An Interview With: NASCAR chairman and CEO BRIAN FRANCE and NASCAR president BRENT DEWAR
THE MODERATOR: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to race day here at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Championship 4 event in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. We have a special media availability today. To my right is NASCAR president Brent Dewar and NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. Before we're going to open it up to questions here first, I'd like to go to you, Brian, and ask you what your first thoughts here on the 2017 season, how you felt it shaped up.
BRIAN FRANCE: Yeah, thank you. Before I give you a few of my thoughts on that, two important things that I never want to miss in this discussion. One is to thank everybody in this room for your hard work and covering a very difficult sport. We know how long you're gone from home, how many days these events are. They're not in a local market, generally speaking, where you live. Very hard to do, and I wanted to make sure that you heard it from us: Thank you very much.
Second thing is Dale Jr., and he has made an obviously big contribution on and off the track for a long time. So while we're going to miss him for obvious reasons, he's not going to be that far away, being an owner and working with NBC. So he's going to be glued to the sport, and that's a good thing for us.
With that, I would just tell you very briefly where obviously we think we have an exciting day today. The weather is beautiful. We're looking forward to it, and we've had a great year. Not a good year, a great year. And that's evidence of the competition, in particular in playoffs. And so we're excited about today, and I'll let it go from there.
THE MODERATOR: Brent, I want to hit you with one quick. Over the last several years we've seen a significant amount of work across the industry, collaboration, and we're bringing together the different stakeholders here in the sport. Thoughts on that and how that's gone?
BRENT DEWAR: I would say obviously it's a work in progress. We started with -- we've got a very involved industry, and we try to put a process in place to get the best inputs to allow us to make the best decisions. We started with the manufacturers, the OEMs, and then we went to the team owners and the drivers and the tracks, and then we come together collaboratively, bring all those things together, and you see some of that hard work.
The biggest challenge is getting away from day-to-day racing and try to get strategic mid- and long-term, and that's been a lot of the focus of the councils, and I think one of the projects this year, one of the outputs, is we sat back and said, look, what are we trying to solve for. Our fans love green flag racing, and motorsports is one of those few sports where you actually break to commercial during the race, and I give the team a lot of credit. We obviously need the commercial aspect of that with our broadcast partners.
So they sat down and created what you know today as the stage racing. More green flag racing, more side by side, we call it NASCAR nonstop with the commercials, and the fans are eating it up.
I think there's a good example of the parties coming with different opinions and points of view to come to that, and so we look forward to more of that. I know it's harder for us at NASCAR. It's a little bit easier the other way, but I think if you have the right inputs, you'll get better quality decisions and you'll start to see that manifest itself both in the short-, medium- and long-term.
Q. Brian and Brent, obviously you've heard a lot of talk about with the retirement of a lot of NASCAR stars about who are going to be the ones that take their place. Over the last few months and even this weekend, you've seen Chase Elliott, who was already well-known to many people, kind of come into his own with this feud sort of with a series veteran. This week you've had a champion who's 22 in Trucks, a champion who's 19 in XFINITY, and another 19-year-old win the race yesterday. My question, I guess, is are they already here and they just have to develop --
BRIAN FRANCE: I think you answered your own question. They are here, and they've got to develop their performance, but they're doing well. You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase almost making the final here in Miami. Go down the list. We've got a loaded group.
But it's true, we're in a transition, too. But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens.
But we're excited. We've got a great, great bunch of -- 19, 20, and they're talented, so we're in good shape.
BRENT DEWAR: I would say the same thing. Several years ago -- we anticipate every decade you're going to go through this rotation, and between NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity, these young stars that you're talking about have all come through those classes, and they're all good wheel men and women that are coming up through these series, and I think that's the key thing, and we're working with them in terms of how they work outside the car.
And I think the other part is if you look at most sports, name any other major sport where you get to have a 15- to 20-year career at the highest level. It just does not exist. Those are exceptions. It's the norm here. So if you look at all the ones you take and you add 20 years, you're going to be somewhere around the age of a Dale Jr. and a Matt Kenseth, so they were those same very 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds years back.
I think the way you look at it is we want to celebrate these young drivers coming in because it's necessary, but also we want to celebrate these Hall of Fame careers. These are Hall of Famers in their own right. We're excited about both parts, but there's some pretty good drivers in this Final Four weekend that are previous champions with the exception of Martin Truex that are also young. We talk about the old man of Joey Logano at 27, pretty experienced.
We feel pretty bullish about the future of the sport for the talent they have. They're embracing this format where every lap matters. It truly matters. I think there was a learning process at the start of the year, and I think they'll hit Daytona, all of them, with that learned behavior pretty quick, and we're making some pretty important changes to XFINITY and Trucks to allow those names, those stars to even shine even more.
Q. Brian, obviously when you combine the driver turnover and the rapidly-changing economics of the sport, it's a time of great transition and change for NASCAR in general. What is your biggest worry about getting through this period as a sport, and where do you see the biggest potential for growth during this period?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I'm really more optimistic right now, and I know you may expect me to say that, but we've made the transition largely. We've gotten the council meetings going. We've gotten charters in position so we can get our interests aligned more closely with drivers, OEMs and the charters and the team owners. We have the young drivers already in place. We'd like a couple more, of course. We've got some diversity with Bubba Wallace going in the 43 car. We like that. We'd love to see more of that. And we like all the changes that we've made in the last four or five years, including stage racing this year.
It has created the things that we thought were important.
Now, there are things out of our control, how millennials and other fans of ours are consuming not only our sport but all the sports. That's obviously a challenge for everybody. Attention times, the platforms they want to view and consume, they're changing. TV is still -- always will be linear TV, critically important, but other things now will give us a great opportunity, and we're positioned well there. But it's true, there is always disruption when you have the kind of changes on a macro level in sports, and then couple that with our transition stuff, it's understandable.
But I'm glad we made all the decisions that we made in the last five to eight years. Thank goodness we did each and every one of those. Just imagine if we didn't. Imagine where we would be. We wouldn't be able to take advantage of the things that are available to us today.
So we're excited about -- and the biggest thing we're excited about is, and Brent is leading the charge here, and I attended the last team owner council, is we're on a fast track to get -- and it's hard. It's always been hard, to get the competition level up, and some of that is done by formats like stage racing and cutoff events and so on, has obviously stepped up the competition level. But there are other things we can do that are important to us.
So we're realistic about things that are changing that we don't control outright, but we like where we're at and we like where we're going.
Q. Brian, you talked about the changes you've made, yet Matt Kenseth, Danica both wanted to keep racing but they couldn't find a sponsorship that they desired, Bubba is still looking for sponsorship, and still ratings and attendance haven't risen. How long do you think it will take for these changes to resonate, and is there anything on the table that you feel like will resonate more?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, that isn't quite accurate on the ratings and attendance because attendance is up at many, many events, I think it's 20 something events, 22 or 23, and consumption is changing for everybody, so that's not accurate, either.
The reality is, as Brent said a minute ago, Matt has had a long 20-year plus career. That's unthinkable in most sports, and he's performed at a high level. We'll wish him well, but he may be back, too. He'll have to get the right opportunity for him.
And the rest of it is a performance sport. If it's difficult for anybody -- this is not picking on any one driver, but if you're not performing at a high level, it may be difficult for you to stay in this sport. It will be difficult for you to stay in the sport, for any driver. That's not picking on anybody.
I think for those reasons, that's where we're at.
Q. In terms of the economic model of the sport, where are you guys at in this? And we've heard a lot of discussions about how teams can save more money. What are your thoughts on a potential spending cap, and on that note, as well, we've heard discussion about how maybe the TV money needs to be redistributed a little bit and teams need to receive more. What are your thoughts on that?
BRENT DEWAR: Let me take the first one. We've been in an economic model transition. We understand it. It's not unique to NASCAR; it's kind of transitioning through basically the traditional sponsorship model. And what's moving this, the chief marketing officers are looking at, is greater engagement. The good news is we're doing really well on engagement. There's a monetization shift that kind of goes through that.
So I think the first thing I'd like to clear there, we're not on a cost-cutting effort, we're on medium and advanced design of where we're going to do these vehicles. So from that, what we've been working on with the team owners is taking some of the waste out of the system of how we have traditionally gone to market. So it's hard work. It's design and engineering, it's collaboration, it's a lot of those elements. So I'd say we have a model, we have a contract with our team owners for -- it was a nine-year deal, so we've got eight more to go, and we've got a contract with our tracks where they all understand the economics, and that was a very important -- we went from one-year contracts to this more stable platform to allow us to come together to kind of work on that.
We have many initiatives. I know my good friend in the front here talks about the 100 things we work on, and we are, we're working on 100 different things, and some of them for next week and some of them for three years from now and some of them for seven years from now, and that's a big shift. That's a different business model than we've had in the past, and I think it will serve us well as we kind of go forward.
It's a balancing act, right, and so if consumption metrics are sliding around, and as long as the high consumption metrics of social and digital don't hit the economics of the level of consumption -- and this will change over time. It will change for all sports over time. It's this transition point that we're actually dealing with.
So in the meantime what do you do? You go at it, you focus on racing that matters to the fans, and you start working on some of that waste out of the system that you can do that as organizations come together. You'll hear a lot more of this in the coming months, years, down the road. What we're trying to do is talk about racing during race season and off-season during the off-season. It's been one of my biggest challenges since I've been here. People like to talk about the off-season during the season, and that's uniquely NASCAR, as well. But I'll die trying to fix that.
BRIAN FRANCE: Good luck on that one.
Q. My question can be addressed to either of you. I don't want it to come out as all doom and gloom. You've got team owners that are heavily dependent on sponsorship to fill the team, and in this reset or recycle or whatever we want to call this with the economy, you've got some teams that have a sponsor and they can hire a driver but they've got to figure out how much sponsorship money they have. You've got other teams that can only hire a driver that brings some sponsorship money, and you've got some teams like the 77, they just are going to sell the charter and let it go. Is this current model and the way it works with the onus being on the team owner, does this need to be looked at or addressed or reconsidered in some way?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, it is. I mean, that's the whole idea. That's why we did the charters in the first place. You know, you've got to look at things in a longer view backwards and forwards. We've always had situations where we had too many sponsors at one point. You may recall that. Richard Petty, his car couldn't make one of the events; there were too many cars. And there's always a peak and valley with sponsorship. And you're correct, most of the other leagues are all based on simply media rights, and we have a big sponsorship component, as we do for the tracks, too, by the way.
As that changes and as companies look -- we're confident that, as Brent says, engagement and consumption in other areas, which are hard to measure now, that's going to change shortly. There's a couple different firms that are going to be able to measure that where we can demonstrate additional value or the teams can, but this is not a new thing. And so how you respond to it is to give as much visibility as we can, which we've done, and you do try to keep making the racing better, and then taking cost out of the system when it's appropriate. We've got a nice smart way to do it, it's not just a cost cutting exercise, it's rather getting -- as we cycle in new cars, new engine programs and so on and so forth, working closely with the OEMs and others, we believe we can do that. The team owners believe we can do that.
We'll get through it. It's not an abnormal peak and valley.
BRENT DEWAR: I think the big difference is we've always had this. It's gone for decades. The difference is now we have a mechanism of working together and a process to do that, and we're all in; from tracks to teams to drivers, we're all in, and we're trying to focus on the sport, the business behind the scenes, and just continue to make continuous improvement to do that. I'm making it sound easy, it's really hard. It's really, really hard. At the end of the day, they're racers. Race car drivers want to win and team owners want to win, and we want them to win. We want to cultivate and nurture that as much as possible, but there's still a business behind all these sports, and we need to make continued improvement on the business side.
Q. Brian, how has Monster done in achieving goals in reaching the young audience and kind of reaching them in that fun way, and do you expect a renewal beyond 2018 with Monster?
BRIAN FRANCE: Look, I'll just say this: We've been really pleased with how Monster has come in and engaged with our fans, and the show out here this weekend will demonstrate that. In all markets it's been fantastic. Their young, edgy demo, they're motorsports centric and they always have been in their culture. We're really pleased. I've been out to their headquarters three different times to work with them because this is also a complicated sport to make sure that they're getting all the value, but they're getting a lot of value, and we're very pleased with where that relationship is.
BRENT DEWAR: They've also got some of the old demo, as well, so I've got my little Monster. We work on those things all the time. Yeah, so we -- we look at this for all our partners. We work hard at making it fit. The sport can deliver if you're looking for awareness, you're looking at consideration, you're looking at purchase, there's a funnel that goes through it, and our 80 million fans, they're at the highest loyalty still today of any sports fan, so that's appealing to the sponsors that come in.
When you think about it, when you make a change like this, there's learning on both sides. We bring a big scale, and that's probably the biggest thing is the scale of what we do on 36, 38 weekends a year. It's big, and I would encourage you to go up there. If you haven't seen it, the shows, they're fun, and they get them stopped as they flow into the race. So it's pretty good for those that get the big smoke shows. It's a pretty good engagement at the track.
Q. Brian, if social media is to be believed, there's a really big chunk of fans out there who want more short track racing at the Cup level. I realize the schedule is really crowded, but do you see any kind of shift in that arena at all, any kind of response to that?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, I think you always have the realignment possibilities, the places like Iowa and other things, other places, that always could be. Things are always fluid in the track world. They're buying tracks, developing sometimes, and lately it's been pretty quiet because of the economy, but that all could change around, and we'll see how that goes. But we love short track racing. It's one of my favorite things to do. As a matter of fact, I think this right here from a racing standpoint is the best mile-and-a-half because of the progressive compound banking, and you'll see drivers in four different lanes all day long. This is the most exciting -- for my money, it's my personal favorite. Everyone has got their own favorites. But we love short track racing, and we'll have to see how that goes.
BRENT DEWAR: I don't know how we all got to this, this cookie cutter, short track, intermediates. They're all different; each one has its personality. In the Martinsville race where we had a lot of social media push, that was classic Martinsville, and the summer race in Bristol was a phenomenal race with Erik Jones out leading. That's Bristol. Now, they're both short tracks, but I would say this track was very different from the race we had in Kansas, Texas with the new banking change. One of the directions we're going to take is we've kind of lost as an industry the communication of how important and unique every one of these tracks are, and we've gone to Goodyear, we announced the multiyear extension yesterday, and we're working with Goodyear to try to keep working on uniqueness and matching that tire to these unique track services.
So even Michigan and Auto Club, based on the wear of the track, race very differently. I don't know how we got into this years ago, but everybody talks about mile-and-a-halfs, shorts and road courses. Watkins Glen and Sonoma are two phenomenal racetracks, and they're nothing alike. We're going to have a road course in Charlotte that we're very excited about. Some noise in the system, obviously, but it's going to be an exciting track in Charlotte, in our home base, for many of the race teams.
Yeah, so we work with each of the track partners to find the right optimal surface, location, distance, time.?
Q. Other than the Roval, do you have any plans of shaking up venues? The product is really, really solid, but just wondering about going to the same ol', same ol' venues, if that might be something that might shake things up a little bit or even the length of the races as they stand right now?
BRIAN FRANCE: Realignment is always available to the track operators, and they're always looking at opportunities, and when they present ones that make sense, we've historically done a lot of that actually through the years. But we like the lineup we have now, too. Of course we rearranged some things in the playoffs. We thought that worked out the way we wanted it to. And so we're excited about -- and we love crowning the championship down here, and the reason is not only is it beautiful, sunny Miami, and for those of you that like stone crabs, Joe's is pretty good, too. But more importantly is the show our fans are going to see, the millions on NBC and then a packed grandstand today, will see an incredible race. Historically it's been amazing, the passing and the ability to pass, the ability to run side by side, ability to use lanes. That's what makes this place special and is a fitting place to -- it's not the only place, but it's a fitting place to crown our championship.
BRENT DEWAR: One last comment, and that is we've really got a big change for '18. Remember again, we've got five-year contracts with our track partners, and we've got a big change for '18 in terms of the schedule, worked closely with the tracks and the broadcast partners to do that.
Race lengths, which interestingly we got a great research and analytics group, and you'll love this, we asked these things, and one third like them exactly the length they are, one third want them to be longer, and one third want them to be shorter. So it's unanimous that they love racing, and so -- but that's part of what we work with the track partners, the race teams and the broadcast partners to find that optimal distance so we have the right show.
Q. Brian, next week marks one year that you announced Monster coming in. Have you been happy with where they've gone, where you guys have worked out? I know everybody looks back after a year for any hurdles or pitfalls that have gone along, but is it where you want it to be, and how do we not only across the Cup Series but across the other series, as well, continue to bring forward fans to the track?
BRIAN FRANCE: Well, you've got to remember, this is only the first year, right, and there are always growing pains, but as I said earlier, we couldn't be -- we're thrilled. The promises they've made, they've kept, with the young demo, edgy shows, edgy marketing, putting our drivers in different places in different light. That's what we want. They've delivered on that. And like anything else, I think it will get better as they -- this is also a hard program. It's a complicated program. It's the best program, but to execute across all these platforms. It's a big, big sport. There's nothing like it, so you don't get an opportunity to just go, well, we'll do it like that guy did it or this guy does it over here because nobody can have, today anyway, in a major sports league, an entitlement position like this, so it's a great program, but it -- and I think it will get better next year.
BRENT DEWAR: And we're excited with the deliverable on all sides, but we opted for the shorter term because we wanted to be congruent to what their marketing strategy is. The deliverables on all sides were in market. We brought in 12 new Official Partners this year, and the sport is appealing. I think some of the earlier questions of -- because when you talk about 80 million fans and high engagement levels, and so we actually say, if you haven't been around NASCAR the last four or five years, you've got to get to know us. So this is a global sport, broadcast in 150 markets around the world. We just crowned our champion in NASCAR Mexico, huge crowds for that; had a great series in Canada; really wonderful series in NASCAR Euro. Some of you even watched Mr. O'Donnell traveling to China, so we can only imagine what he's doing over there.
So this is a growth sport, and it's appealing to other markets around the world. We look at it for all our partners, and if they're with us for a long time, that's great, it delivers what they want, but we're very bullish on what we can deliver to any official partner, and we welcome them to join us.
Q. Brent, you get a lot of questions about how NASCAR can help teams at the other end of the garage with partners and sponsorships and stuff like that. From a free market point of view, I could argue that's not your job and it is a competition at that level, as well. Where do you see your role stopping and starting with that?
BRENT DEWAR: That's a good question. So we do that, right, so when we go to market looking for official partners, in many cases when we get to know them better, we realize the best delivery might be a track asset and we may direct them to the track. In some cases it's for the team and we'll try to direct them to the team. We don't try to guide it to one specific team, but there are things that deliver, and try to find that right match and execution.
Again, that's been done for a long time, but I would say under Steve Phelps and their leadership, and it's really because of how we've brought the industries in this together. Revenue cannot sit on one side, it's got to be disbursed with the teams on the track. So we do, we help on that.
The other part we've done is with the new charter structure with NASCAR.com, we're trying to encourage them to understand the delivery of what that mechanism can be done, so we brought in Jon Tuck from the outside, and we have many sponsors that don't sponsor anything in the sport, they're only sponsoring NASCAR.com. So we hope as they get to learn and make those ROIs and what that audience delivers that they'll become a hood sponsor or they'll become an associate or they'll invest in the track, because our believe, if you go from top to bottom, you have the best chance.
We know if you attend a race and you have a great experience, we have a shot at being a fan for life. We absolutely know that. And so that's why attendance is important. That's why we've focused on increasing attendance, and Brian mentioned a number of tracks that are up year over year, because when you do that and have the great experience like these fans will have in Miami, they'll see broadcasts differently. They'll see different layers. They'll engage deeper in digital and social media. So we're talking a billion page views on NASCAR.com, 250 million visitors to the site. These are big sites.
Now, are we happy? We'd like that to be a billion. I tease my team all the time, if you can get me four billion impressions, let's go for six. So it's just part of the engagement model, and I was one of those former CMOs, and that's what I look at when I'm looking at it. It's not about clicks and it's not about eyeballs; it's really about engagement, and our fans will deliver engagement.
Q. Monster Energy finishing off its first year, a brand directed toward youths. You have initiatives such as Kids Drive NASCAR in its second year. What are you guys' thoughts for the years moving forward on getting more kids interested in the sport?
BRENT DEWAR: Well, this was an outgrowth entirely of the track council, and so we looked at it. The sport was founded on family and faith and patriotism and getting the kids -- like I did when I went as a young child to a drag strip in my local area. I didn't have a short track. And that's really what this is about. We took the initiative across the industry where kids get in free to the Camping World and XFINITY Series, and we have a lot of initiatives at the Cup level, as well. You travel with us, and it's visibly noticeable how many younger folks are at the track. I live that with my daughter, and she wants to go to every race. But she's got a little bit more access because of who her dad is, but they're really getting into the layers, and I think it's because of the social media aspect, as well. They're getting to know the personalities. If you see a Ryan Blaney with over a million downloads on his podcast, you get to know him. He's a great wheel man, but he's really engaging, and so you're seeing the drivers connect with younger fans because they are young themselves at a deeper level. I think this is a new day for all of us and one we're pretty excited about.
BRIAN FRANCE: I always mention my son Luke is seven, and you've seen him around at a lot of the events, so I'm doing my small part, and Brent's daughter Olivia is here -- how old is she?
BRENT DEWAR: She's 11.
BRIAN FRANCE: So we're working as hard on the young demo as we can.
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