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Q & A with Brian France

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

NASCAR needed David Pearson in its inaugural hall of fame class.

The sport could definitely use Danica Patrick. And it would get a huge boost if Dale Earnhardt Jr. were to ever start winning again.

Those were three of the headlines from The Observer's exclusive interview with NASCAR chairman Brian France Wednesday. In a 20-minute interview at The Observer's offices, the 47-year-old CEO said:

In October he voted for Pearson, the legendary driver, to earn a spot in the hall of fame's first class.

"I thought David Pearson should have made it in," said France, adding that he voted for Pearson.

Pearson didn't make it into the hall – which opens in Charlotte in May 2010 – but France's father (Bill Jr.) and grandfather (Bill Sr.) did, along with former drivers Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Junior Johnson. France wouldn't divulge the other four names on his ballot, which was one of 51 cast.

He thinks Danica Patrick could help NASCAR and that she could make her debut at Daytona in February. Although Patrick has not publicly made a commitment to stock-car racing, France said: "My sense is she probably will."

The struggles of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are part of NASCAR's current set of problems.

"It's sort of like when the NBA doesn't have the L.A. Lakers or Boston – a couple of their key historic franchises – in the race," France said. "That impacts the league. We're in the same boat."

France then smiled and said that if Dale Jr. had a resurgence that "the world would be a better place."

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France sat down at The Observer for an exclusive one-on-one interview Wednesday with sports columnist Scott Fowler and executive sports editor Mike Persinger. Here's a transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: In terms of TV ratings, the NFL is up and you are down in 2009. There's a hypothesis concerning the NFL that the recession has actually helped pro football's TV ratings because more people are staying home, not spending money and watching television. So why are your TV ratings down?

A: You never quite know. There's not quite one reason whether your ratings are up or down. The NFL has very good headlines right now with Brett Favre. They've got a lot of things that are of interest.

We're working on our own headlines and some resonate better than others. One, with Jimmie Johnson about to win his fourth championship, hasn't resonated the way it typically would in another sports league. But that's our issue to work on.

We could have an exciting finish in 2009. If Jimmie dominates in Phoenix [Sunday], that will make our finale in South Florida one thing. If there's a close points battle coming into Miami, that will give us a different platform. Either way, we're going to celebrate it and look forward to 2010.

Q: In some sports, Jimmie Johnson on the verge of a fourth straight title would be cheered as a dynasty. Among many NASCAR fans, his dominance and the dominance in general of the Hendrick cars is perceived as boring. Why?

A: In all sports over many decades, dynasties and dominant performances are celebrated and recognized for what they are. And so I'm not sure just why there's a bit of a difference that occurs in our sport. It doesn't take away from what Jimmie Johnson is able to do.

If there were a simple lever I would pull to change the headlines or how someone covers the sport, I would certainly do it.

Q: Drivers in NASCAR are basically independent contractors. What would you like to see more of from those drivers in terms of building their sport?

A: I would like to see a lot of them step out a little more and bring out their own personalities. They all have enormous commitments with their sponsorships and other things that can – not always, but can – slow them down on being who they are.

Q: If Jimmie Johnson had the personality of, say, Dale Earnhardt Sr., would that help?

A: There's no question that Muhammad Ali had a set of advantages by how he self-promoted. And did Dale Earnhardt Sr.? The way he approached it – tough-guy, gladiator kind of thing? Yeah.

But in the end, drivers have still got to be themselves.

Q: In both races at Talladega this season, cars went airborne in the final laps. It was scary and dangerous, both for drivers and fans. What are you going to do about Talladega?

A: We certainly want to make sure from aerodynamic standpoint that cars don't become airborne, at Talladega or anywhere that occurs. But we have to remember that Talladega is a signature race for our fans to watch the best guys in the world really mix it up. That needs to remain.

We've got to do something on the aero – our [research and development center] is working on those cars going up in the air.

That's a problem. And we're going to solve that.

But the idea that Talladega is going to be something other than (what it is) – which is really, really close racing – my hope is it will always remain that.

Q: Your most popular driver – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – has once again struggled this season. That's a part of NASCAR's problem, isn't it?

A: Sure. It's sort of like when the NBA doesn't have the L.A. Lakers or Boston – a couple of their key historic franchises – in the race, that impacts the league. We're in the same boat.

Our No.1 franchise, which happens to be Dale Jr. right now, (when he struggles) that's going to have some impact on his fan base. It just does.

Q: So what do you do with Dale Jr. – just hope for the best?

A: Well, it's just sports. He's got to perform. He knows that. Nobody's more down than he is in terms of his own performance.

The great news is that if they find the chemistry and get it back – just like other teams that are struggling for a couple of years – he's very talented. He has won a lot of races in the past. We could have a resurgence and the world would be a better place.

Q: Since NASCAR's playoff "Chase" began in 2004, you've tweaked the format. Would you do so again for the 2010 season?

A: We're like everybody else. We'd love to see as many drivers late in the year vying for the championship as possible. That's our goal. We could not have predicted such a dominant performance by Jimmie Johnson, and it's changed that equation to what any of the forecasts could have been.

So would we change it because Jimmie has been so dominant? We wouldn't – not under that basis. But tweaking is always on the table. As with double-file restarts, if we can make something better, we will.

Q: Charlotte is truly one of NASCAR's hubs, with the hall of fame opening in 2010 and all the race teams and races already here. How much time do you spend in Charlotte?

A: I've got a home here. I'm also in Florida a lot; technically I'm a Florida resident. But I'm here an awful lot. We've got a whole bunch of people here that we've recruited to work across the business. Charlotte has served the NASCAR area real well.

Q: Is there any chance NASCAR's headquarters would move to Charlotte from Daytona?

A: No, that's not on the table.

Q: For the first NASCAR hall of fame class, two of the five members were your grandfather and your father (Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.) That was controversial, since it meant there were only three drivers in the first class. Star drivers like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison didn't get in. What would you say to fans about that?

A: I'll tell you what I told my mother, who called me on the day of the vote to see what I could do to get my father in the hall of fame, like mothers will do.

I reminded her that the family only had three of 50 (individual) votes (A 51st vote was reserved for NASCAR fans as a whole). The rest of them went to people within in the industry. It was a private vote. There was no way to influence anybody in any way.

It was close, and we got a good class, and I think it sets up class No. 2 to be quite interesting. Some of the people I voted for with my one vote didn't make it in.

I thought David Pearson should have made it in. I can understand (the criticism) about two family members. But if it were a different five, we'd still be having this conversation because there were so many deserving people.

Q: Who were the five men on your ballot?

A: I haven't said that and I don't plan on it, other than to say I had David Pearson on mine.

Q: Talk about the impact that drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick could have on the sport.

A: I think Juan Pablo has finally come into his sweet spot on performance. I think he's performing at a very high level. He needs to win some more races. I think he has the kind of background and the respect for what he has already accomplished to be a star with us.

Obviously with Danica, she is looking hard at NASCAR. She has not made a commitment at this point. My sense is she probably will. And she's going to bring a lot of interest to NASCAR.

Then it's like anything else: 'How do you perform?' We'll see how she does. She's a very talented driver. It will bring a lot of interest to NASCAR.

Q: Could she get ready fast enough and meet your criteria to run at Daytona?

A: There are some pathways to do that for her. She's an accomplished person in her own right and doesn't have to start from scratch. There are some requirements to get accustomed to our stock cars. But there is a pathway to get to Daytona for Danica. She's aware of it.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com.

For more from the Brian France interview, turn to 2C.

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