four percent a decade ago.

Phelps said there will be a "double digit" increase in new NASCAR official or team sponsors because of the effort that landed Monster Energy.

"I would characterize the market selling place in NASCAR as very steady," said Phelps. "We don't have people that are beating down the doors to come be our entitlement partner. It took work to have people understand what it is we're doing.

"We like to say, 'If you haven't seen NASCAR lately, you don't know NASCAR.' What we're trying to do is service the needs of the fans. If I'm a 20-year-old who doesn't have a television, I need to serve that need in a different way. I can serve that need through NASCAR.com, our apps, through social media. I want to be relevant and be where that fan is consuming.

"(But) this notion of the death of television in sports is ridiculous and absurd. Five million people watch our races on average. That's a significant number of people who are stopping what they're doing for appointment viewing to watch the sport that they love."

New direction

Vice Chairman Mike Helton admits this is the way NASCAR used to do business:

"We'd make a rule and say, 'Here you go. Go figure it out,'" concedes Helton.

No more.

France's leadership philosophy has become collaborative, listening more closely to, and becoming more accepting of, suggestions from councils representing drivers, owners, tracks, sponsors, automakers and fans. This season's new race format, where points are awarded over three stages, came directly from driver input and as a result of fans wanting more hard racing throughout an event.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver who missed much of last season because of a concussion, was blunt in speaking with azcentral sports.

"The drivers demanded to be involved in some of the discussions," said Earnhardt. "That's how the drivers' council came about. NASCAR was open to the idea and it has become something very positive and effective. We are the people living it every day.

"If we all come together and help influence a decision, we're not doing it with an agenda. We're not going to agree on something that's better for one driver and not someone else.

"It's the way things gotta be. This sport is going through a lot of change and we all want it to be healthy and around for a long time."

Helton reflected: "NASCAR, we had the opportunity, the growth, the headwinds. I think we're, 'OK, what do we have to do to revitalize our sport?' It's strong. It's healthy. It's got great components to it that we can build from. What do we need to do to make sure there's a NASCAR 100 years from now?"

'More complex'

France says, respectfully, the issues he confronts are "more complex" than those faced by his father and grandfather.

"At that point we had a pretty low basis," he said. "Now we have a high basis. We're a major-league sport with lots of vested interests. Am I confident we'll navigate around (challenges) in a smart way? Yes. Am I aware things will be challenging in certain periods? Absolutely.

"We are tied to the broader sports industry. We all are going to go up together or down together. Some will have storylines and moments that will spike. On television, you're going to see the big moments like when the (Chicago) Cubs make the World Series, and that's great. Those will be the moments that television will capture.

"And then they'll capture the rest maybe in a different way, but it will still be more impactful than any other medium. That will be lost to people in the short run: 'Oh, ratings are lower!' They're not really lower, they're shifting and they spike when there's a Super Bowl or some can't-miss-this type thing.

"We still have the same challenges we've always had: Make the product as compelling as we can. Obviously, make it safe.

"Costs are always rising based on teams that want to spend to win. We're trying to bend the cost curve and equalize competition, where the best teams and drivers can win, not who can necessarily resource the most. But it's difficult.

"The sports landscape is competitive. We don't have some of the luxuries some of the other leagues have. In the arenas and stadiums they have a lot of public funding, we have very little, so we can't give tickets away.  So we have some perceived attendance issues based on that.

"We have gotten our industry aligned better. The fundamentals are strong."

Gordon, arguably NASCAR's most consequential person of the last quarter-century, remains optimistic.

"With the right decision-making," he says, "the sport can rise back up to what it was."

Brian France, the third-generation NASCAR chairman, was an early supporter of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. That made a few of his corporate partners unhappy, most vocally, Truck Series' title patron Marcus Lemonis, who's also sponsor of Sunday's Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Lemonis wrote France, vowing not to attend the 2015 Truck awards banquet if staged at Trump National Doral Miami resort, as planned. NASCAR moved it. A few months later, France and drivers Bill and Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Ragan appeared with Trump on stage at a Georgia rally.

France was not only following the example of his grandfather and father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and successor president Bill Jr., who backed Republicans including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. He was also tracking their strong sense of the country's mood: They wrapped stock car racing in patriotism and traditional American values.

France, in an exclusive interview with azcentral sports, said he saw a business connection with a segment of Trump voters.

"People don't buy tickets to a race to hear my political views," he said. "But I do think that the middle class, the factory worker, has lost ground in recent years with job layoffs and exporting jobs. That's our core fan.

"They're good Americans, playing by the rules, trying to get ahead. The more you make life better for them, obviously, the more disposable income they'll have to enjoy the sport they love. That's a good thing for us."

Different style

France has evolved away from his elders' authoritarian leadership practices.

"My style is to be collaborative, progressive, to look at things that seem a little bit impossible," he explained. "I'm open to do those things."

Bill Sr. (who founded NASCAR in 1947; he died in 1992) crushed attempts to unionize drivers and a 1969 boycott of Talladega Superspeedway's first race because of safety concerns.  Bill Jr. (who led from 1972-2003; died 2007) ruled with an iron fist, when needed, despite an amicable habit of spending race mornings seated on a directors' chair in the garage area, accessible to anyone who wanted to talk.

Brian France, 54, has allowed significant input from what NASCAR loves to call its "stakeholders": Drivers, team owners, sponsors, automakers, track operators and fans. Each has its own council that meets regularly with NASCAR.

As recently as July 2014, it didn't look that way. When prominent car owners formed the Race Team Alliance as a unified voice to address issues such as escalating costs, France called the group a "bad idea."

But as TV ratings, attendance and sponsorships declined, France made a sharp turn.

'World changed'

Rick Hendrick, the 12-time Cup champion team owner, contrasts France's newer approach with the way it was when he joined NASCAR in 1984.

"It used to be, 'Our way or the highway,'" said Hendrick. "Now it's a different attitude. The old way worked back in the day, but the world changed.

"The collaboration has been unbelievable. When we sit in meetings and talk about how to make it better for everyone, we've never done that before. I think when you put that many smart people together, we will make it better."

PIR President Bryan Sperber has worked closely with France for more than two decades.

"People always ask me, 'What's Brian like?,'" said Sperber. "I think the guy is brilliant. I don't know that he always gets as much credit as he deserves for his innovative thinking.

"That was Brian's vision, to do the hard work, to pull the sport together. We've all benefitted from that."

Change agent

Controversy does seem to follow France: He attended only about half of last season's races and a Wall Street Journal story last month said he sold his NASCAR ownership stake to other family members a decade ago. NASCAR spokesman Jon Schwartz declined to confirm or deny that report.

Yet any honest assessment of France's almost 14-year tenure must acknowledge his willingness to enact dramatic change, attempting to maintain public interest and the overall health of his sport/industry.

Examples: Creation of the Chase "post-season" format (2004);  Driving-force behind founding the NASCAR Hall of Fame and increased "green" initiatives (2010); Conversion to fuel injected engines (2012); "Gen-6" car that more closely resembles showroom models, revised governance and penalty structure, 10-year TV rights contracts with Fox and NBC (2013); Chase revamped to end with a "Final 4" (2014); Charters to give 36 cars guaranteed starting positions and new revenue streams plus electronic pit-road officiating system (2016); Monster Energy drink new Cup Series title sponsor (for 2017).

He's opened New York and Los Angeles offices and invested in a Drive for Diversity driver development program.

Roger Penske, using a word famous from the campaign, calls France "a disruptor."

"He's looking to make a change and not willing to keep doing things a certain way," says Penske, American racing's most successful team owner, who fields Fords for Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

"He's not the guy who sits behind the trailer, like his dad did. He's more interested in what are the next things he can bring to the sport. He's a young, creative guy. He's got a lot of respect from me."

'Wow moments'

Perhaps France's top imperative is improving each race's entertainment value. He has said NASCAR needs more "Wow" and "Game 7" moments to satisfy fans' calls for increased side-by-side competition from green-to-checkered flag.

This season's restructuring of event formats, creating "stages" where points are awarded to the top 10 drivers after three pre-determined distances, is France's latest attempt to spice-up the show.

He's overseen significant competition-department personnel moves, giving Steve O'Donnell the corporate-worthy title of chief racing development officer, and control of NASCAR's research and development center. Some within NASCAR have privately admitted to feeling pressure from France.

Vice Chairman Mike Helton said, "I don't look at it as pressure. I look at it as a pronouncement of the NASCAR way, to figure out how to do well. It's on us, through our competition department and R&D center, to get the product right."

Penske says France has "made a big management change. We've got a new group of young people. Mike Helton has done an outstanding job, and I take my hat off to Mike, he's stepping back and letting Steve and those guys take a forward role."

France admitted to disliking criticism but says he's confident NASCAR is on the right road. If not, he won't hesitate to act.

"A lot of things piss me off but I've got thick skin," France said during the azcentral sports interview. "I know where we're going and I'm also a student of other sports. That may make me a little unique in our business because I study all the time.

"I don't have an overabundance of cocky attitude, because I'm collaborative. I have a good sense of what we need to do."