DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France could change one thing about 2014 it might be the lousy weather that’s haunted the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
With it raining again at Daytona hours before the scheduled start of the Coke Zero 400, France addressed the national media for the first time since the implementation of the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying format and rules package. He said the sport is pleased with the results despite its share of challenges.
“I think we can all see the benefits of changing the importance of winning (races),” France said. “It has changed the racing on the track. The drivers are telling us that. They’re taking different kinds of chances. They’re going for wins when they would have played it safe, otherwise. I think that (competition) is just going to get more intense as we close in on Richmond and set the (Chase) field there.”
France predicted that the new format for crowning a champion, in which four drivers will vie for the title in the final race of the season, will also be a major positive.
“We didn’t want to have a bad race or two take somebody out early on in the Chase,” he said.
France conceded that there are still tweaks to be made, notably with the revised rules package for 2014.
“We’re not where we want to be on that and we’re embarking on a lot of work – a lot of science, technology and innovation … to get the very best racing product that we can on all of the tracks. That’s obviously a fundamental goal and responsibility at NASCAR.”
Nasty weather and going head-to-head with Olympic and World Cup coverage have been among the challenges in 2014 as NASCAR has dealt with up-and-down TV ratings and less-than-capacity crowds at some venues.
“Some markets are doing better than they did last year, so it’s a mixed bag,” France said. “There are some markets that have had a lot of pressure and Dover is one of those.
“But when you go around and really look at it and all the digital interests that we have today on devices – and that’s obviously not scored currently – we’re real pleased. When you combine it all up, even with our challenges, we’re still not off that much. We’re never pleased when our ratings aren’t growing at the rate we would like, but we understand that circumstances will always have us going one way or the other from time to time.”
Overall, France said he is pleased with the economic state of the sport.
“We’re on a nice, steady ground and sponsorship is coming back for us, thankfully,” he said. “The business is sound and we’re going forward.”
France said the sport is already looking ahead to 2015, when NBC and Fox will share a new television contract and a new sponsor for the NASCAR Nationwide Series is expected to come on board.
“I think in the coming weeks we’ll be getting to the end of that (sponsorship) process and we will be in very good shape when the dust settles,” France said.
Speaking at Daytona International Speedway, where the $400 million-plus Daytona Rising renovation project is in full swing, France said he wouldn’t be surprised if other venues follow suit to attract fans.
Noting that Daytona is where NASCAR kicks off its season, France said that facility “needs to be a spectacular place to come for our fans.”
Adding new seating options, escalators and social media zones in the manner of Daytona might not make sense at every NASCAR track. But France speculated that every facility will take note of the updates.
“I think every track has to have its own identity and has to do what it thinks is important in the marketplace they compete in,” he said. “Will (Daytona Rising) be something other tracks want to emulate? I think it will.”
With the Daytona project being privately financed, France suggested that state and local municipalities would be well-served to help finance similar improvements that attract fans in other markets.
“Unfortunately for our industry, the speedways don’t enjoy the public financing component that almost all major sports enjoy,” France said. “We’re hoping that gets better-balanced over time – in other words, that communities, local governments, states will help grow these facilities like they do other stadiums and arenas.”
France hinted of more changes ahead for the sport, noting that future rules, such as new engine specifications, must be “relevant,” not only to current manufacturers, but manufacturers who might consider entering the NASCAR arena.
He also said NASCAR remains cognizant of lowering the cost of racing so it does not present a barrier for new teams to enter the sport or prevent smaller teams from competing effectively.
“Lowering the cost of racing, getting parity where teams can come in and have success, and making ourselves more relevant to manufacturers and partners is all part of the NASCAR business model,” he said.
France predicted “robust discussion” about possible schedule changes for the 2015 season and beyond. Though not specifically addressing a Fox Sports report that Darlington Raceway could host the second race of the season, France said that weather concerns, a new television partner and the new Chase format are reasons enough to consider shifting some races to new dates.
“We’ll be releasing that (2015 schedule) in September,” France said.
One thing France does not envision changing is the site of NASCAR’s title-determining venue, Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Historically, we’ve liked to do it in South Florida,” he said. “The weather is great that time of year. It’s a good market for us and the track – and this is an important thing – is by any definition the best mile-and-a-half track that the drivers believe they have. They can really race hard and compete hard and that matters. When you factor all of those things in, we’re going to be in Homestead for the foreseeable future.”