Racing Beat

Imports may be getting ready for NASCAR’s big league.

A Toyota in the Next Nextel Cup?
Are foreign cars headed into NASCAR races?

NASCAR is growing in leaps and bounds, expanding to become one of America’s favorite sporting pastimes, at the track and on television.

One burning question now is how long it will be before foreign manufacturers break into the top series. Toyota recently announced it was leaving the Indy Racing League, which could open the door to a Toyota-NASCAR relationship.

“Well, we’ve had ongoing conversations, in particular, because they are in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and have done a really great job of coming in, competing hard and all the rest,” Brian France says. “What their plans are beyond that, I don’t know, and I don’t know what the IRL’s departure means or doesn’t mean. It’s really their call. We are the biggest opportunity in the U.S. by a wide margin in motorsports, and I know they have noted that, and we’ll just have to see what they decide.”

If Toyota does come aboard, it could open the floodgates for other manufacturers, such as Honda.

“Well, from a motorsports standpoint, we are very proud that we have three of the top four series in the country, not just the Nextel Cup, but the Busch Series and the Truck Series,” France says. “They are a wonderful opportunity for manufacturers to showcase their products. Toyota has discovered that we welcome them with open arms. There was a lot of debate about that, but they have been a wonderful partner for us as a manufacturer, and hopefully that’s noted by others.”

As NASCAR’s popularity grows, so does the chance for even more TV revenue. Currently NBC and Fox are the sport’s main partners, but negotiations are also underway for future seasons.

“We are having the kind of discussions that you would expect us to have at this time of the contract,” France says. “We know that both of our partners are extraordinarily happy with the product. It’s performing in every way that you can measure it. And so we’ll make the kind of progress I think that we will need to and some decisions here in the coming months; we’ll figure that out.

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“In the coming months I think that we’ll be in a position to know where we’re at. But again, we’re through 2006. As it stands now, there’s not any time urgency. Negotiations or discussions that we’re having are all ahead of schedule. We’re having those kinds of conversations you want to have with good partners about figuring things out.

France has also been a strong advocate of bringing in more minorities and women into NASCAR, such as female pilots Erin Crocker and Allison Duncan.

“I think it should it should be a big plus, as diversity in general kicks in and more talented drivers are found, either being female, Hispanic, African American; that is a hugely positive thing for the whole industry,” France says. “And the fact that Danica Patrick is leading the way and performing well [in her class of open-wheel racing], not just getting a lot of hype, but she’s really performing well, does open doors in all forms of racing. Matter of fact, Allison has already won a race at Stockton out in California. She’s competing hard herself and working her way up through the NASCAR ranks, so we wish her well.”

France Dynasty
His grandfather founded it. His father ran it for decades.

And now Brian France is in charge of NASCAR, which has rapidly become the most successful motorsports organization in the world. The 2005 season is the second in which France has served as the governing body’s top executive, and he has few complaints about NASCAR’s direction.

“You would expect me to talk about a good year, and we are having another great year,” says France, who also initiated the Nextel Cup “Chase for the Championship” program. “Obviously it starts on the track, and if you look at the competition, we’ve had photo finishes. We’ve had if not the most exciting Daytona 500, one of the most exciting. We had a terrific road race in Sonoma, record ratings for a road race ever for NASCAR, and so the fans react to that.

“That’s why our TV ratings are up substantially in both the Nextel Cup, Busch Series, as well as attendance is up dramatically because people love close competition. I think we are delivering that.”

The historic Busch Series race in Mexico City was well-recieved, too, and had 100,000 people in attendance.

France also thinks the Chase for the Championship will be even more compelling than the inaugural “playoff” last season.

France says he believed this season there would be more than 10 drivers who make the cut “because I think people understand the urgency you have to have to stay within 400 points of the leader,” France says. “That wasn’t quite how it played out yet in our first season.” This Chase, said France, was destined to be “a very, very tight contest here as we go down the stretch.”

“This is a performance based sport and you’ve got to perform,” France says. “You’ve got to get in, you’ve got to earn your way in, and that’s what we always say. The events before the Chase didn’t mean less importance; it means more importance, and I think you’re seeing that now.”

Ultimately, the 2005 season will be judged by the Chase for the Championship – France’s own idea. There have been suggestions that perhaps a fan vote could come into play in determining the field down the stretch, but France says that won’t happen.

“We have to be, and we will be, a performance-based series, and you have to perform,” France says. “You know what, the drivers would not want that, either. They don’t want to limp in on a fan vote. They want to earn their way in or not earn their way in. I hope we have all the drivers that everybody likes, but, you know, sometimes it’s time to see drivers have a moment.”

France cited driver Greg Biffle, who is having a successful season.

“The stars are lining up, and he’s got a lot of confidence,” France says. “That’s a great thing for us. We’d love to see more Greg Biffles, too. It’s not just one driver or another. It’s about performance and letting people who are earning it keep going. Down the road when we make adjustments, I have always said we would be open to them. But gosh, we had four drivers come down or five, actually, mathematically last year, three with a real, real chance down to the last lap that changed around, I think, seven times. It’s hard to say it’s not a great system, and the best part of it all is the drivers how they turn it up, how they step up the level of driving, and their talents are showcased differently, and that’s what I like most.”

France also insists NASCAR has finally shed its image as a “redneck” sport, but there are still plenty of inroads that need to be made.

“We’ve only been on national television since 1979. That’s a relatively short period of time compared to all of the other major sports. We really were not on a routine basis, even on cable, until the late ’80s, early ’90s. So, you know, in fairness, relatively we’ve been at it for 50 years, but America really discovered us just 10 years ago in a prolific way.
“That’s going to take an awful lot of time for someone who is not used to covering NASCAR to go, gee, this is an important thing.”

Another plus for NASCAR, France says, is the fact that the sport has no home teams. Every race is a national event. But it will take time for hometown team-centered publications and radio affiliates to catch on to NASCAR.

“But the reality of it is when it’s Philadelphia, which is one of our bigger markets or whatever the market is, we have an enormous fan base in that market that want to know more and see more about NASCAR.”