It’s not like Brian France has been in hiding. If you were interested, you just had to know where to look.
For those not inclined to search, Brian dropped back into our orbit in one of the most high-profile ways possible for NASCAR followers. He spent two-plus hours in the guest chair on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s weekly podcast — the Dale Jr. Download.
This past week’s long and winding interview was fairly thorough, but if you were looking for an Oprah or Barbara Walters moment, a soul-bearing prostration, you weren’t getting it.
Let’s get the non-headline headline out of the way first, regarding the 2018 incident that basically ended Brian’s 15-year run as third-generation CEO of NASCAR.
“Obviously, I made a mistake that evening. Made a mistake, can’t happen, a mistake like that. It happened. It’s on me,” he said of the DWI arrest in Sag Harbor, NY. “That’s just something you can’t do. It happened and life goes on.”
France, who turned 60 this past summer, was rather open about a lot of his life in the family business, but when it comes to the stuff that’s not much of our business, he kept any self-reflection to himself, as is his right and, frankly, rather welcomed in this woe-is-me age.
NASCAR & LE MANS: Jim France’s world vision for sports-car racing nears its green flag
“I’ve got a lot of gratitude in my life,” he told Junior. “Things have really worked out for me. That obviously was a dark moment. Caused me to look at some things that I was doing in my life that could’ve been done a lot better. My health, number one.”
And that was about it. As for other big-picture moments of his reign in the chair held by his grandfather and father, and now by his uncle, he was more expansive. And in retrospect, with all that water having flowed by, you’re more inclined (compared to back then) to appreciate the challenges and hard decisions made.
Brian France on the Ross Chastain Martinsville move
Let’s start with something recent — the 2022 championship, but specifically, the moment race fans are still talking about: Ross Chastain’s highlight for the ages at Martinsville, when he rode the wall at a ridiculously high speed to pass enough cars to qualify for the next week’s championship final.
When the playoff format was unveiled early in Brian’s tenure, in 2004, many old-schoolers bitched but he talked about “big moments,” the type of memorable events that happen when most needed — the ninth-inning homer, the last-minute TD drive, the overtime goal, etc. A playoff format would promote such things, he said.
That was Ross Chastain at Martinsville. There have been other dramatics throughout the playoff age, but we eventually got the epitome of the moment he talked about.
And as for Chastain’s hair-on-fire moment, while there’s some talk of outlawing it in the name of safety or some other version of common sense, Brian went the other way. Maybe it’s from the security of being on the outside looking in, but still …
“I don’t think there’s anything to regulate there,” he said. “You applaud that and move on.”
He talked about the challenges of convincing individual track owners to hand over their network relationships to NASCAR, and “the 400% increase” in overall revenue the blanket TV deal brought overnight.
Of the downers, the eventually derided “Car of Tomorrow” was a topic of discussion with Junior, and not fondly. Although you have to remember, when that car was designed, it was designed with safety in mind during a time when safety was Topic 1. And Topic 2, 3 and 4, by the way.
However, “We were a little bit cavalier about that,” he said, suggesting more initial input and eventual buy-in from the teams and drivers should’ve been explored.
Today, Brian France is running a private-equity company called Silver Falcon, out of Charlotte, launching companies or “buying into companies with groups of people we know.”
“I’m working only with people I want to work with, and doing only what I want to do,” he said, recalling certain obligations that came with NASCAR work. “You unload those obligations you have to do. It’s not a criticism of the (NASCAR) job, it’s just the reality. I’m out from under all that. I’m having a lot of fun, it’s a good balance. Life is good for me.”
As for those still in the family business, he was pleasantly effusive in his praise, without prodding.
On Jim France, who was brought deeper into the NASCAR fold as CEO after Brian’s departure: “He’s in his prime now. Everyone should have an uncle like Uncle Jim.”
On his nephew, Ben Kennedy, who has moved onto the corner-office roster the past couple of years: “I’m truly having fun watching Ben Kennedy do what he’s doing. I think he has the best temperament of any of us. More measured. More calm. More humility than any 10 people I know.”
Brian France: “I don’t like a messy ending”
Overall, looking back at Brian France’s 15-year run atop the family business, the results are as mixed as any CEO’s results would be, and the balance depends on the angle from which you’re looking.
History is thick with tales of third-generation leadership in family businesses. Many of them ended up in the dirt. NASCAR is still on asphalt and on all cylinders. There’s something to say for that.
“I’d had a 15-year run as the CEO. That’s a long time,” Brian said of his NASCAR tenure. “I don’t like a messy ending like that. No one likes that. But I have to tell you, I couldn’t be any happier with what I’m doing now and being able to look back at what we accomplished.”
Can we find arguments with his list of “accomplishments?” Absolutely. But none of us were in that seat and surrounded by the ever-changing world of big-time sports entertainment.
We may never come to remember Brian France in the way we recall the better memories of Big Bill and Bill Jr., but maybe we should appreciate the modern-world challenges he faced, sometimes embraced, and overall had to navigate.
“It’s one of the greatest jobs in sports,” he said of his former NASCAR role. “I didn’t take that lightly. You do take it for granted from time to time, but I didn’t take it lightly.”
— Reach Ken Willis at [email protected]