Brian France’s next chapter
Eighteen months after departing as the head of NASCAR amid controversy, Brian France is getting back in the game, speaking out for the first time on his tenure in the sport and revealing the launch of a private investment firm.
France, the former chairman and CEO of NASCAR, was at the helm of America’s top racing series for 15 years starting in 2003 and culminating in the summer of 2018 when he was removed following a DWI arrest in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
The arrest generated national headlines, and France took a leave of absence and withdrew from public view for more than a year, a time he called necessary for personal reflection and health. NASCAR, a privately owned company controlled by the France family, replaced Brian with his uncle, Jim France, temporarily at first in a move that eventually became permanent.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with Sports Business Journal last month that marked his first public comments in nearly two years, Brian France spoke about his past, proudly touted accomplishments under his watch, bluntly addressed criticism that he wasn’t fully engaged as NASCAR CEO, and revealed for the first time that he was already working on his exit from the sport at the time of his ouster.
He also discussed his new business, Silver Falcon Capital, a direct investment firm fully underwritten by France that is the fulcrum of his return to the public spotlight. A source said that Silver Falcon has around $350 million in capital to work with. France’s plan is to have Silver Falcon invest in challenger brands across verticals including health care, restaurants and sports, and in some cases create new brands.
Above all, France, 57, says he’s at peace with how things played out at NASCAR during his tenure. Though he said he misses the people and strategic decisions he was a part of at NASCAR, he’s supportive of the vision his uncle is implementing. He clearly has the comportment and attitude of a man not looking back, but ahead, ready to help underdog companies punch above their weight in the same way he said NASCAR did during its rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“It was a very unfortunate situation and bad judgment on my part,” he said, in his only comments specific to the incident on the day of his arrest. “But you know what? It gave me a chance to take a break. I was already looking at what I was going to do to play a different role in NASCAR anyway, so it accelerated that and gave me a chance to focus on my health and taking care of myself a little bit.”
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Walking into SBJ’s offices in Charlotte, France looked relaxed, wearing a gray suit and blue-striped dress shirt and no tie. He sipped a Starbucks coffee, occasionally drumming his thumbs on the lid to make a point during the interview.
He said that in early 2018, his family decided to consolidate the NASCAR industry in an effort to jump-start efficiency and transformation. The sanctioning body ultimately purchased International Speedway Corp. for $2 billion, a deal that closed last October, but France said there were other avenues to go about consolidation. He did not further clarify them, but industry executives have long predicted that the sport will eventually consolidate all of its tracks into one entity.
There was also widespread speculation throughout 2018 that the France family was exploring a possible sale of NASCAR. It was working with Goldman Sachs to pursue possible suitors, but nothing became of that. NASCAR President Steve Phelps said earlier this month that NASCAR is not for sale.
France said it was around this time that he contemplated stepping down from his leadership role. He said he was actively talking to and identifying potential replacements before his ouster, but didn’t specify who. NASCAR declined comment on the topic, and it could not be determined through industry sources how serious these discussions were.
Ultimately, Jim France took over, and Brian said he remains in close touch with his uncle, among other NASCAR executives. Jim France attends NASCAR’s races nearly every week, which is a stark difference from Brian, who received heavy criticism over the years from some industry members and fans for rarely being at the track at a time when many felt the sport needed public demonstrations of leadership.
In reflecting on his leadership, France proudly stressed what is easily his greatest accomplishment — signing multiple media deals such as the 10-year, $8.2 billion agreements with Fox Sports and NBC Sports that last through 2024 and solidified NASCAR’s standing in the sports industry. He also was the architect of many of its groundbreaking sponsorship agreements, and the sport continues to benefit from the billions of dollars’ worth of revenue from deals he helped orchestrate. While pointing to that, he was also eager to defend his leadership style and push back on the perceptions that he wasn’t actively engaged in the day-to-day efforts around the sport.
“I understand that kind of criticism, but there is no other sports league that gets any criticism like that,” said France, of the time he spent at the track. “I’ve always found that a bit interesting that no one else asks another commissioner how many football games or practices he made.”
While many in the sport felt France seemed removed from the responsibilities of leadership, France believed that based on the goals he set for the company and his focus on the commercial side, his physical presence at the track was not required on a weekly basis. He took exception to criticism that his absence at the track meant NASCAR wasn’t communicating enough with the industry, noting that NASCAR formed unprecedented councils for tracks, drivers, teams and car manufacturers on his watch.
France said that while Jim France attends more races to match up with his goals, “[It] didn’t match up with mine, so I had to take the criticism on my way to managing the commercial side.”
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France was bought out of his ISC shares as part of NASCAR’s purchase of the track operator, according to public documents, and it’s unclear if he has any other equity in the sport. France declined to disclose that, and a spokesperson would only add that France “maintains a close working relationship with all members of the NASCAR executive team and the ownership group.”
France harbors no ill will toward the sport and said he is still “incentivized for the industry to do well as it is now, and that’s in any number of ways.”
After being charged with DWI, France said, he received support from many friends and colleagues in the NASCAR industry, which reflects the family atmosphere that pervades the sport. He singled out team owners Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Felix Sabates, and drivers Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon as people who reached out to him and offered support.
He would plead guilty to the charge and was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and undergo alcohol counseling until his sentencing date, now set for June.
Paul Brooks, the longtime confidant of France and former NASCAR executive who is now a partner at Silver Falcon Capital, said that in the weeks following the incident, he encouraged France to focus on his future both personally and professionally. It was during this time, over the period of a year, when France set up Silver Falcon. The other partner in the venture to be announced so far is former NASCAR executive Austin Tate.
“Our focus around that time was all about looking at what opportunities are next — he was already in a transition, so we were well in the throes of planning what we were going to be building with Silver Falcon Capital,” said Brooks. “It was certainly an awkward transition for many reasons, but it all has played out well. And it’s nice when you can look at the future and see big opportunities and focus your time and attention on that.”
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These days, France splits his time between residences in all of the cities where Silver Falcon is based: New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and Charlotte. He travels every week as he looks for new companies to invest in — to the point that he is still having to manage his work/life balance, but not nearly to the extent he did during his NASCAR days.
France said Silver Falcon is making anywhere from $5 million to $50 million investments in companies. He said he is fully funding Silver Falcon for now so that he doesn’t have to worry about short-term returns.
France proudly uses his background at NASCAR to frame the ethos of Silver Falcon. On the company’s new website, it touts: “We know what it’s like to be an underdog! Against big odds, we took a small, regional sport and grew NASCAR into a multi-billion-dollar global sports entertainment property.”
France has set up a new LinkedIn account, where he’s listed as a “business executive with more than 20 years of experience in the sports industry,” who “implemented new marketing, safety and environmental initiatives that helped establish NASCAR as one of the most successful organizations in sports and entertainment.”
Companies listed on the website as ones in which Silver Falcon has invested operate in five different verticals: food and beverage consumer packaged goods; health and wellness; product development; restaurant and retail concepts; and sports/content/entertainment.
Included among those are Urban Plates, which France described as a healthy option challenger to Panera Bread; food allergy startup Ukko; and healthy-food vending machine company Farmer’s Fridge. Also listed on the site is Silver Falcon’s sole current sports investment, 704 Games, the NASCAR video game licensee which has long counted France as an investor.
France first invested in Urban Plates in 2014, before Silver Falcon Capital was established, according to Saad Nadhir, the co-founder and CEO of Urban Plates. Nadhir said the capital from France has helped the company expand, and France’s background has helped Urban Plates with marketing and branding objectives. He also praised how France was not looking for a quick flip.
“[The investment] really helped us expand significantly — we’ll be at 25 restaurants by the end of this year,” said Nadhir. “Brian and Silver Falcon, they have been there any time we needed them. If we needed to pick their brain on strategy, they would be there, but without being micro managers. They respect that we know what we’re doing, and they respect us in the decision-making process.”
France said he was interested in getting into the investment capital space because of his experience in building brands and dealing with issues related to intellectual property and commercial growth. He also gets “a real thrill from working with young entrepreneurs.”
His motivation on what industries to get involved with draws from his time in sports. On top of health/wellness, which has a clear connection to sports, Brooks noted that France has experience in, for example, the restaurant industry via founding and owning several restaurants in Florida.
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France said he is interested in investing in sports, but it’s not the core focus of Silver Falcon. He said he has been presented with opportunities to invest in sports companies but, “the timing and opportunities haven’t been right yet.”
France’s interest in stick-and-ball sports was always the subject of much speculation within NASCAR, with some fans and industry executives convinced he wanted to purchase an NFL team or other franchise. France does not hide his love of sports and said he is voracious follower of the business, routinely attending events to observe the game-day experience, but he said this “was an often-misunderstood point that got made — that I was more interested sometimes in other sports [than NASCAR].”
Still, he is open to investing in sports because, “I understand it very well and understand which leagues are on the upswing and have good, bright futures, and others that may not.”
France says he still watches races and he planned to be at last weekend’s Daytona 500. As for the question of whether the France family will ever sell NASCAR, France says he hopes not — but with a caveat.
“I don’t [see the family selling] – but I think the idea is, ‘Can we lead a sport?’ You’ve got a very fast-changing media landscape, a more-competitive-than-ever sports content landscape as well, and we know the racing business well. I’m always looking for, ‘How are we structured to compete well?’” said France. “As long as we can stay structured to compete well in this situation and deliver — because we’ve got stakeholders like everyone else; drivers, owners, sponsors, media partners, you name it — as long as we are delivering value for them, then my hope would be that the family will continue to do it.”
But on this day in Charlotte, all of that seemed far removed from Brian France’s day-to-day life. Instead, he was a man looking refreshed and content, ready for one more big run in his professional life. Doing it his way, and with the people he’s eager to be with.
“I’m going all over the country meeting people and looking at ideas, and I’m doing it with some people who I enjoy doing business with,” said France. “That was a fun part when I was at NASCAR — building the brand side of it, the commercial side of it.”
It’s this sort of development of not just businesses, but also executives, that intrigues and motivates him, and it’s what he feels he brings to the table most for companies he’s investing in beyond pure cash.
“The biggest thing is I know how to spot talented people and help make them the best version of themselves. I do this with a lot of young people. When I go through the list of people that worked alongside me in the last 20 years to help us build NASCAR, it’s a phenomenal list of people, and they’re all running big investment firms and sports leagues,” said France, citing Patron Technology CEO Marc Jenkins, XFL President Jeffrey Pollack and Roc Nation co-CEO Brett Yormark, among others. “I have a deep appreciation for starting small and ending big, and the people it takes to get there.”