Hallman: France news was a wet blanket for NASCAR

August 9, 2018

Talk about your massive buzzkill — that’s what Brian Zachary France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO, has delivered to stock car racing.

Sunday afternoon, Chase Elliott streaked under the checkered flag in front of a robust crowd at Watkins Glen, N.Y., giving NASCAR the moment it had craved — the initial victory for the likely heir to the most popular driver title.

Elliott, 22, the standard-bearer for the sport’s new wave of stars, battled veteran and defending champion Martin Truex Jr. to the final turn to take the victory. In a season that has become increasingly competitive, this was the perfect crescendo. At 5:15 p.m., NASCAR was rocking! NASCAR was rolling! NASCAR was….

NASCAR was headed for trouble.

At 7:30 p.m., 135 minutes after Elliott’s jubilant celebration as he took the checkered flag, police officers in Sag Harbor, N.Y., observed France running a stop sign.

France was stopped and things got worse. His blood-alcohol level was, according to police, nearly double the legal limit. He was found to be in possession of five oxycodone pills. He was held overnight, arraigned and released on his own recognizance.

The next day came a brief apology from France, an equally brief statement from NASCAR. Soon word came that France was taking an indefinite leave of absence. His uncle, Jim France — chairman of the family’s sister company, International Speedway Corp. — would step in to fulfill the duties of CEO and chairman of NASCAR, assisted by Brain France’s sister, Lesa France Kennedy, ISC’s CEO.

So here we are on Thursday, and the hot topic is neither the Watkins Glen glory, a race that gave the sport a rare uptick in year-over-year TV ratings, nor the upcoming NASCAR stop at Michigan, where in five starts young Elliott has finished second three times and never outside the top 10.

TV talk shows that rarely mention NASCAR show us Brian France’s grainy police mug shot, a faint smile on his pasty, pink-blotched face (though, truth be told, it ranks among the better celebrity arrest photos). The show hosts speculate about whether his exit from the sport’s executive suite, where he has been the boss since 2003, should be permanent.

The New York Times took a look at the France family’s interwoven and somewhat secretive holdings of NASCAR and ISC. The Times also reminded us of a report that the family was exploring a possible sale of NASCAR — a prospect seen in a different light after the arrest in Sag Harbor.

Reporters who cover the sport regularly recalled France’s behavior at last season’s awards banquet, where he took an awkward fall at one point, and beat a hasty, wordless retreat after handing the championship ring to Truex.

From around the sport come careful statements from drivers, team owners, other track owners, wishing the beleaguered France well but in some cases falling short of endorsing the idea of a return to his place of power.

The usual marketing drumbeat of the sport had to slog through the France news.

For example, Kyle Busch, a six-time winner in NASCAR’s premier series this season and the leader in the tour’s regular-season points battle, was at the Naval Air Station Oceana on Wednesday with Richmond Raceway officials for one of the sport’s occasional tributes to the military. This columnist’s first question to Kyle was what he had to say about the Brian France incident.

Busch didn’t duck the question. “We’ve all made mistakes,” he said. “We’re all hoping he can do whatever it takes to get through this.”

He said he welcomes Jim France to the role as NASCAR’s interim leader. Busch said that even though much of Jim France’s focus has been the IMSA sports car series, of which he is also chairman, Busch knows Jim France better than he knows Brian France.

That serves as a reminder of one of the frequent complaints about Brian France’s leadership style — that he is nowhere near as involved as were his predecessors, his grandfather and NASCAR founder Big Bill France, or his father, Bill France Jr.

In an often toxic social media landscape, Brian France has been blamed for NASCAR’s sagging attendance, lower TV numbers and the departure of some longtime sponsors. He has been held responsible for cars that were too sensitive to aerodynamic forces, for too-tight inspection procedures, for a playoff system some fans detest. He’s attacked for his politics, both as too liberal and too conservative.

Rarely is he praised for what is surely NASCAR’s biggest accomplishment on his watch — multibillion-dollar television contracts with Fox and NBC lasting through 2024.

The TV deals are like a drug of their own for NASCAR’s tracks and teams. On the one hand, they provide financial pain relief as the sport adjusts to changing fan expectations. On the other hand, there may be less urgency to address the sport’s problems.

That said, in recent years under Brian France, NASCAR has made a renewed effort to win back old fans, keep current fans and attract new ones. Richmond Raceway’s $30-million “Reimagined” infield makeover is just one of the renovations taking place at many tracks.

As Kyle Busch indicated after his day with the Navy at Oceana, what’s important for Brian France now is to deal with whatever his own demons may be.

And maybe — after three generations that saw the founding, growth and unprecedented financial largesse of NASCAR — maybe what’s important for stock car racing is to end its addiction to the France family.

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