Did You Notice? … The eerie silence surrounding NASCAR’s executive offices right now? 36 hours after NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced a leave of absence, there’s nothing official to digest other than a tersely worded, two-line statement installing Jim France as the sport’s interim CEO. Driving under the influence and possession of a controlled substance will leave nephew Brian seeking rehab, first for his physical addiction and then his (perhaps irredeemable) public image.
The CEO of the largest racing series in North America spent this past Sunday evening (Aug. 5) in a Long Island jail cell. Chew on that.
Early signs, though, point to France having an opportunity for a second chance. Since Monday, two distinct groups have emerged in the aftermath of the France debacle. The stronger one includes Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car owners; calls with Frontstretch writers and myself made clear they’ll rally around their CEO. I’m told no separate Race Team Alliance meeting was held for crisis management; instead, several came out Tuesday to wave the green flag of support.
Felix Sabates told the AP’s Jenna Fryer that Brian France “unfairly” gets blamed for the bulk of NASCAR’s decline. Joe Gibbs told ESPN’s Bob Pockrass he’s going to “pray for Brian as he goes through these personal issues.”
“At this point in time, NASCAR needs friends and people that will help,” added Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith.
Those words, while supportive of 73-year-old replacement Jim France, hit just the right notes to leave a door open for Brian’s return. Car owners appear resistant to the idea of permanent change; instead, there’s been a rally-around-the-flag effect. Any dissenters are simply… staying silent.
The drivers appear more ambivalent. Tommy Joe Martins and Justin Marks called for action. Both men mixed frustration with a desire for change. But it’s important to note that Martins is known for being vocal, and Marks — a part-time driver — doesn’t have much to lose by voicing his opinion.
The CEO of #NASCAR…A DRIVING SPORT…can’t get arrested for a DUI.
— Tommy Joe Martins (@TommyJoeMartins) August 6, 2018
It’s time for someone to step up to the plate. It’s time for change.
— Justin Marks (@JustinMarksDG) August 6, 2018
Sometimes the worst possible situations bring along the best changes and a new direction. Let’s hope this is one of those times.
— Austin Theriault (@AustinTheriault) August 6, 2018
Those words mark a subtle difference for the few drivers speaking out Tuesday, Aug. 7.
Change without support, of course, are two separate frames of mind. And rest assured, any public comments from the driving corps were slanted more toward supporting Jim than openly rooting for Brian’s return.
“I haven’t ever had any issues with Jim,” Sunday’s winner Chase Elliott said in a Tuesday teleconference. “I expect them to do fine, and it doesn’t change my job, so I’m going to do my thing.”
This disconnect is not surprising; France’s virtual absence from the spotlight in recent years leaves him with little-to-no relationship with the actual drivers racing on the grid. Declining ratings and attendance affect drivers the most in the short term, too. They affect the purse collected, future sponsorship contracts and more. Owners, tracks and NASCAR itself benefit from a more healthy stream of television money.
It’s the money everyone is concerned about, power players realizing corporations are quaking in their boots over what they’ve witnessed. Important questions are being asked in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies giving millions to be the official X of NASCAR. Every source I’ve talked to, every NASCAR reporter writing this week, may not be surprised at France’s latest flub at absentee CEO. But that’s not the understanding some of these companies had.
Now, they’re asking exactly who is their money going to? Who is guiding the sport’s future direction amid a pages-long list of future red flags? What changes (including a potential sale) will happen, and how will it affect their investment?
So far, those questions are met with – silence. Brian is nowhere to be found aside from his private statement and there’s no indication as to when he’ll turn up once again.
In the short-term, both camps do have faith in Jim France.
While not the new-blood option some might have cared for, he brings both experience and understanding to the role. Most importantly, he’ll be attending this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway, a basic item on the CEO checklist that was often Brian’s biggest weakness.
I wouldn't say he's the fix-it guy. And he's not take charge. He barely talks. But no one is more respected. He's the stability guy. They need that.
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) August 6, 2018
But the strong, silent type is directly opposed to what NASCAR may need for recovery. For decades, Bill France and Bill France Jr. ran the sport with an iron fist. Their way or the highway may have frustrated some during their tenure, but no one could argue with NASCAR’s explosive growth.
In recent years, we’ve seen the type of cracks the dictatorial-style leadership of France and France Jr. would never allow. The battle over NASCAR inspection has cars failing on average every three weeks; drivers and teams, including this year’s Big Three of Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, appear undeterred by the consequences.
Meanwhile, increasing unification within both the RTA and Driver’s Council put more voices at the table. There’s no shortage of people that want to fix the sport; right now, they just have limited power to do so. Owners may have their charter system, the closest thing NASCAR’s had to franchising, but they don’t have an ownership stake in the sport itself. And the drivers? They’re athletes, not business leaders.
Then there’s also the little issue of a sale.
The sport was undergoing valuation in recent months; a CEO’s misstep may have hurt the value by millions. Will this move accelerate the sale, and will NASCAR finally be forced to go public about it? Can France’s road to recovery, whatever that may be, somehow be spun into a positive?
Silence doesn’t give us any answers. So until someone within the France camp speaks up, this story takes on a life of its own regardless of how much Brian was actually involved in day-to-day operations. COO Steve Phelps and Vice President Steve O’Donnell have done respectable jobs, but neither has full decision-making power as king of the castle. Over the long term, who’s in charge?
It’s clear this week the answer has been murky for most of France’s 15-year tenure atop the sport. And now, the sport hits a critical juncture; as Jeff Gluck aptly put it last week, different factions were already firmly divided. Wildly different opinions have led to public criticism; their contentious debate won’t be sidelined with silent leadership.
Where Sabates has a point in sharing blame is not one person yet has told me they’re surprised over France’s addiction woes. In a way, we can all look back and see it. Remember the sweating during the Homestead-Miami Speedway press conference in 2016? The bizarre NASCAR awards banquet last year in which Truex was tossed his championship ring?
In a sense, it feels like so many were enablers. France was an absentee CEO with a problem; perhaps it was addressed in private, but no one had the guts to call it out in public. The ship was led astray with a rudderless leader while everyone else did their best to pick up the slack.
That extra effort is commendable, but players giving 125 percent can’t make up for no head coach. Otherwise, players would eventually start fighting for all the power themselves. Someone has to lead. Can you imagine Apple without a CEO? How about Facebook without Mark Zuckerberg? There’s got to be a point person steering the ship managing long-term direction and focusing all those positive ideas into a coherent plan of action.
Silence left untreated is a killer. The key now is who decides to speak up and fill the void.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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