Who will lead the way?
NASCAR insiders believe the indefinite leave of absence by NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France could lead to the long-term leadership changes they have been calling for.
After France’s surprising and swift fall from the sport’s leadership last week, the overwhelming sense within the motorsports community was that the shift in leadership provided an opportunity to change the direction of the sport and its decision-making.
France was placed on leave with no assurance he would return. This came after he was charged in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance. Jim France, Brian’s uncle, has since assumed Brian’s positions at NASCAR.
Many stakeholders had already been pushing for change, frustrated by Brian France’s preference to avoid a large, public role in the sport’s leadership. That frustration had intensified as key business metrics continued to decline this year, and the noise reached a crescendo following the substantial public relations challenges the sport faced last week.
Up until last week, the France family — Jim, Brian and Brian’s sister, Lesa France Kennedy — had maintained a corporate structure that saw them remain deeply involved with major initiatives, but left much of the day-to-day business to their top lieutenants. Executives had insisted that Brian France had remained involved in top-level decisions at NASCAR.
But within the sport, there had already been significant executive changes by the family over the past year that affected day-to-day leadership of the sanctioning body. As part of those moves, COO Steve Phelps has emerged with a stronger voice, according to interviews with several executives close to NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., the track operator also controlled by the Frances.
Sources say NASCAR’s structure has become relatively straightforward this year: Phelps runs the business side, Steve O’Donnell runs competition as chief racing development officer and both report to President Brent Dewar, who reports to the board.
Both Phelps and O’Donnell have gained autonomy in decision-making, sources say, while Dewar has taken a step back from running as much of the day-to-day business. For example, Dewar this year stepped down as co-chairman of the Team Owner Council, the group of NASCAR and team executives that meets quarterly to discuss industry issues, and was replaced by O’Donnell.
That has left Dewar’s future with NASCAR in question while also leaving Phelps to take on greater responsibility and decision-making. Phelps was promoted to COO in April after serving as executive vice president and chief global marketing, media and sales officer. The move to COO came just two months after Phelps added oversight of NASCAR’s media arms to his duties, a move that saw Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s senior vice president of broadcasting and production, start reporting to him.
Sources described Phelps’ increased role as a welcome development by many of NASCAR’s rank and file, who view Phelps favorably and had grown more frustrated by Brian France’s absent leadership.
“Steve [Phelps] continues to take a greater role in directing the overall vision and strategy for NASCAR,” Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing and co-chairman of the Team Owner Council, wrote in an email. “Even with his increased responsibilities, he’s always accessible and has developed strong relationships with all of the stakeholders.”
With Jim France known for steering clear of the limelight, some industry executives interviewed last week felt it was unlikely he would stay in the role long term. One thing Jim France instantly provides is widespread respect among teams, league officials and partners. The brother of Bill France Jr., who is Brian and Lesa’s late father, he’s been with the sport all his life.
One scenario that insiders speculated could play out is Jim France continuing to run the sport mainly behind the scenes this season without hiring a new permanent CEO, while letting Phelps and O’Donnell make the majority of public appearances.
Jim France is expected to be at the track more often over the next several weeks, and he was scheduled to be at the race in Michigan last weekend. Meanwhile, O’Donnell was the NASCAR representative late last week at Ford headquarters in Michigan for a 2019 Mustang unveiling.
Phelps has been at NASCAR for 13 years after stints at the NFL and Wasserman. His increased role was on full display last month at Pocono Raceway. Not only did he sit alongside businessman Marcus Lemonis during a news conference where Lemonis said he worked with Phelps to rebrand the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but Phelps also launched into a staunch defense of the sport’s marketing viability.
Such a visible role may have been reserved in the past for Dewar, who joined NASCAR in 2014, was recruited by Brian France and maintained a high profile. While Dewar had been said to be taking on a more big-picture role, working on strategic issues with the France family, the apparent reduction in his role has led to increasing chatter in the industry that he could leave the sanctioning body within the next few months. Still, he has been seen at multiple races in recent months and, while less active on social media, has continued to make appearances at “tweetups” organized by fans and the media.
While Phelps has continued to work closely with Dewar on NASCAR’s key issues, he’s also frequently advising each of the Frances about NASCAR’s day-to-day strategy.
Brian, Jim and Lesa had all been serving as NASCAR board members, though Brian has now stepped down from the chairman role at least temporarily. Jim France had already become more involved in the sport this year, as he negotiated NASCAR’s purchase of the ARCA racing series and went to Le Mans, France, in June to work on a project for the IMSA sports car series that the family owns.
France Kennedy has also taken a far more active and business-focused approach to the sport over the past few years, building off her role as CEO of International Speedway Corp., with track expansion plans and the One Daytona Project that is part of the company’s headquarters. Moreover, France Kennedy’s 26-year-old son, Ben Kennedy, has started to work his way into the family business, mainly helping to run the third-tier NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year.
As he has for years, Brian France maintained a low profile this season, though he had been at several races this year and called into SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last month unexpectedly for an interview on the state of the sport.
A few weeks before his arrest, Phelps told the Associated Press that “Brian does things from behind the scenes,” adding: “That’s his way. That’s always been his way.”
However, last week after his arrest became public, most industry executives interviewed by Sports Business Journal said they did not expect France to return, given that there have been rumors of his possible departure for years, that he already was widely viewed as less than fully engaged, and that it would likely be a PR headache for the sport to try to bring him back.
The recent executive moves had come as the Frances faced increasing pressure to bring in fresh perspectives to address the challenging narrative and metrics facing the sport. While there have been some key departures, most of NASCAR’s executive transactions this season have been in the form of promotions, something that has rankled critics who believe new voices are needed to reverse the recent trends. One key departure was Jim Cassidy, a nearly 20-year NASCAR executive who was popular in the garage but left abruptly in May just a few months after being promoted to running NASCAR’s international division.
But for now, it’s Jim France, Phelps and O’Donnell who are seen as those who will continue leading the decision-making, alongside France Kennedy. Phelps, who relocated to Daytona yet is continuously on the road, is seen as the more likely between him and O’Donnell to eventually be moved to permanent CEO.