NASCAR CEO Brian France Speaks on State of the Sport and Where the Line is
Below is the transcript in full from the State of the Sports press conference with NASCAR Brian France. At the bottom of this page you’ll find a video of the entire interview.
MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Ford Championship weekend in Homestead-Miami Speedway. Appreciate you all being here. For those of you who have traveled all year, we thank you, thank your editors, producers, everyone. The fans have certainly been well served by this group all season long. So appreciate that.
We’re pleased today to be joined by NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Brian France. Thank you for making the time, Brian. If you could start out and just give us an assessment of the season to date and hear what we can expect on championship weekend.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, first I wanted to welcome back Holly Cain, I know she’s had a few things go on, so I wanted to make sure that —
That I said hello Holly. And let me just say, first welcome to South Florida for championship weekend. We’ll settle all the three divisions here. Of course, the big one on Sunday. We’re very excited about it, as you would expect us to be. The four drivers, including Jeff Gordon, are story book endings in their own right, so that’s been exciting. The level of competition The Chase format has delivered has exceeded everything we could have expected. I say that because of the intense moments that have been created, the performances that are undeniable that are happening, primarily because the stakes are higher on any given weekend and you’re seeing the drivers and the teams react to that. And what that means is, is the level, the intensity, the talent of the drivers is all on full display. I think you’ll see that on Sunday as you did last year. It’s probably going to get down to you have to win the race, not only beat the other three. I would be surprised if that isn’t the case. Who knows. So we’re very excited.
Let me make a quick mention of the weather down here in South Florida, which has been well discussed and we have a record number of Air Titans on site, as well as track drying systems. Jet dryers and the like. They have served us well, by the way. And Martinsville would not have happened without the Air Titan technology. Phoenix, for that matter, even though it didn’t go the full length, would not have happened without that technology. It’s making a huge difference and I suspect that some time during the weekend it will be called on to make another difference as well.
We are going to go through the weekend, as we traditionally would, looking at all of our options, trying to get all of the laps in a given race in on a certain day, on race day.
That’s been our policy and philosophy. We go further and try harder, I think, than any other motor sport division to accomplish that. Because we want it to be settled on the track.
But shortened races and therefore consequences of that, are part of this, part of racing. They’re part of the game. And I hope it doesn’t play into it, but it’s possible. We’ll do everything we can to sort that out as Friday night or tonight, Saturday and Sunday roll forward.
With that, I’m happy to answer any other specific questions.
Q. Going back to your meeting with Matt Kenseth set last week, can you take me behind the impetus for that? Was that solely because of the comments he made to the Associated Press?
BRIAN FRANCE: No, we were very disappointed, as you know, with what happened in Martinsville. We reacted to that. What we were coming down here to a championship weekend, and I wanted to make sure that that matter was behind us with Matt, with Joe Gibbs and so on. I’m assured that it is. We had a good conversation about what had happened and what the thinking was or whatever you want to call Matt’s actions, and we talked about that. And it was a good conversation. Those happen though. Those happen, those kind of conversations happen with us more frequently than not, so that’s not a surprising thing. I felt good coming out of those meetings.
Q. Just a question about Sunday. There was a lot of discussion at yesterday’s media gathering about where the line is and at what point will NASCAR draw the line when it comes to what possible could happen to determine the champion on Sunday. Generally either you or Mike, someone gets up in the drivers meeting on Sunday and says where that line is, but the drivers didn’t seem to quite know where it is at this point. Could you please define.
BRIAN FRANCE: I’m happy to. I’m actually glad you asked that question. Do you know how many drivers have come to see Richard Buck in the last two weeks, three weeks, four weeks? Zero. Zero drivers have asked us for a clarification on the so called line. And the reason that they don’t ask is they know. And they know that circumstances late in a race, blocking, although I’m not a fan of blocking, that’s part of racing. Blocking, contact, the short end of some of those exchanges that happen, are all part of it and do not look to NASCAR to deal with that, they are part of racing. So the line is, is that if you intentionally, beyond part of racing and there’s contacts and who came up, who came down, who was more aggressive than somebody else and so on, if somebody is just intentionally banzaiing into some situation with the sole, you know, purpose of taking somebody out, we’ll deal with that. We dealt with that in Martinsville, as a matter of fact. We’ll deal with that at all times.
But what is unmistakable is our brand of NASCAR, our style of NASCAR has been this way for decades. There’s always been — I even go back to just last year in Texas, we had a perfectly, what I always call quintessential moments in NASCAR, where Jeff Gordon is, needs to win and in Texas at the time, and Brad Keselowski makes an aggressive move. A lot of people thought he shouldn’t have done it. He came splitting down the middle, lots of contact, Jeff Gordon gets the short end of that particular exchange, probably cost him a shot at the championship last year, that’s part of NASCAR. Were we going to react to that? Of course not. We’re not going to react to anything that’s part of the traditional part of hard, aggressive racing. This is, there is going to be contact. I always expect that. I don’t expect people to turn people around. That’s not what we mean when we say contact. But sometimes it happens. Sometimes somebody comes down and blocks and they assume that there’s going to be a nice person that’s just going to go, oh, okay, and sometimes there’s not. And then when there’s not they may go around themselves. That can happen. Lots of things can happen when there’s really hard racing and contact going on and NASCAR will officiate the way we have always done that. That’s why there’s been zero, I want to say that, zero drivers walk in and say, can you ask, can we talk about where the line is. They know exactly where the line is.
Q. Given the success that you’ve had with The Chase in the Sprint Cup Series, what are the likelihood of it being adopted for XFINITY and for the Camping World Truck Series next year?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, Tom, it won’t be exact, that’s for sure. But it has been successful. Our partners in XFINITY and Camping World would like to us to explore what’s possible to have a, their own version of it. And we’re going to look at that. We’re going to look at that in the off-season. We have looked at that before, haven’t quite found the perfect thing for each one of those divisions. But we’ll work at it. It’s worth looking at.
Q. It came out back in the spring that Jane Randel of NO MORE has been consulting with NASCAR on domestic violence issues. What has been her role and what specific things have you done as a result of her recommendations over the past year and with the Kurt Busch situation since then?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well we have a lot of people that we have either formally that we consult with, sometimes informally, it goes all the way down our organization with anything that’s as important as domestic violence. We’re going to seek input and information from a lot of different places, including Jane. Which we have in the past. I’ve met with her myself. She’s been helpful. And we’ll continue, that’s an evolving issue in sports and our society and we’ll continue to be really, really careful of how we look at that.
Q. Is there any changes recommended that you have specifically looked at?
BRIAN FRANCE: I don’t want to go through what anybody has recommended specifically. She’s given us some really good input on how, more of how to look at things, about what’s, how do you prioritize certain circumstances that we might think are not important, but they’re very sensitive in the scheme of domestic violence. So she’s got us to look through a different lens and that’s been helpful.
Q. Are you satisfied with the current dynamics and format of The Chase? We know you guys have tinkered with it in years past. Are you happy with the way things are?
BRIAN FRANCE: I think the only thing I can say is we’re thrilled. We’re just thrilled with — and we’re thrilled because of one reason, not because of one incident or another or one situation, it’s because we know that it’s raising the level of competition. Drivers — teams, not just drivers — are doing, trying things, being aggressive, and achieving things they never thought possible. Kevin Harvick told me that last year at the awards ceremony in Las Vegas. He said one of the neat things is, I didn’t know we could be this good. I didn’t know we could, when we had to win, because there’s a little thing in auto racing that you say, well, everything’s out of my control and there’s 42 other teams out there. And it doesn’t work that way. Well, it turns out, it can work that way. And in this new format, it has to work that way, or you’re probably not going to move on or have an opportunity to win the title. That’s been the best thing I have seen — we say this internally a lot, because we obviously are very, very careful at looking at how everything is playing out. I was talking to Mike Helton the other day, I said this might be the best thing we could have ever done for the quality of racing that we have ever done. And he said, I think you’re right. And we both kidded ourselves, because he and I both were the ones that were, believe it or not, against going forward with this format for a number of years. Advancing it to an elimination and winner take all scenario. But we got exactly what we want, which is great racing, obviously when you get great racing, you’re going to get great moments, we love great moments as anybody in sports does. But more importantly, the thrill of watching the teams elevate to do things, achieve things, and I see on pit road, it’s not just what the driver does, it’s they’re taking chances, their strategies, their preparation, and obviously the drivers are doing things. There’s a reason why almost every week The Chase drivers are at the top of the leaderboard. And I suspect that will be that way this weekend.
Q. You were talking about being slow to come to this, to have this Chase format and now loving it and I think most of the drivers really like it, even though they understand the challenges of it and the intensity of it. The question is, when you guys made the decision to go with this format, obviously you tried to vet out everything like the rain we talked about a week ago or…
BRIAN FRANCE: I didn’t try to vet out the rain. I’m pretty good, but I’m not that good.
Q. Exactly. But if you had come to that with rain that makes an impact on it, or what happened with Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, certainly had to have seen that coming. Are you under the vision that this format pushes that to happen and that you guys did talk about all this?
BRIAN FRANCE: Look, any format — the answer is probably yes. I think you’re right. It’s going to push drivers to take more chances, i.e. Brad Keselowski last fall in Texas is a good example of that. To try things to have to do things. That only makes racing better. When drivers are going at their best, trying their hardest, taking chances and doing amazing things, that’s what our fans love. That we have to understand that. And so does it create more moments where some drivers get the short end of that? Like Matt did, Matt got the absolute lousy end of a NASCAR exchange, as did Jeff Gordon and as did a number of other drivers. That happens. And it’s happened all the time. Now when it happens, though, it’s true, it’s spotlighted because one driver may get to move on, another doesn’t, so the consequences are higher. And we get that. We understand that. But that’s not going to change how we officiate races. I don’t like blocking and I think it’s — I don’t care for it myself, but that’s part of NASCAR racing, that’s part of it. We’re not going to take it certain things out of NASCAR racing because they’re going to contribute to more or less contact or whatever else. It happens the way it happens. We officiate the way we have always done. We have a very clear line, very clear, about exactly where things are, where they need to be, and when they are not, we will step in and we will deal with it. And the second part of that is, I’ve heard a lot about, well, you should be more consistent with your calls because if I knew that, then I wouldn’t have done this. And we don’t always explain it this way, but we make, we issue penalties for two reasons: One is, we want to penalize you for what we think you did poorly or wrong. That’s the small end of the penalty. We’re not the justice system for the country here, right? We’re just an auto racing — we’re a race series, right. What we really want to do is make sure you don’t do it in the future. We want to deter it from happening in the future. So if we’re running along with this certain calling a certain rule, a certain infraction, or a certain situation, each way the same time, and we keep getting the same results, well drivers don’t care, they will just go ahead and do it, then you can expect us to lift up that particular penalty. Which is exactly what we did with Matt Kenseth. Exactly what we did. Because we saw what was coming. Which is an escalation. If somebody doesn’t like my definition and I run the sport, what is part of the game of racing, well, I’ll just go get even this way or that way, we have to ask ourselves, well where does that end? Do I say, well he disabled my car while it was sitting on pit road, being cute here, but I hit the car, because that guy two weeks ago spun me out, cost me a chance at this or that, NASCAR didn’t rule on it. I’m going to invoke some rule or whatever else. So I’m going to plow into his car while it’s sitting on the starting grid, I won’t hurt anybody, and I’ll just have gotten even. But I’ll have disabled his car and how about that. No, this is what we have to think about. We have to think about, where does it end. If we don’t step in and make sure that when there’s something that’s happened, like in Martinsville, I know I’m spending a lot of time on this, because I want this as we go forward, to not be such a big deal, about, you know, how we reacted or what happens. It’s going to happen in the future. There’s going to be contact, there’s going to be drivers that get in the short end or whatever. We’re going to always deal with that. And we’re going to look towards escalation, we’re going to look towards deterrence, we’re going to have an eye on consistency, but we’re not going to ignore something that we think is not a deterrent. So and I gave you along answer and probably not exactly equated to your question, but that’s where we are.
Q. I know you touched on the rain earlier when you started, and the possibility of ending an elimination race or a championship race early. But when so much comes down to it on these races, what’s the argument, aside from this is the policy and this is in the rule book, what’s the argument against changing that or trying to do something to run all the laps when so much is on the line? Baseball recently changed the rule to make sure that all World Series games are completed, even if they have to come back the next day. What prevents you guys from down that road?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, there are a lot of things. But are we having those kind of conversations? Of course. We’re trying to think through what would be the best way to do it, knowing our long-standing rule is, after the halfway point of completion, it’s a completed event. We typically want to come away on race day with whoever watched the race, watched the event, saw the conclusion of that event. And that’s if you are over 50 percent. And we also take, it’s not lost on us all the benefits that could happen if we elected to want to complete every lap. We get that, we understand that. Then we lack at lots of other things that can come into play on that. How long do we sit down here in South Florida with our media partners, etcetera, etcetera. Baseball can get going relatively quickly once the rain has stopped. We can be a little longer or a lot longer in certain cases. There’s a whole safety element that we have to deal with and so on. But we’re looking at everything. Our view now is that like a lot of things that aren’t necessarily perfect, so to speak, that’s part of the game. That’s part of racing that it’s part of the strategy. You saw that last week in Phoenix. That you have to anticipate weather as being a factor in deciding things, as unfortunate as that is. Hopefully it won’t be a factor on Sunday.
Q. Jeff Gordon’s on-track record speaks for itself but how does his evolution impact the growth and perception of NASCAR in a wider audience
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I asked him recently, awhile back, about what made you go on Saturday Night Live, what made you want to do that. Number one, he said, well, they asked me. And I said, well, okay. But he said, look, I felt comfortable doing a lot of things that were not mainstream for a NASCAR driver. And he was smart about it. He knew that that could separate him from other drivers and he was good at it. He’s one of those guys, I always look back at drivers that have, are going to take out a lot less than they put in. He’s one of those guys that has put in a lot to grow the sport. And other drivers should think about that a little bit. Because he’s really a model in that respect. I have a lot of respect for Jeff Gordon.
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Q. Next year marks a pretty pivotal point for NASCAR going long-term because of the expiration of two components, Sprint title sponsorship and fifth and final year of the Industry Action Plan. Those things I think are fairly inextricably linked. If you could maybe just give us a snapshot of where you see it going on both of those fronts, title sponsor and what does the sport need to do in terms of attracting more youth and broader audiences, because I know that was the goal of the Industry Action Plan. Do you feel like it’s been successful and do you feel look you need to do more on that front or do you have plans to maybe develop a new five year plan.
BRIAN FRANCE: I think that the Industry Action Plan was always a floor to let everybody else stand on top of and do a lot with, within the industry. Drivers, teams, tracks, and so forth. We were the floor, the kind of foundation, but the tracks and industry, and by the way, we did a lot of that, we were coming in and out of the big hard recession in 2009 and 2010 and so on. So, they have all done what we have hoped that they would do on the end. We’ll see where — a lot of them have gotten legs beyond what we could have even wanted or not wanted, we could have foreseen. And then the Sprint replacement is going, as we would expect it to and as we thought it would and we’re being careful and it’s a big, big commitment for us. It’s a big commitment for somebody else to be partners with us. It’s not the normal marketing partnership. This is an actual somebody who is entitled into your sport. And so we’re going to be careful to get the right partner and we have got to work through next year, it doesn’t hit us until 2017. So we want to be careful and whenever we have something on that, we will, of course, announce it to this group.
Q. Two questions: In your definition of contact and hard racing, this came up yesterday with the four contenders and all of them seemed to defer that they might wreck each other for the championship. Running, if two of them are running nose to tail, and one of them is blocking, is the expectation for the guy in second place to move him and win the championship?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, my expectation is that nobody would wreck anybody. My expectation is nobody would ever block either. But they do. It doesn’t take any talent to block. But it takes, you are risking to block. So we won’t know until it happens who was blocking, who came down hoping somebody would not, you know, would be a Good Samaritan and pull their foot off the throttle. That can happen. Gentleman drivers exist. I don’t see one in those four guys remaining. And if there’s contact and they’re going for position, and by the way, it’s not always that somebody just turns somebody around. A lot of times — there’s some really good gentlemen drivers that have had a lot of success. And they don’t want to have any contact. You know why? Because they don’t want to be on the other end of it. Because not down the road either, they don’t want to be getting, having some contact and both of them go around. That happens a lot. So you’ll see certain drivers and they have tremendous success, that even if they should, in a certain situation, sort of move somebody around a little bit, they won’t even try. They just won’t. Because that’s not their style of racing. We have got all styles that exist. And for the gentlemen drivers who want to be a finesse driver, that’s great. We have had some of our best drivers with great records have achieved a lot. Then we have Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Rusty Wallace and we have had drivers that just, that were much more aggressive. Brad Keselowski falls in that category for sure. And Logano probably is. And these four guys are all guys that will, that have a little of both, probably. So I don’t know what will happen. But contact late in the race, that’s just part of it and we got to have an understanding of that and not be so surprised when that happens in a NASCAR race. That has happened in our entire history. When Kansas happened, we were very disappointed for Matt, because he got the, obviously, the real short end of that exchange, but as a NASCAR racing incident, that happens all the time.
Q. In the aftermath of Kansas, many people debated on how Joey maybe could have handled it differently. Is there anything that you or NASCAR could have done, because one of the things that Matt said was he felt he felt encouraged to retaliate by your comments and he was, he believed it was one of the very few times that NASCAR did not sit a pair of feuding drivers down to try to smooth it out.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, obviously, if I would have thought that would have helped we would have definitely sat them down. We didn’t think anything of it at that point. What was said afterwards and done at Talladega and all that, that sort of happened and we didn’t think anything of it. Frankly, as I said, it was a quintessential thing that happens in NASCAR. I said it was a very smart decision or move that strategy-wise that Joey did to take a six-time winner and the hottest team in NASCAR and put him on the outside of The Chase looking in. That’s smart. But maybe he misunderstood that, it’s by no means any more than I thought that I thought Jeff Gordon, I was very disappointed for Jeff last fall in Texas. I think I praised Brad Keselowski at the time, because it was an absolute daring, great move that didn’t work out for Jeff Gordon. But that’s quintessential NASCAR, late in a race and wham, they’re going at it and doing things. That is us. We got to all understand, that’s us. That’s what we do. That’s what those guys do. And some of them don’t do it that way. And we respect those drivers and another style of racing. You don’t have to have aggressive style in NASCAR. There’s plenty of others that don’t. And if we — but, look, I know I’m giving you along answer, if we can, if I would have known that that was, that that would have helped, we would have of course sat them down.
Q. When you introduced the phrase, “quintessential NASCAR” into the vocabulary of the fans after Kansas a lot of people, it seems up to, and including, Matt Kenseth kind of viewed it as a flash point in this Chase. Do you have any regrets about the quintessential remark and do you think it actually had an impact on what happened on the track?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well based on what I said in the last 20 minutes, (Laughter.)
No, I said the same thing. I don’t know if I used the word quintessential, but after Texas I keep going back to that, because it’s fresh in my mind, but there are plenty of other incidents going back to the Daytona 500 back in whatever year it was when Petty and Pearson were notoriously ramming and somebody got the short end of that. Somebody went around, both of them went around. So some of our greatest finishes have involved contact. And sometimes, not always, that somebody will get the short end of that and we have, to my knowledge, have never made a call in a racing incident like that. If something is so egregiously obvious that somebody wasn’t just trying to have a hard racing moment, but they’re literally just trying to take somebody out, we will obviously deal with that. That is a line. We’ll deal with that.
Q. Three times since 2012 fans have been injured at a restrictor plate event when a vehicle’s gotten up into the fence. A truck, XFINITY, then Austin Dillon’s crash this year. You made the change at Talladega with the green-white-checkered reducing that to one. What are things that NASCAR’s looking at for next year in regards to the plate races in terms of safety and in each of those instances, the fence certainly chewed up the vehicles. Is there some things with new fence technology that can further protect the fans, but also further protect the competitors so their cars don’t go like they’re going through a cheese grader?
BRIAN FRANCE: There is. And I’m a big believer in innovation. I think most of you know that. I think innovation solves so many things. Not everything and not as fast as you want it, but I know the tracks are working on different technology that would support the fence. We feel pretty good about the technology, although it’s a work in progress with the race cars themselves. But it’s true that the fence can, we think, can obviously be improved. And it’s always evolving and I suspect the tracks will come with technology that as soon as they can that will be an asset there. But I know they’re working on that.
Q. Over the last couple years we have seen the XFINITY field reduced from 43 to 40, the truck field reduced from 36 to 32. Is there any plans to maybe keep that system going and maybe see the Cup field reduced or maintained to 43 cars?
BRIAN FRANCE: No, not right at this moment. But look, anything that we do to reduce a field is designed to make racing better in some form or fashion. And we’ll fit the times of today a little bit smarter and we don’t have a plan yet, but we’ll always look at that. That’s smart. Thank you all.