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NASCAR's Brian France: Finally Answering the Clue Phone?An Opinion
January 25, 2008
By Rebecca Gladden
"We went after that new fan, but we forgot the old fan and that's a mistake," Wallace said bluntly.
For the past several years, NASCAR's fans and participants have been unwitting passengers on the Brian France Express, as it made a sharp detour from the well-worn tracks of tradition and barreled headlong into a dark tunnel of unwelcome change - new rules, new points, new cars, a whole new feel and direction for the sport.
Of course, NASCAR is not just a sport. It's a business. And businesses need to grow and evolve to survive.
But there's a manner and a pacing in implementing change that makes it feel right, natural, even welcome.
Then there's the France method of change, which makes the passengers want to storm the cab, tie up the engineer, commandeer the runaway train and point it back in the proper direction.
More often than not, France has been accused of forcing change on the sport too quickly and with what seemed to be a callous disregard for its time-honored methods and tradition-minded fans.
Last Monday, NASCAR's CEO delivered his 2008 State of the Sport address, and it appears that for the first time in recent memory, Mr. France is listening to critics when it comes to the topic of change.
At first, while acknowledging that "change" has been a "hot button with the media" for the past several years, France proffered something of a defense, stating, "There were a lot of changes that were made, had to be made, that were scheduled many, many years ago, like the Car of Tomorrow, which had an eight- or nine-year development cycle, or some changes that were frankly out of our control - the series entitlement sponsors coming or going or whatever."
But after that, France made several statements that have given rise to cautious optimism:
"Back to the Basics" - certainly a better catchphrase than ceaseless change.
In addition, France addressed an embarrassing issue that came to the forefront back in 2005, when a Wall Street Journal article stated, "At the end of each season, fines collected from drivers and crews are pooled together and disbursed to the top 25 racers … As a result, some violators not only get their penalty money back, but they actually earn a profit."
This revelation created a huge outcry three years ago, as fans called for adjustments to the way fine money is utilized. In Monday's address, France announced, "One change we are going to make for 2008 is, fines based on NASCAR's penalties will go to the NASCAR Foundation for its charitable initiatives. Now that the NASCAR Foundation is well-established and supporting dozens of charitable organizations, it's the logical place for fine monies to be distributed."
NASCAR is also tweaking the top-35 qualifying rule this week - long considered a burr under the saddle of race fans who feel it symbolizes the kind of corporate favoritism that gets in the way of pure racing. Starting this season, drivers outside the top 35 will qualify together - minimizing the impact of random factors like qualifying order and track temperature changes during a qualifying session.
Also, NASCAR president Mike Helton chimed in on the topic of drivers showing their emotions and personalities - something critics allege has been stifled by NASCAR in favor of political correctness. "We want the drivers to be themselves," said Helton. "The character of the sport is built by all the drivers that participate as well as owners. But I think part of NASCAR's responsibility is for us to keep our hands around the entirety of the sport. NASCAR is in that same position, as is other sports. When you see things escalating, you react in accordance to that until you feel good about the environment that you've got, you've got your hands around it, then you're able to give a little bit of breathing room."
Hopefully, that extra "breathing room" starts this year.
The sport even seems to be returning to its roots in the musical realm, with country artist Garth Brooks replacing Kelly Clarkson as spokesperson for NASCAR Day and country duo Brooks and Dunn pegged to headline the pre-race show at the Daytona 500. Many NASCAR fans have chafed at the sport's recent trend towards edgier rock and hip hop acts.
While it's true that Brian France didn't address the elephant-in-the-room issues that have angered race fans in recent years - the Chase points system, the Car of Tomorrow, the top-35 rule itself, the similarity between car makes and models, the excessive late-race debris cautions, the dreadful television coverage, the loss of the Labor Day race at Darlington (to name a few) - his statements this week do offer a glimmer of hope that your voices are being heard.
Keep ringing the clue phone, NASCAR fans - one day, Brian France is going to pick up.