Jim France: Making moves behind the scenes
Jim France sat and listened as NASCAR staffers reviewed key initiatives that were supposed to help reverse the sport’s sagging fortunes.
He didn’t like what he was hearing.
Knowing all too well that the sport needed to stem declines in key performance indicators such as ratings, attendance and sponsorship, France challenged his executive team to put a greater focus on initiatives that would drive actual growth, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Why was the sport continuing to invest in areas that had questionable results?
Instead, why not just focus on the basics that could do the most good for those key indicators?
The meeting was in 2017, before France was pressed into emergency duty last year to run NASCAR. But it offered an example of the straightforward approach he brings to the sport, a leadership style in which he prefers to stay out of the limelight and instead just get things done.
Now, six months into the role of chairman and CEO, the 74-year-old France earns praise from stakeholders for providing much-needed stability to the sport.
“He’s moved the ball so fast, I still compare it to [Tom] Brady moving down the field with no huddle,” said Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “When he stepped in and took over the reins, he cut out all the middlemen. Sometimes things get lost through communication and translation, but he’s right there on the firing line.”
France took over the sport in August, replacing his nephew, Brian France, after the younger France was charged in New York with driving under the influence.
True to his usually reclusive form, Jim France has shied away from public comments since then. In fact, the only time he’s spoken to the media was for a press conference earlier this year to discuss the IMSA sports car series his family also owns. He declined to comment for this story.
But France has been making major moves behind the scenes, multiple industry executives told Sports Business Journal. He’s impressed the garage by turning up to every race since he took over last season, on top of attending countless industry meetings, a stark difference from his nephew.
Who is Jim France?
Born James Carl France in Daytona Beach in 1944, France is the son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. He started working for track operator International Speedway Corp. in 1959 at age 14 and worked his way up to become a director in 1970 before taking on several different roles. France served as ISC’s president and chief operating officer from 1987 to 2003, and as chairman and CEO from 2007 to 2009. He has retained the chairman role since 2007. His niece, Lesa France Kennedy, now serves as CEO.
Those executives highlight France’s deliberate yet decisive decision making. They cite his tireless work ethic and his laser focus on getting the sport back to basics. For example, NASCAR last week announced a move to simplify the post-race officiating process, with winners to now be inspected and confirmed at-track on the night of a race, instead of a couple days later at one of NASCAR’s North Carolina headquarters. The move seemed simple yet was one that some fans and media had been wanting for years.
France’s omnipresence since he took over has been particularly stark because Brian France was criticized over the years behind the scenes for being less than fully engaged and only occasionally seen or heard from publicly.
Hendrick was particularly impressed when Jim France showed up early on a cold Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in late October to Hendrick’s RV to privately meet with executives from Ally, the new full-season sponsor of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 driven by Jimmie Johnson.
“When you’ve got the decision maker in the room, you don’t have to work through emails and translation,” Hendrick said. “[Instead], it’s, ‘Here’s the deal — let’s move, let’s go, what do you think?’ It’s different.”
Part of the directive under France has been for NASCAR to spend more time and money on what’s most important to improving the sport. As NASCAR President Steve Phelps said, that means staying focused on the core aim of putting on exciting races that fill grandstands and get good TV ratings.
With that in mind, NASCAR just shaved a few million dollars off its bottom line with a round of layoffs that affected 50-75 people. But the sport also is investing in new areas this year, including plans to spend between $10 million and $20 million to advertise and promote the sport and its events.
France also helped engineer the $1.9 billion bid by NASCAR to buy track operator International Speedway Corp. That deal has yet to be approved, but it has the potential to both reshape the sport and make a potential sale of NASCAR more appealing.
Other initiatives since France took over include an unprecedented audit of teams’ spending by Deloitte to lay the foundation for a new competitive balance framework that could include a budget cap.
“You’ve got a CEO in Jim France that has spent a lot of time since last summer really getting very involved in what we do and wanting to learn about how we go to market,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “He likes what he sees, and that vote of confidence — not just in the investment in budgets and dollars but also the confidence he’s showing in the management and executive team — has been very encouraging.”
Known as someone who listens intently before he speaks, France’s negotiating style is seen as calm, considerate and based around common sense. While France is not the type of attention-seeking CEO who does countless media appearances and acts as a sort of public cheerleader on TV, many feel that his decades of experience and genuine roots in racing are the more important traits for the leader of NASCAR right now.
“To a guy like me, he’s not new to this sport. He’s been a part of it, behind the scenes, all his life,” said Mike Helton, NASCAR vice chairman. “And even when his brother and niece and nephew ran it, Jim was always a player. He has a good understanding of the sport, so when it came time for him to step into the role now, what the industry is seeing is what many of us saw privately in the past.”
At the same time, France understands that the sport needs a public face and has given Phelps the green light to be that person for NASCAR. Phelps said France’s lineage — he’s the son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. — is a powerful tool, which others recognize.
“Jim has a unique skill in that he strikes the difficult balance between honoring the past and adapting to the evolving sports and entertainment world,” said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing and co-chairman of the Team Owner Council. “He is open and very receptive to new ideas and to looking at different ways to ensure we appeal to the fan base — like esports and gambling — while at the same time, he is very focused on making sure we don’t lose what made us so great and so strong in the past. And that’s a hard balance to achieve but he seems uniquely situated to do so because of his vision and the respect he has in the garage from the owners and other stakeholders in our sport.”
Newmark said he’s already met with France one-on-one four different times, including when France stopped by Roush Fenway Racing’s headquarters to meet personally with him and team co-owner Jack Roush.
Phelps said he and France communicate frequently, sometimes through text but often on the phone. If they’re both at NASCAR’s Daytona Beach headquarters, France will stroll into Phelps’ office next door to ask a question or float an idea.
Hendrick noted that Brian France “was a big-picture guy — and he did a great job at that,” while Jim “is a nuts-and-bolts racer who knows the sport from the very beginning.”
While the Frances’ management of the sport has come under criticism over the years, Jim’s move to take over for Brian seems to have united the garage behind the sanctioning body in a way that some felt had been missing.
“I didn’t know Jim was the leader that he turned out to be — he always was, but I never saw it until now,” Hendrick said. “He listens and then if he doesn’t agree with you, he will tell you right then in a very nice way why exactly he doesn’t think it will work.”
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Hendrick predicted that there will be several significantly positive developments for the sport that will come in the next two years, specifically mentioning altered schedules and new manufacturers.
How long France will stay in the role is not clear. Some think it could just be for a year or two to help reshape the sport before new management, or possibly even a new buyer, comes in.
As to whether anyone at NASCAR is worried that France may not get the credit he deserves for all the moves he’s pulling off behind the scenes, Phelps brushed that off quickly.
“He doesn’t care — he just wants to see this sport succeed,” Phelps said. “If others are put out in front and are able to execute against his vision, that’s good for him. And when he has something he wants to say [publicly], he’ll say it.”