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Volume 21 No. 26
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Executive VP named Female Sports Executive of the Year

SNAPSHOT:
LESA KENNEDY

Title: Executive vice president
Company: International Speedway Corp.
Age: 40
Hometown: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Resides: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Education: Duke University, 1983
Family: Husband, Bruce; 9-year-old son, Ben
Background: Father Bill France Jr. is the longtime head of NASCAR and International Speedway Corp.; began in the family business in 1983; appointed to the ISC board of directors in 1984 and named secretary in 1987; chosen as ISC treasurer in 1989; promoted to executive vice president in 1996; deals heavily with expansion, beginning in 1996 with Daytona USA, an interactive museum and theme park built next to Daytona International Speedway; ISC opened two speedways this year, Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway, giving the company 12 racetracks that host 18 NASCAR Winston Cup events.

Lesa France Kennedy stood beside her father late last month at the opening of Kansas Speedway, a $238 million motorsports sprawl that she shepherded to reality. Bill France Jr., architect and ruler of today's NASCAR, surveyed the teeming grandstands and quietly nodded his approval.

"For my father to be there at the opening of that speedway was terrific, because there were times in the last year that I wasn't sure if that would happen," said Kennedy, who frequently feared her father would lose a protracted bout with cancer last year. "It was scary. I remember thinking he wouldn't be there. To have him in Kansas City was really special."

This has been a year of eye-popping expansion for International Speedway Corp., a publicly traded, $500 million company founded by her paternal grandparents and passed on to her father, Bill, and uncle, Jim. This season, ISC opened speedways in Kansas City and Chicago, an unprecedented feat for a track operator.

Kennedy, the executive vice president at ISC, successfully headed both projects, an achievement that led to her selection as SportsBusiness Journal’s Female Sports Executive of the Year.

In the last five years, stock car racing has broadened its appeal dramatically, streaking through television wires and into living rooms in locales well beyond its southeastern roots. Speedway developers have chased that demand with backhaulers blazing.

By merging with one of the other titan raceway companies, Penske Motorsports Inc., in 1999, ISC stretched its reach to Michigan and Southern California. A stake of 37.5 percent in the new $130 million Chicagoland Speedway that opened in Joliet, Ill., in July, along with aggressive plans to serve New York with a track at the Meadowlands make these heady times for ISC and Kennedy, who has led the company’s expansion.

On the last Sunday in September, the Kansas City track held its first NASCAR Winston Cup race, an event awaited so intently in the region that ISC was able to use the race as a carrot to attract more than 65,000 season-ticket holders.

Kennedy beamed as she watched about 100,000 jam the new track.

“That has to be among the most exciting days of my life,” said Kennedy, 40, who joined the family business in 1983, shortly after graduating from Duke. “To have been a part of a group to develop something over the course of five years and then actually have fans come and enjoy it and have cars on the track — it’s an amazing process.

“We all laughed and thought about going back to the piece of dirt that we started with, which we affectionately called ‘The Hole.’ Just to see that whole transformation was the best part of it.”

Joining the family business

As executive vice president of NASCAR, Brian France is one of Kennedy’s few peers in the motorsports world.

In the rest of the world, he’s her only brother.

The corners of France’s mouth turn up ever so slightly when he’s asked about his sister.

“She never got into trouble; always had the perfect manners,” said France, who is younger than Lesa by 14 months. “She was the model kid. And I was always the kid out egging a car or doing mischievous things.

“I’d drag her along every once in a while and when she realized what was happening, she’d yell, ‘Oh my God!’ and go running back to the house.”

Brian remembered his sister participating in one prank. Mimicking a bit they saw in a movie, Brian, Lesa and several friends built a dummy that they would use to startle drivers at night. They attached fishing line to one arm and tossed it over a power line, allowing them to raise the dummy’s hand when a car approached.

“Lesa thought it was the greatest thing in the world when we were building it,” Brian France said. “I remember getting her out to see this contraption we built and see it actually work. She saw it and then ran to the house.

“Again, not mischievous by nature.”

Close in age but distant in personality type, they took diverging routes into the family business. Lesa studied through high school and landed at Duke. Brian was less interested in school and ended up at the University of Central Florida, near his family’s Daytona Beach, Fla., home.

After college, Brian worked as a track announcer, as general manager of a small speedway in Tucson, Ariz., and as director of NASCAR’s grassroots program before settling into a more corporate role as NASCAR’s vice president of marketing and broadcasting in 1993, where his career has blossomed in recent years.

Lesa didn’t decide on the family business until after her junior year at Duke, when her grandmother, Anne, suggested that Lesa follow in her path.

“She was kind of the financial gatekeeper, really keeping an eye on things,” Kennedy said. “I was fortunate to see the business from her perspective and, when I did, it appealed to me.

“My grandfather was always seen as the visionary. But she was the one behind the scenes who kept things in order. I think it really took the combination of the two of them to make it happen.”

Kennedy began as a ticket taker at Daytona and soon after began pushing to automate the speedway’s ticketing system.

“She had a real passion for making improvements all the way back then,” Brian France said. “You could see she didn’t want to just be along for the ride. She wanted to make a big contribution.”

About 10 years into her career with the company, her father asked her to develop Daytona USA, a motorsports museum with theme-park tendencies. Kennedy shined in the role. The $20 million attraction opened in July 1996 and has been popular among fans ever since. That led to her promotion to executive vice president, where she would head ISC’s drive for further expansion.

Today, sister and brother push NASCAR’s growth from their respective sides of the business; Brian as a marketer who figured prominently in NASCAR’s watershed network television deal last year, and Lesa as a developer of a new generation of speedways.

“We both have the same vision in where we want to go,” Kennedy said. “We just have some different ways of getting there.”

‘She gets things done’

The Kansas City project was born five years ago, when a delegation flew to Daytona Beach to pitch ISC on developing a track in the region. Already interested in expanding its presence in the nation’s midsection, ISC’s board quickly saw Kansas City as its best option.

The region’s willingness to help pay for the facility — a practice common in other sports but rare in racing — made it doubly attractive.

The $238 million project included about $53 million in infrastructure improvements from the unified governments of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County, with about $43 million going toward improved roads near the speedway.

ISC contributed $90 million toward the project, financing the rest through city-issue bonds. A sales tax exemption likely will cover the bulk of the bond cost.

“The toughest part from my standpoint was that in the beginning, because it was a public-private partnership, there were so many different people involved,” Kennedy said. “You had people from the government, from our company and from neighboring communities that needed to be organized so they were all headed in the same direction.”

Brian France credited Kennedy with designing that public-private partnership and ushering it to completion.

“Her biggest strength is that she can move a process, whether it’s in a bureaucracy or anything else,” he said. “She gets things done.”

In developing Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Kennedy paired ISC with a partner of another sort. The project was a union of two of motorsports founding families, the France clan from NASCAR and the George family from Indy racing.

Though Kennedy began investigating sites near Chicago before launching the Kansas City project, securing property in Illinois took longer. Though construction began later, Chicagoland still opened this year, on time.

“Lesa is very focused on outcomes,” said Tony George, president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which also owns 37.5 percent of Chicagoland. “She’s imaginative, yet she’s down to earth. And she’s got a couple of really strong success stories as a result of it. A lot of things you see going on with ISC’s facilities are the brainchild of Lesa.”

Though still driven to expand the company and succeed within it, Kennedy said her father’s battle with cancer has caused her to reconsider priorities. Time spent at her father’s side has reminded her to spend more time with her own son, Ben, who is 9.

“You take a look at the time you spend together as a family and it all becomes a little more of a priority,” Kennedy said. “We’re all busy. But I’ll look at something now and say, ‘I really think I do have time for that.’ ”

International Speedway Corp.

• Headquarters: Daytona Beach, Fla.
• Chairman and CEO: Bill France Jr.
• President: Jim France
• Executive vice president: Lesa Kennedy
• Web site: iscmotorsports.com
• Nasdaq listing: ISCA*

Stock standing
• Price as of Oct. 9: $36.85
• 52-week high: $48.00
• 52-week low: $30.40

Financial profile
Three-month period ended Aug. 31
Nine-month period ended Aug. 31
Total revenue (change)**
$132.1 million (23.3%)
$364.8 million (14.9%)
Net income (change)
$21.8 million (70.3%)
$57.8 million (77.3%)
 
* Represents Class A common stock, trading on the Nasdaq National Market. The company also offers Class B common stock that trades on the Nasdaq Bulletin Board under the symbol ISCB.
** Change represents increase from year-earlier period.
Sources: ISC