During a lunch of brined chicken laid over creamed sweet corn, France talked with staff writer Tripp Mickle about the economic turmoil that NASCAR has faced over the past four years and shared his optimism about the future of the sport.
■ NASCAR has come through a pretty tumultuous period over the last four years. What’s your prognosis of the sport?
|TV talks “are going to work out very well as they have for virtually every rights holder. It’s all going to work out good.”
■ At what point do you think the erosion in attendance will end and there will be a rebound?
FRANCE: We have in some places like Michigan. California, despite the rain, we had an uptick in attendance. [The economy] disproportionately hurt us. When you think about how far fans have to drive, how long they have to stay, what’s really clear, and I’m not an economist, but the middle class is doing less. If they were taking a bigger vacation, they’re taking a smaller one or none at all.
■ What keeps you up at night?
FRANCE: The new car that we have coming in 2013. We want to make adjustments to that. We want to make changes to the [research and development] center to accelerate things we’re working on to get the racing product as good as it can be. I get pretty worked up internally if we come in and out of a weekend and our coverage is not fair. I don’t mean saying good or bad things, but I mean the amount of coverage.
■ How would you assess the performance of the new communications division?
FRANCE: They’ve hired a lot of very talented people. They’re marshaling the industry differently. … We worked the last four or five years to make sure we’re doing as many things together and are connected in as many ways as possible.
■ The TV rights sale is on the horizon. Where do things stand?
FRANCE: Things are going to work out very well as they have for virtually every rights holder. It’s all going to work out good.
■ There was so much concern about the ratings dip a year ago. Now getting into the discussions, what makes you as confident as you are?
FRANCE: There’s a lot of interest and very few other properties haven’t renewed, including the Olympics. And then what we know is that networks don’t look at things in a two-year cycle. Our deal is an eight-year deal. The next one could be longer.
■ How is the new website progressing?
FRANCE: It’s very dynamic.
■ When will we see it?
FRANCE: We better see it Jan. 1 or we’ll all be in trouble.
■ What will that do for the sport in your mind?
FRANCE: We found one of our real difficulties was not having our digital rights. For us, we’re an under-covered sport. The chance to have new media offers a lot more space to help us tell our stories to our fans.
■ NASCAR’s had four restructurings in the last two years. That’s a lot. Why so much of a shake-up?
FRANCE: Businesses change, and we believe we can be better. We did that review, which told us a lot. We felt these changes were necessary.
■ One of the biggest issues facing the sport is team health. The rise of co-primaries has made it difficult for teams to find funding. What needs to happen to get teams healthy again?
FRANCE: There are a thousand companies in the sport. We have attrition every year. In the heyday, we had attrition. Executives change. … It shouldn’t surprise anybody that sponsors drop out.
■ Right, but it appears that the trend of late is two sponsors leave the sport and only one comes in.
FRANCE: Unlike other sports, teams can take their costs down.
■ Do you ever see teams getting a bigger piece of the television revenue?
FRANCE: I see them getting more television money. We try to look at it from growing the pie, not the slice.
■ When do you expect to see results from the five-year plan?
FRANCE: We’re seeing results. For example, how we come in and out of a weekend. A year ago in Sears Point [Sonoma, Calif.] we were not covered in that market as well as we should have. [Integrated marketing and communications] made a concerted effort six or eight weeks out to merchandise story lines, information and relationships, so that when we were there, we were significantly in the [San Francisco] Chronicle and other news organizations. … We’re making progress.
■ Over the second half of the season, what’s your No. 1 priority?
FRANCE: To have great races and great story lines. That makes people look smart.