Brian France was pissed. The note he had just opened from a high-ranking motorsports executive was quick and to the point: "Step up, we're waiting for you."

Perturbed, France immediately called the guy and wanted to know the meaning.

No offence, the voice on the other end of the line said. The note was meant to be a source of encouragement, not criticism.

"Step up, we're waiting for you."

Truth is, many of the stakeholders in the sport feel much the same way about NASCAR's chief executive.

It's not that they think France can't do the job; they wonder if he wants to do the job. They wonder why France didn't adjust his behind-the-scenes approach to leading the sport sooner as NASCAR entered troubled economic waters, including drops in attendance and TV ratings, both of which were falling before the recession hit.

"I know there are some questions about leadership," said Ray Evernham, a former championship-winning crew chief for driver Jeff Gordon, a former team owner and current ESPN analyst. "I've known Brian a long time, and I know Brian can do it. But Brian's got to stand up and say, 'I'm in charge, we're doing this. We're on the same page, and we're going to get this done.' "

On a dreary January day at NASCAR's Research and Development Centre north of Charlotte, France bristled at the suggestion he hasn't been a take-charge leader in his six-plus years as CEO.

"If you're going to compare me to somebody else, my father or whoever, I'm not going to be somebody else," France, 47, said with conviction. "I have to manage in a way that fits my style and approach. Not everybody is going to agree with that."

It was one of the few times France's businesslike expression changed during a recent conversation about his leadership style and vision for NASCAR's future. Otherwise, his responses were crisp and direct. There was no time for rambling or small talk as he hopped from one meeting to another, talking to NASCAR owners and drivers, crew chiefs and marketers, track presidents and TV executives. There was much work to be done and the start of a new season was just around the corner.

If there's a legitimate gripe that France hasn't led with the determination of his father, Bill Jr., and his grandfather, Big Bill, he's trying his dead-solid best to put it to rest. Brian has been dogged by the commitment question, and maybe he's suffered by comparison to his father, who lived the sport, but he has never been more active than in the months following the end of last season.

France's offseason mission: meet with every track operator, broadcast partner and team by his self-imposed deadline of this week's Daytona 500.
Leadership questions:

Ever since word spread that France was interested in owning an NFL team about five years ago -- coupled with his sporadic appearances at the track -- questions about France's engagement with the sport spread from the garage to the suites. Those questions were revived when the recession hit the sport, and teams and tracks looked for guidance from NASCAR.

"People do question Brian's commitment, his leadership capabilities, only because they look at him and say he's not Bill," Evernham said. "It doesn't make him soft or incapable; he's just not Bill. The France family spirit is still there. Together, they can still be NASCAR. If they decide to put their heads together, people will support them."

Fox Sports CEO David Hill launched his own thinly veiled criticism at France in December before a room full of racing executives during Champion's Week in Las Vegas: "Bill Jr. was omnipresent at the track Thursday through Sunday. He could sniff a puff of smoke and put it out before anyone knew what happened. He could play on-track diplomat, judge, jury; he could talk things through. The sport is missing Bill Jr. in a lot of ways."

Boy, if Brian had a nickel for every time he has heard that one. The chief knock on France is that he's not at the track every weekend to run the traveling circus like his father and grandfather were. He attends anywhere from 15 to 18 races a year out of the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule.

But this is a different era, France says, and the demands of running a company with 1,700 employees are much more complex than just 15 years ago, when NASCAR corporate had 100 employees and his dad pretty much did it all, from running the competition to the business side.

Rather than spending four days a week at the track, the third-generation France says his time is better spent making calls like the one he did to NASCAR official partner 3M last month, when he spent the day visiting with the CEO, touring the company's headquarters and learning about their business.

"I make visits like that all the time, every month," said France, who led the sales and marketing arm of NASCAR before ascending to CEO. "I'll go on a sales call, if there's something I can add. We've been having these town hall meetings with the teams, and I lead these. We have town hall meetings with our own employees every quarter. I don't defer; I lead those because I want to interact with our people. That, frankly, gets missed."

Much of France's time is spent on the business side, not the competition side, which he leaves in the hands of NASCAR president Mike Helton. As a result, France has kept a low profile, just how he likes it. Helton is usually the one doing the talking on camera when there's a controversial on-track decision to be explained.

As NASCAR encountered more turbulent times in 2008 and '09, as sponsorship became tougher to find, TV and attendance figures dropped and the licensing business crumbled, the industry expected to hear more from France. "Step up, we're waiting for you" was more than just a note; it was a refrain across the sport.

In the middle of the recession early in 2009, NASCAR's only response was to limit testing by teams, which theoretically could reduce their expenses. But most knew the top teams would continue to test on their own. France's low-key approach and minimal response to the recession left many with the impression that NASCAR suffered from a void in leadership, that he was too slow to respond.

"It's good to see that there's finally some acknowledgment," said veteran track promoter Humpy Wheeler, who formerly ran Charlotte Motor Speedway and now is CEO of The Wheeler Co. "You can't do anything about a problem until you acknowledge you've got one, and I think that's finally happened. When things are going down, you've got to make changes."
A 'new Brian':

Those close to the sport have noticed a difference in France since the end of last season. While he has delegated authority and given his department heads more autonomy than they might have enjoyed in past regimes, France has been much more hands-on recently, not only sitting in on the meetings with teams, tracks and broadcasters, but leading the meetings.

Those meetings began during Champion's Week in early December and have continued through the past week as France talks about the sport's downward trends and what can be done to reverse them.

"The teams and others have always had a voice in NASCAR, but we just felt the need to formalise it to a higher degree," France said. "Any big decision that we've got to make, we'll get a focused meeting on that subject and get feedback. Our communication, especially with the teams, is at an all-time high."

While the declines in TV ratings and attendance are well-documented, NASCAR has encountered other obstacles. The licensing industry has disintegrated, costing teams and the sanctioning body precious revenue. And the demographics of the NASCAR audience are skewing older, while the number of avid fans shrinks.

In the past ten years, the average age of the NASCAR fan has gone from 38 to nearly 43, according to the ESPN Sports Poll, a service of TNS. The male demos of 18-24, 25-34 and 35-44 have each shrunk. The fastest-growing demos: 45-54 and 65 and older.

The data also shows that avid fans made up 12.8 percent of the total fan base in 2000, and grew to 16.2 percent in 2004, but the number of avid fans in 2009 was down to 11.6 percent. The drop in avid fans mirrors the decline in TV ratings.

All of these factors contributed to what France's sister, Lesa Kennedy, called this "re-evaluation of the sport." Kennedy is the CEO of NASCAR's sister company, International Speedway Corp., and a NASCAR board member.

"It's what is needed for the future," she said of the re-evaluation. "Brian is doing a terrific job of gathering that input and listening to the stakeholders, and we'll see some changes."

Until just recently, France maintained his position out of the spotlight, despite these sinking trends. Friends say he's not the type to seek publicity and many of his accomplishments go unnoticed because of that.

But this recent flurry of activity reflects a "new Brian," said team owner and part-time driver Michael Waltrip. "I've always found the Frances to have their door open, but there's a difference now. Before, you had to go to them. Now, they're proactively knocking on doors, asking what can be done to make the races more entertaining."

Others in the sport have seen the changes as well:

-- "I think we're seeing a pretty dramatic change in Brian's style, much more engaging, much more open," said Brent Dewar, a vice president at General Motors and until recently the head of Chevrolet's global brands.

-- "Brian's making a statement that NASCAR recognizes the problem and they're willing to make changes," said Chris Powell, president at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

-- "That he's seeking input from drivers, track operators, all of the key stakeholders, that's good," said George Pyne, president of IMG Sports & Entertainment and former chief operating officer at NASCAR. "Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. had their ways of communicating, but these times call for a different approach."

Inside these meetings, France "is the first dude to speak," Waltrip said. "And that's good. He's the one we want to hear from."

Waltrip's team met with NASCAR's top brass for two hours at the R&D Center last month. France shared feedback from the sport's 12,000-member Fan Council and other demographic information. The CEO was joined in the meeting by members of his inner circle, including Helton; senior vice presidents Paul Brooks, Steve O'Donnell and Steve Phelps; and competition chiefs John Darby and Robin Pemberton. Waltrip came with his drivers, David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr.

"NASCAR has stats that show the sport has had its ups and downs, and we're in a down," Waltrip said. "He said that we're not going to ignore that."

France is telling teams, tracks and broadcasters that NASCAR will take a step back from an approach that has been called overly officious in the past and let the drivers dictate the action on the track. "It's a contact sport," France told reporters last month.

The message seems to be resonating. Powell said his track in Las Vegas has seen a surge in ticket sales in the past month and believes NASCAR's recent message about more wide-open racing has prompted it. The theme is also at the heart of Fox Sports' advertising sales pitch, and officials there say ad sales are 8 percent to 10 percent ahead of last year's pace.
Into the open:

It has been rare during France's administration that his leadership has come with such a public face, as it has in the past few months. His friends say many of France's most noteworthy initiatives have been underappreciated because of it.

In fact, France probably "gets more credit outside of NASCAR than inside the sport," said Mark Dyer, a senior vice president at IMG. Dyer helped bring Danica Patrick to NASCAR and formerly worked with the sanctioning body under France as its licensing chief.

It was France's leadership, even before he became CEO in 2003, that led to the expansion of NASCAR offices to Charlotte, New York and Los Angeles. He was the one who brought the industry together to strike the landmark $2.4 billion TV deal in 1999 with NBC, Fox and Turner. He got the R&D Center built, he drove the idea for the revolutionary Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and he forged ahead against a stiff headwind to bring spirits sponsorships into NASCAR five years ago. It was his vision that has led to the NASCAR Media Group's explosive growth.

"It's just not his nature to publicize himself or what he's doing," said Casey Wasserman, CEO of Wasserman Media Group and one of France's friends in sports business. "Brian is a guy who has modernized the business of NASCAR in every facet so that it can compete and be successful for the next 50 years. He's shown that he's not afraid to make difficult decisions."

But there's also a time for the leader of a sport to be more visible, to be the front man while taking on problems of the industry.

"I don't see NASCAR's balance sheet, but you can see that they've lost sponsors, car owners are raising Cain, the tracks are not doing well," Wheeler said. "It's all way down from where it was."

This year NASCAR will shrink the purses, which will allow the struggling tracks to keep more of their revenue.

"Any time the top executive is doing things like that, meeting with just about everybody in the sport, you know there's big problems," Wheeler said.

Countered Brooks, a 17-year NASCAR executive and one of France's closest confidants: "He's always leading, but he's also keenly aware of when it needs to be more visible. He knows when to take it to the stage."
Corporate culture:

France's public acknowledgment of NASCAR's problems represents more than just a change in the CEO's style, but also a change in the way the sanctioning body operates. Part of NASCAR's charm has been this approach as a "benevolent dictatorship." If you didn't like the way the Frances ran it, you could go race somewhere else. And if you spoke out too harshly about the sport, there could be repercussions on the track.

Those are bygone days, say those in the sport. The town hall meetings, the pursuit of feedback, the Fan Council, the overall unprecedented outreach, it all marks a departure from the old way of doing business. Under France, especially recently, NASCAR has worked in a more collaborative manner.

France said there are two reasons for changing the way the sanctioning body operates. First, it's more reflective of France's consensus-building style. Second, it's a different business than it was years ago and it calls for a different approach.

"The complexity of the business we're in with digital media, the green economy, different rules packages, diversity, it's harder than ever to keep up with it all," said France, who maintains his primary residence in Daytona Beach near NASCAR's headquarters. "I like to have the best thinkers who are specialized. We don't have a lot of generalists anymore. If you look at our organization, you see people with a skill set in marketing, engineering, digital media, green."

But that doesn't mean France is afraid to play the heavy. "We're not a democracy," he said.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was selecting a primary licensee for his merchandise three years ago, he narrowed his choices to Motorsports Authentics, the main player in the industry jointly owned by track operators Speedway Motorsports and International Speedway Corp., and VF, a more mainstream producer and distributor.

With the decision still up in the air, France and Helton visited Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley, at their JR Motorsports shop in Mooresville, N.C.

France made it clear that Earnhardt should go with MA because it was best for the industry. Since the France family is the primary stakeholder in ISC, one of MA's owners, it was also best for the family business.

Another time, France scolded the Earnhardts inside the NASCAR hauler for striking a deal with Adidas when NASCAR's licensing office had been working on a deal to aggregate driver rights for Nike's Starter brand. When Earnhardt signed with Adidas and was no longer available, Starter ended its pursuit of a deal in NASCAR and exited the sport.

That's a side of France that hasn't been exposed as much.

"He can kick you in the butt, and he's not shy or reluctant to do that," said Zak Brown, CEO of Just Marketing International, a motorsports marketing agency that has done deals in NASCAR for Crown Royal, UPS and Verizon.

"There's an intimidation factor there, and he knows when to pull it out. There's still a fear that you don't want to be called to the NASCAR hauler, but it's not what it once was. It's not as 'wild, wild west' as it once was."

There's another side to France that his employees tout. The side that empowers them to do their job without micromanaging, or the one that shows an appreciation for a job well done.

NASCAR and Nextel officials were locked away for eight days to finalize their record $750 million, 10-year title sponsorship in 2003. When it was done, France offered members of his sales and marketing team use of the company jet so they could get back to their families quicker.

"Brian has worked in all facets of the business, so he's really got a good sense of where the business is," said Brian Corcoran, who worked on the Nextel title sponsorship during his six years in NASCAR sales and marketing before leaving in 2009. "He definitely has a moxie about him. He always seems to know the right question to ask or, on a sales call, the right color commentary to add. I know for us, he was always available and always prepared."
How long to lead?

France has never committed to how long he'll run the family business. His father and grandfather were lifers, and in all likelihood, Brian won't be.

But one thing he's consistently said is that he wants to leave NASCAR in better shape than he found it, whether that's in five years, 15 years or 25 years.

"I'm a competitive person," France said. "I don't know how long I'm going to be CEO of the company. A long time, I hope. That also gets misunderstood. I may not have a 30-year run like my father, but I hope to have a run where we accomplish a lot. I want to make sure we're doing everything we can to grow the sport and make racing better."

There are also factors that will influence how France is perceived and ultimately remembered as NASCAR's chief. Unlike his father and grandfather, who could do essentially whatever they wanted without asking a soul, Brian reports to a board that includes his uncle, Jim, and his sister, Lesa. Although the Frances do not publicly "put values on stock and who has what," Brian said, insiders say Jim is the majority owner of NASCAR, while Lesa also owns a significant stake.

Brian, whose ownership stake in NASCAR is believed to be nominal, runs the day-to-day operations of the business, which includes reviewing the business plans for all 18 units within NASCAR, but there are decisions that must pass Jim and Lesa for final approval. Brian describes the working relationship with his uncle and sister as collaborative.

"Lesa is on the board, and she has a very big interest in NASCAR, financially and otherwise," Brian said. "She's very helpful and certainly involved in any strategic matter." As for his uncle, Brian says, "He's a very smart, deep-thinking guy who doesn't get a lot of credit. He's a guy I'd always go to."

Whether that approach is a positive or negative, compared with the days of the "benevolent dictatorship," Brian France is clearly in a more authoritative stance than he has been in before.

As he told members of his inner circle recently: "This thing's not going to hell on my watch."
by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal

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