Brian France ponders changes
NASCAR chairman discusses Chase format considerations, attendance problems
DALLAS -- NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France was at House of Blues on Tuesday to help Texas Motor Speedway announce its 2011 schedule. He spoke briefly with a few reporters after the event, including ESPNDallas.com.
Q: What about altering the Chase format?
A: We're going to look at that. If we can make it a better format, we will, with protecting the credibility of crowning our champion. We want to create moments where you have to win. It's within the credibility factor of taking into consideration there's a mechanical side to this, so somebody could have a problem on that day where you have to win, so it's not quite analogous to every other sport. The Chase format is a hybrid of other sports in the way they handle tournaments or eliminations. It's a blend of consistency, but you have to perform at crunch time. If we can enhance that whole concept, we should and we will. But we haven't made that decision.
Q: What about eliminating some drivers as you go along in the Chase?
A: That's one of the things is a consideration, but there are other ways to do things. But sure, that's going to be a consideration.
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Q: Is there a possibility the Nationwide Series would see something like a Chase?
A: I don't think so. It's a shorter season, for starters, with 10 fewer races or so. That would create some issues. We have four national divisions, so we've got to distinguish them, and doing too many things wouldn't do that. I don't think you'll see that.
Q: What about a Nationwide driver winning the championship in that series instead of a Cup driver?
A: That will be the goal. What we've got to have is it has to be a place where we can create new talent. They are completely submerged on a stage where there are so many Cup drivers. That's been evolving in the last six or seven years where there are so many more drivers competing on Saturday from Sunday and we have to make that series work better than it is. It's working fine, but it can work better. So yes, we'll be doing something on that.
Q: Do you think some of the alterations to the 2011 schedule will help with sagging attendance and some of the recent trends there that we've seen the last few years?
A: Yes, I think so. It's not so much the schedule, though it certainly won't hurt, but we've adjusted on a few things. Ticket sales in Michigan were up from where they had been, and the economy starting to come back in that part of the world helps. Some other events are trending up, albeit by a little bit. Our fans have to travel an average of 200 miles, they have to spend the night usually, so the cost to come versus a local game in some markets is much different. So we are disproportionately affected by the economy maybe more than anybody. So we're dealing with that, and the tracks are, with lowering ticket prices and working with hotels. But the racing has been great. That's how you ultimately get to where we want to go, to get trends lines going up, and the racing has to be unmistakably good, and we think it is.
Q: Can we expect to see more shuffling of the final 10 races, the Chase races, going forward?
A: I don't think so. It's really hard for someone who is in the Chase to want to give that up, or even moving a couple of races in depending on where they are. This is an unusual year for us to have so many moves, but we had two requests for different dates in new markets -- Kentucky and Kansas City. And that was very difficult to balance the rest of the schedule out. There had to be a lot of cooperation. The good news is that we got that and we have a better schedule than we've ever had. That's our final criteria, is whether it's better, more available to our fans is it in the right time of the year? We're happy with how the 2011 schedule turned out.
Q: Has that message of the racing being good getting across to fans?
A: You have to remember that we moved all the start times back, which we knew in the short run that we were taking events in more homes later in the evening back to a time of day when there weren't as many homes. So we knew our ratings would have a short-term impact. But I think the attendance will be good, and it will all be based on how exciting the racing is. It's the tracks doing what they can do to make the experience better cost-wise, and they are doing that. It's coming and we're pretty optimistic about going into the Chase on all levels.
Q: You see that the IndyCar Series is going with a twin race that one day in Texas. You've preached going back to the basics and for them, that's something they did 29 years ago. What do you think of that and how the getting back to basics is going for NASCAR?
A: They'll have a certain set of challenges in doing that and we'll see how it works out, but it wouldn't work for us. But it may for them. Our deal is great racing and back to the basics. We're letting the drivers do a whole lot more out there, and that's paying off. There are limits to that. But by and large, opening it up and letting them settle it on the track works. We can over-regulate things. It naturally can happen, so you check yourself and make sure that the product on the track is good. This isn't about riding around and making clean passes; it's about doing what you have to do.
Q: You've mentioned Dale Earnhardt Jr. as "the franchise" and it's like the Yankees or Cowboys having a tough streak when he's not there. Who can emerge that takes the place of Junior if he's not in the Chase for another year?
A: I don't know. That's why you run the races and play the game. It will be somebody who can win with some bravado. It's going to be somebody who is unmistakably competing and not point-racing or any of that other stuff, and the fans feel that. Tony Stewart [who was at the Texas Motor Speedway event Tuesday] is one of those guys. He competes all the time and he's got a big fan base because they like that. It's going to be whoever can do those things.
Q: Is putting more emphasis on the wins and more points for winning going to forge that kind of guy that is willing to step up and go for the win and not just go the conservative route?
A: We want that. We've added points for wins to try to make that happen. If you don't want to compete and go for a win late in the race because you're satisfied, I don't know what we can do for someone like that. If you play it smart, that's different. But we have 43 teams. Sometimes a win is a fifth-place finish for somebody that got the most out of their car. Winning is the critical thing, but there are other things to consider as to what makes up winning.
Q: You said you were planning on meeting with fans. Did you do that, and what did you find out?
A: I sat through in Orlando our focus groups, which were die-hard fans and casual sports fans. We tested things in a neat way. Every group likes the idea of enhancing winning. They like the idea of "can't-miss" television because something big might happen. Some groups felt a little more about one thing over another, but most liked what we were thinking about. It was good for me to see. Die-hard fans have one set of perspectives and the casual fans have another. I wanted to make sure I was hearing it. I didn't want to just read data.