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.
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.