Championship winning UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was quoted as saying “Great leaders are always out front with a banner, instead of behind with a whip.”
In a sport in which being the leader is a highly prized position to hold, NASCAR has seemingly been led from the rear for almost two decades. During the organization’s formative years and then during the time in which it came to be known as the top form of motorsports in America, NASCAR was headed up by two of the strongest leaders a sport could have.
On a weekly basis there was no doubt that Bill France, Sr. and Bill France, Jr. were the heads of the sport because they could be seen in the garage areas, media centers, or hospitality rooms of each track talking to competitors, media, and representatives from companies who were investing in the sport. However, that has not been the case during Brian France’s reign as Chairman and CEO of NASCAR. The third generation leader has been far more detached from the sport built by his grandfather and father than some would have liked.
And those most deeply involved in the sport have noted that detachment.
Former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski was quoted in January of this year as saying, “If I could make one change it would be that the leader of the sport is at the race track every weekend. That’s the change I would make.”
Keselowski was making the point that NASCAR is very much dependent on outside investment and those who currently are or might potentially be putting significant amounts of money into the sport need to see a hands-on captain piloting the ship.
“It’s important for any company that relies so heavily on outside partners to have a direct interface — this is such a big ship with so much going on week to week,” the driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Ford added. “With some respect, I would say that it’s impossible for the sport to be managed with someone being here every week because of the travel situations being what they are and the different things that come up and I completely understand that. But I think, on the other side of that, to some extent, you have to be here.”
Keselowski has not been the only highly placed person in the sport to make such assertions during the Brian France era.
As anyone who follows racing of any kind probably knows by now, Brian France was arrested on Sunday night following the ‘Go Bowling at the Glen’ MENCS race at New York’s Watkins Glen International. The NASCAR Chairman and CEO was charged with a DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance by police in Long Island, NY.
Following his highly publicized arrest, France issued a state apologizing for his actions and announcing that he would take an indefinite leave of absence from his position at NASCAR. In the interim, Jim France(Brian’s uncle and the brother of Bill France, Jr.) would takeover as the acting head of the sport.
This would appear to be the time for the often detached and seemingly disinterested Brian France to completely step away from NASCAR. However, it must also be considered that Jim France is 73-years-old and can not be considered as a long-term solution.
NASCAR needs new leadership in one of the most critical times in the history of the sport as its television ratings are in a downward spiral, track attendance is waning, the series title sponsorship deal with Monster Energy is due to expire at the end of the 2019 season, and its television package with Fox and NBC is almost halfway through an agreement that began in 2015.
But this new leadership has be in the form of someone who will lead from the front. Whoever takes the reins of this sport must be front-and-center in the garage area, in the media center, and in the corporate hospitality rooms rather than spending weekends in the Hamptons, the Bahamas, or Jackson Hole. Whoever this new leader or leadership team is must not only look like he/she/they care about the well being of NASCAR, he/she/they must indeed care about the well being of NASCAR.
Competitors need to see and be able to interact with the head of the sport to voice their concerns and offer their suggestions. Other stake holders such as television partners, series and event sponsors, team sponsors, and fans must have the assurance that the leader is actually leading. This is a critical time for the future of not only NASCAR, but racing in general.
Fans and media alike have taken to social media to suggest potential heads of NASCAR. However, the names mentioned are typically those of former drivers, crew chiefs, or team owners. In all likelihood, the best person for this job is someone who the majority of us have barely even heard of. Remember, this person is going to be negotiating deals that are potentially worth billions of dollars with promotional tools that will carry the sport well into the next decade at stake. Simply being popular or well-known isn’t enough to be qualified for this role. But at the same time, this person has to be passionate about racing.
There are people out there somewhere who fit the bill.
Whoever this leader is, they must lead from the front carrying the banner of NASCAR, not from the rear trying to whip the sport into shape from afar.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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