NASCAR Media Conference
Jimmie Lee Hunter
June 29, 2006
JIM HUNTER: Glad to have everybody here this morning. Brian is going to say a few things to open up and then we'll open it up for question and answers. So please welcome our chairman, Brian France.
BRIAN FRANCE: Thank you, Jim. I was actually just told that Bill gas away passed away, the pioneer for 20 years ago or so had Mike Helton's old job at one point so our wishes go out to his family for sure. I did want to get sort of a routine start of where we give you a little bid of a midterm or a halfway point in the season how we think things are going, and frankly, a little look ahead, too.
I would sort of tell you, that a lot of the things that we put in to play a year ago, two years ago and three years ago are really I think starting to pay off for us. Things like the single-engine rule. Things like our testing policy, the gear rule. I think you've got ten winners now in 16 races. It's pretty balanced. I love what happened in Kentucky a couple of weeks ago; who would have thought that victory would have happened?
So I'm liking kind of what I'm seeing and I think that's a tribute to what we're trying to really do, which is look down the road. We don't have to make a lot of the decision that is we end up making.
But if we wanted to maintain safe, competitive racing, which is the heartblood of what we do, these are the long term things that we've got to put into place; the multi-cap rule which is he involving which we're working towards, things like that to ensure, not today, not next week, but two years, three years, five years from now that we get the kind of results on the track that you all think we should and certainly our fans think that we should.
And I'm sort of happy to think or say that I think that's paying off. Even the Hall of Fame Racing Team, you know, third place last weekend, they have run well in recent weeks, not inconceivable that they will either run in the Top-5, perhaps even get a win, a single-car team; that would be wonderful in my eyes if they could have that kind of success, as difficult as it is out there.
So I think I would sort of tell you that we like where we're at. And then the other thing I'll mention, too, is you know, what I've always said about the chase was that we needed a few years under our belt to see how it evolved, to change the strategy, see how the actual formula that we have, see how it really works, and now we're in our third year, starting to get that sense, and my view is, we will make some adjustments going into 207. It's a natural time to do that. A, as I just said, we'll have three years under our belt to judge it. And B, we have a new television partner in ABC and ESPN coming on board who will televise the final ten live on network television, matter of fact, including Richmond. So the ideal time for us to make adjustments, not major changes, but adjustments, will be in the off-season this year. So we'll see you that.
The other thing I think that we can tell you with some pretty good certainty is the Car of Tomorrow; that we're either 97 or 98 percent certain about that car as it stands today, and now there are a few tweaks that we're making with various manufacturers and team owners to get the building of the car correct, the ventilation, exhaust, that kind of thing. But the idea of the box in your car, it's been through the wind tunnel as you well now, numerous times, been on the track now, numerous times; the drivers are getting a great feel for it.
So the three things we want to see from the Car of Tomorrow is we really believe we're going it get those benefits. We're going to get the safety benefits that are built into the new Car of Tomorrow; we're going to get the cost situation, that's going to be helpful to us, we really believe that; and finally, we're going it get the competition benefit. Because we're seeing that aero dependency, which is a big issue when the teams today try to pass.
We made some adjustments with the current car to do the best we can, but we think we're going to make a major leap forward and bring back as I've said many times, more of the slingshot passing and the drafting and the things that I think we see more of in the trucks than we do in any other division.
So I think that we really believe that that's the right thing to do, not only for next year or two years down the road, but five years, ten years, something we can build around. And what I'm really most proud about -- and I'll take questions here in a second, what I'm most proud about is we don't have to make any of these decisions. Things are always in any particular time for us, pretty good. Television ratings, attendance, sometimes they can always be better. But generally speaking, it's always pretty good.
But what our group wants to do is not rest on that; is to make sure that the next generation of fans gets the same close finishes that we've seen this year, gets the same balanced playing field where new teams can come in and compete and make a difference.
So to do that in our world, it's not just the labor costs, other sports have to wrangle with that; it's the mechanical side. That's very difficult for us, because obviously it's complicated; various manufacturers now, Toyota coming in, that jobs difficult. So for us to make these adjustments or major changes, like the Car of Tomorrow, takes a long time, takes a lot of runway.
But I'm real proud of the decisions, even to build the R&D center several years ago which is you know, the engineers for us that puts a lot of these programs together. I attend a lot of the meeting of the forward-looking things that our group now is focused on. I believe we're the only ones in motorsports that are thinking that far out and hopefully we'll keep getting the results that we're seeing today.
So with that, I'll be happy to answer any questions.
Q. During the period that Tony Stewart was driving somewhat hurt, discussion and controversy arose again over the idea of driving hurt in order to collect championship points. Is that being reconsidered or will it be considered?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, you have to pass a certain physical level, depending on if it's a head injury or something like that. We obviously will work with the doctors and make sure that somebody is at a minimum level to compete. And then there is of course, the minimum level; take up -- get in the car, go one lap and get your points.
This always comes up when something like -- someone is injured and has to climb in the car. We look at it, but so far pretty confident that, you know, we want our drivers competing as much as possible, and so far, we're comfortable with the policy.
Q. You touched on possible changes to the Chase in the off-season. What are some of the areas that you guys would be looking at, and are they similar to things that have been brought up in the past, such as making sure race winners got in or just what are some of the areas that you will be looking at?
BRIAN FRANCE: We'll be looking at nothing new. Everything we'll be looking at has been brought up by various people in the last couple years. We'll be looking at, is ten the right number, as an example. We'll be looking at the 400-point margin. We'll be looking at, you know, the final ten races.
I think we have the right mix, and I don't think we'll be changing that, but we'll be thinking about the points structure; you know, should we add a little more to the win in the final ten. Just various things we think will build what we're hoping for, which are big moments and a bigger stage for the drivers. That's what the Chase has always been about. It's about showcasing their skills.
What I kind of like, that was frankly a little unexpected, is how it's broken the season up the way it has. You had the first half, which we've now completed. Now you have what it typically would be, you know, a time of the year that, you know, it's a long season situation. Now you have going into July and August, drivers now are figuring out that, you know, being on the bubble going to Richmond is not a comfortable place to be. And no one wants to do that.
So I think the June, July, August events, meaning a whole lot more than they ever have before, they are already historic events for the Brickyard, Bristol and so on. But now that drumbeat going into September is pretty impactful. We like that.
So we'll be looking at everything to see if we can make it a little bit better. There won't be a dramatic changes because the basic format is working well.
Q. A lot more fines and penalties this year. In your opinion, why is this happening?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think the urgency to win and how many competitive teams, you know, that are just going to go to the line a little bit harder. And sometimes, they flop over, either accidentally or intentionally, doesn't matter. We'll take the kind of action we need to take.
My sense of it is that, you know, there's just more teams that are trying harder. And it's more competitive. So you're trying for every little inch I can gain an advantage on, and sometimes that puts us in a position to have to react, and when we have to, we will.
Q. There continue to be rumblings about a major manufacturer pulling out and no matter who denies it, seems like that keeps coming back. What can you tell us? Is that close to being reality?
BRIAN FRANCE: I have no idea about that. I think if anything, the parity is probably as good as it's been. I don't think anyone has a serious complaint. I think Dodge has made a nice resurgence and certainly Kasey Kahne showing that they have got the Dodge Charger in a good place. There are obvious time cycles or difficulties that both Ford and Chevrolet have experienced. That's one thing that probably swirls some rumors. But I know the value and the long history of participation in NASCAR is there for them, and my anticipation is that's going it continue.
Q. Just to be clear on the Chase thing, will there for sure be some sort of tweaks here and there, or there's no way it's coming back in it's current form?
BRIAN FRANCE: I'd be very surprised. Seeing what has gone across my desk now from people internally and race fans and just different places we get ideas from, including the media, some of them we like, but we're sort of playing with.
But I want to say, changes, I always distinguish changes are one thing; adjustments are another. Adjustments tend to be smaller, tend to be less dramatic, and that's kind of what we're looking at. We're looking at adjustments, not changes.
Q. With the Sprint Nextel merger, I get there's a name change is possible, your thoughts on that and I guess what's the rules, are they free to change the name?
BRIAN FRANCE: They are our partner and we anticipate that at some point, that will occur. You know, they are still working with placing Nextel and the values of their particular brands and how they are going to manage that going forward. NASCAR is going to play a big role in the general marketing of the new company, and my anticipation is some point down the road, there will be a change and they will have the right to do that and we will be very cooperative with that.
Q. We hear a lot of talk that the new broadcast partner and the existing broadcast partner, FOX, that comes along, and TNT, are all trying to get to you tweak the schedule a little bit to maybe -- we're hearing more night races toward the end of the season, maybe some Saturday night races. Could you address that, and also, can you address how that affects a lot of the local track operators around the country, screaming that NASCAR has got way too many Saturday night races already, and could there be the possibility of a mid-week race?
BRIAN FRANCE: There's no talk at this point about a mid-week race. There have been numerous changes that have happened in the schedule in the last three or four years; notably, realignment. Some of those have moved a Sunday to a Saturday, like Phoenix, now at night. Even California in their fall race is now in the evening. And obviously that has an impact to the weekly tracks, and we are find mindful of that.
Unfortunately the large scope of people that we have to report into and accommodate, television networks, millions of race fans, will always take precedent of scheduling from the weekly track level. I don't think there will be a lot of that. We're not getting a lot of pressure from the networks to have more Saturday night races. If anything, they all want to have various -- we are now splitting up the season differently and of course Turner is going to have that six-race what we call a midsummer package and they want various things in that package and we are trying to accommodate them.
It's a tricky balance because you have historical events that have happened in certain times of the year, and so you can't change that too much. We can make a small change here or there, but we'll try to accommodate our TV partners, as all sports leagues do. They are paying a whole lot of money, they are trying to do the right thing which is present our events to more people, more eyeballs.
So whenever we can accommodate our new partners -- and I will tell you this. I was just in New York with the ESPN guys just a week ago with their senior people. And I will tell you, and they were, of course, all in Texas, they had 60 people, unprecedented they tell me from their company to do that in advance of a taking over the rights of a given sport. But the energy and enthusiasm from George Bodenheimer, who was in the meeting was incredible, from when they were involved in NASCAR five years ago. This is going to be a major property, a bookend property in the fall with ABC having the final ten, plus the Chase, ESPN having their stretch run, and all of the resources that the Disney company has put, it's overwhelming.
And the real beneficiary is going to go the Busch Series. They are going to have the exclusive home of the Busch Series. You are going to see that division treated like it's never been treated before, because they are going to have all the events; they are going to have all the incentive. And they think that series is a diamond in the rough, and I'd agree with them. They are looking to propel that series in a way it's never been done before, along with covering, of course, the Nextel Cup, and all kinds of incredible shoulder programming, good studio shows. I think they are going to do a lot of things that are going to surprise people.
Q. Speaking of the Busch Series, the last two races notwithstanding, that has become something of a Nextel Cup lite. Are you guys happy with where that; and if not, do you envision making some changes to bring that back more of a developmental series.
BRIAN FRANCE: You know, I'm mixed on that. I think most people are. You see lots of Nextel Cup drivers, and that's good in a lot of ways. Sells more tickets for the promoter, gets better ratings. And the regular Busch drivers who compete in that division, that's kind of good for them in that they get a chance to really square off with the best drivers in the world; helps them in their preparation for the next level.
On the other hand, it eliminates some seats that for other young drivers to get opportunity on the second biggest stage in motorsports. I think we're always mixed about that, frankly. You know, there's some good things and there's some bad things.
Q. Can you put into perspective with you guys with the new make next year, new TV contract, going to Sirius Satellite radio? There's a lot of major changes coming next year. Can you put into perspective, is this maybe one of your biggest off-seasons that you've had in a long time?
JIM HUNTER: I think with the advent of our young chairman and his thinking, we're very subject to change to make things better. And I think historically, I would say it would probably be -- yeah, if you were going to list a year, you know, a year by year of what key years and seasons in NASCAR and what transpired, I think this year will go down in history as, with the Car of Tomorrow, with other things we've done that Brian mentioned, the additions to safety, what they are the R&D center is doing to prepare for the Car of Tomorrow, the tire leasing program that we've put into play this year, all of the other things that we've done to try to improve the sport. You can't stand still, and to make changes, I think it takes young people to come in and say, why don't we do this, and be willing to try things, as opposed to just maintaining a status quo. I think this will go down as a big year.
BRIAN FRANCE: And you've got Toyota. So Jim's right, you've got Toyota, the Car of Tomorrow makes its debut in April, you've got a brand new television package with a brand new partner in the second half, an old friend, actually, of course.
So you do have a lot of changes, and that's kind of why we tried, other than the tire testing policies and some things, we've tried to have some moderate year here to anticipate that we know a lot of things are going to move around in '07.
Q. I want to ask you to give us an update on the New York City/Staten Island track. As of last month, the commissioners all came out against it, and one of the commissioners said the project was finished obviously. You're probably not finished in your mind. Can you give us an update of what's happening up there?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, they didn't all come out against it. But you're right. It was a rocky meeting that they had for various reasons. Always known that that is going to take some turns in different directions. I know that the IOC group (ph), they have a lot invested and they are pushing hard. And they know that they are not just going to roll in with a master plan, a $600 million, 80,000-seat stadium in one of the five boroughs and just roll right into town, so that's not unexpected.
They are doing what you need to do to address the issues that the city council members have put out, and we'll see how they do in accomplishing that.
Q. I want to go back to the Chase and a couple things. You mentioned about adjustments maybe to the races in the Chase. Since you were kind of defining adjustments and changes, I think if any track moves out, somebody would see that as a change. When you talk about adjustments in the schedule, are you talking about moving races in or out or changing order? And also, you talked about whether ten is the right number for drivers, what makes that not the right number, and what might be the right number?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, there's no magic number. Let me address your first question.
The least of the priorities is some change with the final ten tracks. We're very happy, have made a couple changes, or several changes, frankly, in the last couple years in Texas and Phoenix, moving around a little bit, so. We are very comfortable with the different tracks that are they are on. We have zeroed in on other things, and whether -- we always thought that more than ten might get in. It hasn't happened yet. It could happen this year. So we'll look at that 400-point mark. Too many is -- it's all subjective, but you wouldn't want -- there has to be a premium on getting in.
So by the definition, you've got to have a relatively small number. But is ten the number; is 12 the number; would we like to see the 400-point issue come into play? I think it would be interesting. It would be nice to see, instead of the -- call it a wild-card if you will, some wild-card teams jump in. I think that would add to the drama and excitement.
So we'll have to see how that plays out, and if we want to make that more attainable in the future, that's what we'll be working on.
Q. Is there a worry that three name changes for the top series in about five years will confuse fans or put the perception out there that sponsoring is not as good of a deal as it was for Winston for so long?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, it's not ideal. In a perfect world you'd like to not be moving your series name around. There's just circumstances that are out of our control, and that we have to react to. But it's not ideal.
Q. Some of the issues that you touched on that you would look at as far as adjustments to the Chase seem to be related to many of the complaints that a lot of race fans had had about -- in other words, it looks like more inclusion seems to be a predominant theme. Is it fair to say that some of the complaints that might be addressed in some of the adjustments are directed from what you hear from race fans and in the last two careers that it's been run?
BRIAN FRANCE: Oh, sure. We pay attention to what people feel good about or don't feel good about. You know, we take that into consideration. We're not doing this for ourselves, so we're doing it to excite fans.
I think the most important thing is, you know, we want to build drama. Everybody wants to, and any sports commissioner would tell you, in an ideal world, they would like to have a close, high-scoring game that goes down to the last play. We're no different than that.
The trick for us is, you can't artificially do it. So we can do things that give teams more opportunities to have big moments on a bigger stage, and all of those things. But as we look at that, we want to make sure that they are earning it, it's performance-driven. Not just because we feel like having 12 teams in there that we just do that. It has to be thought of in the context of performance.
Q. Two follow-up questions. One is the effect of ESPN propelling the Busch Series into the limelight. Do you see more Cup guys getting involved because that coverage, extended shows and more attention; what will the effect be of ESPN propelling this into the limelight is the first one.
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I don't know. My sense is and my hope is that they are just going to make -- the Busch Series is a quiet No. 2 motorsports division in the country. It is far and away bigger than the IRL or bigger than CART or bigger than any of those, by any definition, attendance, television viewership, sponsorship, you name the criteria; that division. And because it's caught in a context of a hype the Nextel Cup, that it probably doesn't get its proper due.
One of my hopes is that being on one network for the entire season, which we've never done that, and the energy and all of the resources are that they have putting behind it, that it will get its proper due for what it is. It's a tremendous racing division that happens to be, you know, part of the NASCAR family and runs on Saturday. But in its own right, is very impactful and we want to make sure -- we want to hope that ESPN brings that out.
Q. My second follow-up is, do you sense any kind of a lull during this time of the season while we wait for the chase? Is there any kind of a feeling that there's a bit of a lull while people wait because they are in?
BRIAN FRANCE: There are always lulls. We have a 10-month season. We are not always going to be on pins and needles with the exciting moment of the day. We're like anybody else. We have races that we'd all like to see have more lead changes or what have you. That's why we never look at one race and try to make more of that, more are less of it than it is.
I think we're real pleased with who is in the ten right now and who is on the bubble to get in. I think Earnhardt and Gordon have made a resurgence, and in particular Earnhardt. We like that Richard Childers has got his teams in high gear and they are performing well. He has not been in the Chase. It would be nice for Richard to, see him perform, get in.
So we like how it's shaping up. And so we'll just have to see how it goes.
Q. Along with the potential name change with the merger, the rumors continue to pop up about the possible change of the sponsor. Has there been any discussions at all about Nextel/Sprint getting another company to buy out the contract?
BRIAN FRANCE: None whatsoever. They have got one of the great positions, the greatest position perhaps, in sports. They are obviously going through a change post their merger trying to get their company in a place that takes the most advantage with NASCAR. But they are focused on how to build around the sponsorship that Nextel brought into the merger. So none whatsoever.
Q. Talking about the Busch Series and how it's going to get more attention, and that's well and good, are you looking at making any changes to that series at all to take advantage of that in terms of there's been talk of different body styles, different things such as that to take advantage of all that attention?
BRIAN FRANCE: You know, we are. We are looking at that division, which we look at from time to time anyway. One of the advantages with the Car of Tomorrow is we're going to -- it's going to be more distinguishable what Saturday is to Sunday, because the Sunday Car of Tomorrow is going to look a lot different. We think that's actually good.
We think any time we can give the Busch Series it's own stage, the more we can do that, the better that division will do. Are there various other things we'll look at? Because we want to be aggressive, smart marketers, and we now know that ESPN, they did not just get into this for the Nextel Cup, although that was obviously the lead premise. The other issue for us is they believe they have a special property.
So we want to make sure that we are taking advantage of their energy, their enthusiasm and what they are going to do. So we are going to look at all kinds of things to give that division -- as I said, not everybody in the country knows it is far and away the No. 2 division in the country, far and away. So we'll have to do a better job of distinguishing it and giving it it's proper place.
Q. We've heard comments from the NASCAR organization about the supposed ongoing talks about the merger of the two open-wheel series, and you've just mentioned them as well. Realistically, is it in your best interests to have a strong open-wheel, single open-wheel series that will be able to take potential sponsorship away from the development series over here, say the Craftsman Truck and the Busch Series; and if there was going to be a singular open-wheel series, would you prefer it be a more rode-course based series like the Champ Car series?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I don't know about what I'd prefer; it doesn't really matter.
The one thing I would like to see is a healthy open-wheel division, or two, whatever it is. I would like to see all form of racing; that's in our best interests, because the tracks run at most two Nextel Cup races. They need lots of content, lots of auto racing.
And so the more healthy sports car racing is, open-wheel, you name it, the weekly series -- we will get our sponsorship, whatever is going to be, earned by the teams and ourselves, we'll get that. We'll deliver enough value to put enough sponsorship to work in our division.
It's not about dividing up -- the pie is big, and I would just like to see -- and not only -- I'll make one other comment. Not only would I like to see all of auto racing healthy, No. 1, but all of sport healthy. When one sport, even when it's outside of our category, struggles or has a major issue, that's not good for us. We're all playing to the same fan bases. So when things are healthy and going in a positive way in all sports, that's in our best interests.
Q. I know some NASCAR officials had some pretty pleasing talks in Montreal recently. I'm wondering your thoughts on expanding into Canada, if that's something you think will happen next year?
BRIAN FRANCE: I don't know that it will happen next year, but my hope is that we're going to figure out the Busch Series in Montreal. That's a great venue. We're having good success, as you know, down south.
So my hope is that -- because we have a big fan base in Canada that is -- you've heard me say this before, but of course, less population percentage-wise though, about the same amount of people follow NASCAR in Canada as they do in the U.S. So we would like to take a live event north of the border. That's the venue in our view to do that. And I hope, I don't know that it will be '07, but we are working with them and we'll see what happens.
Q. You know, you've mentioned how healthy and how good things feel in NASCAR right now. Is it all surprising to you, or what are your feelings to see that there that resistance in New York and there's still a little resistance out in the northwest as well to get these tracks built. Does it surprise you that there's still any of that?
BRIAN FRANCE: No, this is the most undercovered -- you've heard me say this -- the most undercovered sport in the country. That's not because I'm complaining about it.
And when I say that, that doesn't mean the motorsports media, because I happen to think the motorsports media works as hard or harder than anybody in sports. You have to be at our events longer; the events are over multiple days; it's ten months; there's no harder working group than this group and the whole constituency.
But the reality is for the size fan base, the size -- and I'll give you just one example. Last week, or this week, any week, we're the largest sporting event in the country, usually. We're either first or second, and until the fall, we're usually first. You just wouldn't know that by going around and looking at a lot of media outlets. So everybody asks, well, what are you going to do about that, how are you going to change that.
I think we are going to do a lot of the things. One of the things we are going to do is work as closely as we can with the motorsports media. We are also going to look at emerging media that is coming fast, the Internet, all of the different outlets that are now, the people are getting their news and information. We're working closely with the Sporting News to have more information, more rich content available to dailies, to radio around the country. We are going to do some, I think, clever, I know hard-working, well-intended things to tell our story better and get this sport the proper coverage. That will help when we're working in Seattle to get a track built or certainly New York, help change some hearts and minds or at least make people aware of how big this sport is all over the country.
Q. In light of the price fluctuations in the gasoline prices and at the pump for people across the country, a two-part question, one, have you been seeing some pinch on attendance at races due to people maybe just not having the disposable income to afford gas right now; has it been hurting attendance at tracks? B, are you preparing to answer what could be political criticism in the case of the obvious thing of the sport that burns a lot of gasoline?
BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, and I've got answers for both. I think it has clearly hurt some events, albeit modestly. There's no question that, you know, our fans drive further than any other sports fans to get to the event. So by definition, that's got to have had some impact. So that's No. 1.
You know, we'll be talking about, you know, alternative fuels, we'll be talking about unleaded fuel which we've been working on for a number of years, had a little bit of a sidetrack when we had to switch suppliers with Unical and Sunoco.
We'll be talking about a green series. We'll be building a car here very -- in the next 12 to 18 months at the R&D center. We have the unique situation in motorsports now that we can work on things way out in advance. We have people to do that that aren't going to the events that we can explore these kinds of things. And I say green series; that has a broad meaning to it, of what that could be, and it may be ten, twenty years down the road, doesn't matter. But we are going to be working on ways to recognize that the fuel prices are going through the roof, and that may be here for a long time, or forever to some level.
So we want to be more sensitive or as sensitive as we possibly can be, and the great news is, we have the people, the resources to start looking way down the road, and at the same time, manage the sport day-in and day-out.
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