By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to the NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Some people celebrate anniversaries with parties, but Brian France celebrated his 10th anniversary as NASCAR's Chairman and CEO by doing what he does best, talking business.
But what made Friday's anniversary unique is France talked business with nearly 600 of the world's brightest minds and future business and corporate leaders at Northwestern University's renowned Kellogg School of Management.
For the first time in his decade-long tenure, France spoke at length publicly and candidly about some of the initiatives that not only have seen NASCAR grow under his leadership, but also how the sanctioning body has managed to weather some rough storms, most notably the economic downturn with which the sport is still dealing.
"Every part of our business where we thought we were not relevant or not going in the right direction, we worked very hard and did this when ... there was tremendous uncertainty, but we needed to do it," France said. "We're now much better off than we ever have been and it takes a real assertive plan to pull it off."
Northwestern's business school is traditionally ranked among the top five in the U.S. for much of the same elements that France embodies, namely passion and vision. Plus, its geographic proximity to Sunday's opening event of the 10-race NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup in Joliet, Ill., about 60 miles away, made for a natural tie-in, France said.
France downplayed the plaudits for which he's credited, choosing instead to focus in on how NASCAR as an organization -- and its hundreds of employees -- have come together to form a stronger and tighter operational platform.
By doing so, and competing in an extremely competitive professional sports marketplace in the U.S., NASCAR has managed to reduce much of the damage that potentially could have been done by the global recession.
"In our case, clearly the economy disproportionately hurt our sport more than it did any other sport," France said. "I think a lot of people just said it's the economy. We just didn't buy that. It's a big issue and remains a big issue. But the good news was since things were difficult, people were looking for something to believe in in our industry. ... We used all that instability to be decisive, and that's most important."
Among the innovations that NASCAR has undergone during France's leadership:
--Started "NASCAR Green," the largest environmental platform in sports, which is centered on renewable energy, recycling programs and tree planting. "We're a (for) profit organization and we have to resource things," France said. "We had to create an intellectual property around green space and convince people that we're about technologies, new fuels, new energy sources, that we could be an unbelievable partner in recycling ... and we've done that."
--With the burgeoning interest in the sport, as well as exploding consumption of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, recognized the need to bring all digital and social media initiatives in-house to increase engagement with fans. In so doing, NASCAR bought back all digital and social media rights to its top platform, NASCAR.com, from the former licensee two years early to serve as the linchpin for the sanctioning body's unprecedented growth in outreach to its fans.
--Implementation of two cycles of state-of-the-art race cars, with the revolutionary Car of Tomorrow in 2007 and the innovative "Gen-6" car that debuted this season.
--Recently announced 10-year agreements with NewsCorp and NBCUniversal worth $8.2 billion in broadcast rights fees, as reported by multiple media outlets.
--A complete overhaul of the sanctioning body's marketing and communication divisions, opening up unprecedented access and engagement with the media and fans.
--A far-reaching diversity program to improve opportunities for minorities and females to advance in the sport as drivers, crew chiefs, officials and in business operations of teams, as well as the sanctioning body. "It was a challenge," he said. "We didn't like what we saw and we're going to figure out how to change that for obvious reasons."
--NASCAR counts nearly 25 percent of Fortune 500 companies as sponsors and partners, the greatest number of any professional sports league.
--Implemented the largest scale research, consumer studies and fan feedback programs that the sport has ever had in efforts to learn what things needed to be changed.
Even before Brian France succeeded his father, Bill France Jr., as NASCAR Chairman and CEO in 2003, he played a pivotal part in moving the sport forward, particularly in the area of safety.
When NASCAR's biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2001, the younger France oversaw NASCAR's development of the most far-reaching safety enhancement program in the sport's history.
Included in that were mandating head-and-neck restraint devices for drivers, SAFER barriers (so-called "soft walls" that both absorbed significant more amounts of impact, as well as helped protect drivers), data collection recorders in race cars (which gather information to help further enhance the safety of vehicles), different positioning of drivers behind the wheel to maximize protection and more.
When Brian France formally took over for his father, he set in motion a series of changes to both modernize and enhance much of the sport's policies and procedures. Those included the innovative Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff system and the afore-mentioned Car of Tomorrow/Generation 6 style vehicles.
France also pointed to the sanctioning body's efforts to increase its reach in Canada and, in particular, Mexico. To the latter, France said viewership of NASCAR races among Hispanics tuning into English-language telecasts is up 30 percent this season through the first 25 races.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR's Chief Marketing Officer, spoke of the significance of the sanctioning body's Industry Action Plan drawn up during France's tenure, a long-range plan that not only sets the direction for the sanctioning body, but which is designed to also make changes on the fly when necessary.
"Not surprisingly, it focused on our next-generation fans, focuses on digital and social (media), our drivers' star power, our fan engagement and that fan experience on race day, and is our product on the race track, the format, is it going to be engaging for the existing fans as we move to the future and will it excite and engage the new fan," Phelps said. "We spent a lot of time working on it."
To accomplish that basically called for rewriting much of NASCAR's marketing playbook.
"We had to do a better job of marketing ourselves," Phelps said. "This was an industry that was thirsty for us to lead and for Brian's leadership to say, 'Yes, we're going to go in a different direction.' ... If we want this sport to grow, we have to make it grow."
Speaking of growth, France and NASCAR are not sitting on their laurels.
"In the last four, five years under Brian's leadership and the amount of change we're engaging, Brian has not let up on the throttle and we're feeling it," NASCAR Vice President of Strategic Development Eric Nyquist said. "It's exhilarating but at times a little bit terrifying because we have this large-scale commitment.
"But we also know that if we don't make meaningful change, we're not going to get to the next places we need to be."