Commentary

Brian France doing it his way

He doesn't rule with an iron fist. He's more promoter than dictator. But how Brian France leads NASCAR through these trying economic times is how he will be remembered.

Updated: February 12, 2009, 5:14 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Maybe he just needs a cool nickname. His dad was called "Little Bill" and his granddad "Big Bill," after all.

Brian? Sounds too plain. Not intimidating enough to take over a position that once was described as a "benevolent dictatorship."

As NASCAR faces one of the toughest economic stretches in its 61-year history, the man in charge still searches for an identity, at least a public one. Inside the walls of the organization his family founded, he's considered the right man for the job.

Some say he's a better fit for today's challenges than his dad or granddad would be if they were alive.

Brian France isn't the promoter or car guy NASCAR founder Bill France and Brian's father, Bill France Jr., were. He doesn't rule with the iron fist of a dictator or carry the title of chairman and president as they did. He doesn't feel the need to be feared to lead. He is more of a businessman who has a forte for marketing and delegating responsibility that many believe will help NASCAR weather the tough economic times.

[+] EnlargeBrian France
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonBrian France on the state of the economy: "I hope my father would think we're all doing a good job getting the industry of NASCAR through some very difficult times."

"Bill knew that appointing Brian as NASCAR's chairman was the right decision, at the right time, for a world and sport that was changing and growing very fast on all fronts," said Paul Brooks, NASCAR's senior vice president in charge of the Charlotte, N.C., office. "Bill had great confidence in Brian, and Brian had earned that confidence and trust after a lifetime of learning from his father and grandfather."

And yet France has been a target for criticism since replacing his father in 2003, whether it's for the new points system, the controversial new car, declining attendance or his reported interest in leaving the sport to pursue an NFL team a few years ago.

Many of his accomplishments have gone unnoticed, such as consolidating television and media rights to put the sport in a position to grow, working to increase diversity and "green initiatives," and implementing cost-saving and safety measures.

He has a network of Fortune 500 CEOs and politicians, including former vice president Al Gore, that is second to none.

"It's a fair statement to say he's underrated and underappreciated," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "Before he carried the title of CEO, he also was very much a part of the very big elements that we have in our sport today.

"Time will be more fair to Brian than the last couple of years have been. It should be."

Image doesn't concern France, 46. He doesn't have a huge ego. He can handle the scrutiny.

"That goes with the territory," he said. "That's part of it."

But France does want to be respected now just as he did in 2003, when he said, "I want to earn that. But my style is a little different."

NASCAR began because Bill France had a vision. It grew into a national sport because Bill Jr. had a vision. They were considered pioneers, great men, hands-on managers who didn't share the load.

The youngest France has a vision as well. He wants to grow diversity, increase media coverage and expand to markets that will take the sport to yet another level and profit for another 61 years.

That he's in charge during such a dark economic time means this is a pivotal time not only for the sport but also for how he will be remembered. The one thing he took from his father that he believes will get him through this is: "You've got to have a long view."

And, no, he doesn't plan to leave the sport any time soon.

"You can't panic," France said. "You've got to stay kind of on your own course here because these kinds of things happen. Now this is unprecedented where we find the economy today, at least in my generation.

"But I would say I have confidence in our business model, confidence in the people we have in this sport to figure out how we will get through it better than most -- and we will."

Not all business

When NASCAR executive Robbie Weiss recently suffered a life-threatening aneurysm, France dispatched a company plane to bring Weiss' parents and family to him.

When France heard NASCAR employee Amber Wells was among those on the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River last month, he sent a plane to bring her home and took other measures to make sure she was well taken care of.

"Most people don't see this side of Brian, but he cares deeply about his employees and treats his employees as family," Brooks said.

France also cares about the business, now more than ever. He was engaged in more departmental business-planning meetings during the offseason than ever before, discussing topics that ranged from licensing to broadcasting to competition.

"That was a clear signal to all of us we had to step up our game," Brooks said. "He knew the economic times were going to be tough, and he not only was going to lead us forward but he was going to be in the middle of those plans at a very detailed level."

France was involved on more levels than most knew before being named chairman. He played a key role in negotiating the most recent television package, which some said was undervalued but now looks good with NASCAR locked in through 2014.

His father saw that business savvy as key to taking the company forward and leaned on it more than was publicized.

"Brian influenced Bill as much as Bill would have influenced Brian in a lot of things in making the transition to where we are today," Helton said.

France wasn't simply a spoiled kid shoved into a position of power because of his last name. He learned the business from the ground up, once running a small dirt track in Tucson, Ariz., at his own request.

"He turned that track around in about two years," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications. "He sold billboards, program advertising, did the rules.

"He's got a good foundation in the sport, but he always enjoyed most the marketing aspect that's the biggest challenge that faces NASCAR today."

Delegate, not dictate

France sat among seven other members of his executive team during a recent media session at NASCAR's research and development complex in Concord, N.C.

Ten years ago, his father likely would have been the only one up there.

"The business is so big today and so multifaceted that one guy can't keep up with it," Hunter said. "So Bill's hands-on approach wouldn't work as well. Bill delegated a lot that people don't know, but when we had a big press conference, Bill would be it." That doesn't mean France doesn't rule with an iron fist to some degree.

"But he does that ruling through his lieutenants instead of reaching out and doing it himself like Bill would," Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said.

That's why France isn't at the track as often as his father or grandfather. He wants the spotlight to be on the drivers and teams, not himself. He's confident that Helton, Darby and vice president of competition Robin Pemberton can handle the business there.

That doesn't mean he's uninvolved. He is on the phone with Helton three or four times a day and always is consulted on major decisions. The buck still stops with him.

[+] EnlargeBill France Sr.
AP Photo/Pete WrightThe man behind the dream: The NASCAR phenomenon began with Bill France Sr.

"He gets criticized for not being at the track as much as his dad did, but there are so many business elements in NASCAR today that you can't go at it seven days a week like you did 15 years ago," Helton said.

France's lack of visibility at the track isn't a concern to the owners or competitors.

"It's not a one-man show anymore," said seven-time champion Richard Petty, the co-owner of Richard Petty Motorsports. "When Bill turned it over to him, it was 180 degrees different than it was when he took over. As far as I know, he's done a good job, because we're going uphill.

"As long as you're going uphill, somebody is doing something right."

Rick Hendrick, whose Hendrick Motorsports has won eight of the past 14 Cup titles, agreed.

"You can complain and shoot holes in what people do," he said. "But Brian has really impressed me with his marketing skills. His dad and granddad didn't have that. They had it, but they were old-school. They knew what was important to the sport.

"Brian kind of brought a new twist to it."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who came into the sport in 1993 during Bill Jr.'s tenure, says he likes what France brings in terms of new ideas and concepts.

So does Jeff Burton, who said France has a very clear picture for where the sport should be headed, just as his father did. "That if we didn't have a product on the track that people liked to see, we had nothing," Burton said. "That's the driving force that's made NASCAR work, the understanding the fan has to have an enjoyable experience." France acknowledged that last season, when he introduced a back-to-the-basics plan. He realized he'd introduced a lot -- from the new playoff to the new car -- in a short time, and it was time to slow down and re-energize the fan base.

"Brian has done a good job," Burton said. "NASCAR is more open to having conversations with drivers about issues, with owners about issues, than in the past. They've become a leader in innovation and safety, where before they were followers. "There have been a lot of improvements under Brian's watch. Everybody will focus on the few things that haven't gone as well, but really as a whole, Brian has done a good job."

Move over, Coach K

Imagine the Kennedy name outside politics. Or the Baldwin name outside acting. Or the France family outside NASCAR.

"If I had to choose, it would be the head coach of the Duke Blue Devils [basketball team]," France said when asked what he would want to do if his last name weren't what it is.

"But I feel quite confident that if Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] reads this, he's not going to sweat over some guy from NASCAR taking over any time soon."

Hoops dreams aside, France is committed to growing NASCAR. He appreciates the humble beginnings on which the company was founded and all the decades of hard work it took for him to have something so worthwhile to run.

He thinks his father, who died in June 2007 at age 74, would be proud of the way he has moved the sport forward.

"I hope my father would think we're all doing a good job getting the industry of NASCAR through some very difficult times," France said. "He would be really pleased that many of the core principles of NASCAR -- cutting costs, enhancing safety -- are serving us well in the downturn.

"You can really see this in the new team owners [15 overall] and drivers who have come to the Daytona 500."

Much of the future is uncertain, but France and those around him believe he's the man to take NASCAR there.

"He sees the potential for our sport to grow not only nationally, but worldwide," Brooks said. "He welcomes new ideas. He welcomes his people to come forward, challenging and thinking. He is one that has a high intensity and high pace around him, and he expects results.

"He doesn't wait around a long time for someone to do a long, drawn-out research project on the topic. He wants things moving and moving fast. That kind of leadership in the economic times we're facing is good."

If only France had a nickname.

Maybe Big Brian?

Or Coach B? No, he simply wants to be called Brian. "He is happy without necessarily getting all the credit," Brooks said, "although we are pretty clear of the leadership he is giving."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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