Did Brian France Really Say That?

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Last week, Curt Cavin, of The Indianapolis Star, sat down with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France just a few days before last weekend’s Brickyard 400. Among the topics discussed were attendance problems at recent NASCAR races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other challenges faced by NASCAR. For the most part, there were no real surprises in most of his answers, but it was interesting to get things from his perspective.

There was one exception with one of his responses, however. Curt asked France if he was willing to pair a Sprint Cup or Nationwide Series race with an IndyCar Series race at the same track on the same weekend. France responded “No. Nationwide is significantly ahead of the Indy Racing League in terms of its television ratings and attendance and everything else with the exception, obviously, of the Indy 500. We wouldn’t want to mix that. They have to stand on their own, and we have to stand on our own.

Cavin smartly followed that comment by pointing out that the Nationwide race at Chicagoland (owned by the France family) had a very small crowd. He asked France if the Nationwide Series could have benefited from having IndyCar there, too.

It was there that Brian France started doing his best Gene Kelly impersonation (if you’re under forty, look it up). France answered the question with a non-answer. Instead of directly answering whether or not NASCAR’s second tier series could have benefited from the presence of IndyCar at the track, his response was “We’ll have crowds like that, unfortunately. We’ll also have a lot of 40,000 to 50,000 crowds as well”. Talk about missing the point…

Earlier, Curt had posed a blunt but fair question to France when he asked if IndyCar was a friend or foe to NASCAR. Although it read like a polite and politically correct response, I would have liked to have seen France’s body language when he replied “We consider it a friend”. He then went on to explain how NASCAR’s move to NBC and NBC Sports Network is going to help IndyCar significantly because NASCAR will generate a lot of visibility to the network and IndyCar will benefit. I can’t say that I agree or disagree with that last point. Time will tell.

But one point that Brian France made in this interview, I take a great deal of exception with. When he said that Nationwide was significantly ahead of the “Indy Racing League”, I about came unglued when I read it. First of all, whether France considers IndyCar to be a friend or a foe – he at least needs to get the name right. How many years has it been since the Indy Racing League and IRL monikers were dropped?

I don’t need to research TV ratings for Nationwide compared to IndyCar events. I concede that Nationwide ratings are currently higher on ESPN2 than IndyCar generates on ABC and significantly more than what NBCSN pulls in for an IndyCar race. But I also know that Nationwide and Sprint Cup are both dealing with a continuous drop in their ratings.

Being a die-hard IndyCar fan, I’ll admit my perception is a bit skewed and I may tend to get a little defensive when the series I follow gets slammed. That is my disclaimer. But did Brian France really say that their feeder series is “significantly ahead of IndyCar? Based on what I saw at Chicago and Indianapolis, their attendance is woeful, at best. The weekend of the Nationwide race at Chicagoland Speedway, they were the only race to be seen. Sprint Cup, IndyCar and Formula One were all off that weekend. The Cubs were out of town. The only local competition came from the White Sox hosting the Braves. Yet, the Nationwide Series couldn’t draw anyone to watch their race.

I’ve seen estimates that the Nationwide Series drew only about thirty-five thousand for Saturday’s snooze fest at IMS. Supposedly, as few as seventy-five thousand showed up Sunday for the coma-inducing Brickyard 400 on Sunday. It was torture to try and watch Sunday’s race. I watched a little, did a project or two – then came back to see if things had gotten more interesting. They had not. I literally chose to clean out three large cabinets in the garage rather than waste time watching that parade. Yet, Brian France is afraid IndyCar is going to drag down his product?

I will submit it’s the other way around. For whatever reason, NASCAR still has numbers on their side – albeit, they are declining. Because of this, when someone hears the term racing in this county, NASCAR immediately comes to mind. I cringe at the thought of someone deciding to watch Sunday’s Brickyard 400, thinking this is what racing at Indianapolis must always be like. If Sunday’s race was my first exposure to racing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I would never tune in again. It was that bad.

I think what Mr. France really fears is that when fans of Nationwide or even Sprint Cup racing are able to compare his lumbering stock cars to the sights and sounds of IndyCars working their way nimbly through the same track – they’ll wonder why they have been wasting their time following a series that fine tunes with a sledge-hammer. Most of the IndyCar races this season have been entertaining and offered excellent racing. Most of what I’ve seen from NASCAR will cure the worst cases of insomnia.

Perhaps sponsors at the same track on a shared weekend will take notice of a more fan-friendly series that doesn’t require the astronomical funding that NASCAR does. Twenty years ago, it cost almost twice as much to run the full season in CART as it did in NASCAR. Today, the tin-tops command much more to run their marathon season than IndyCar. Think that is only because a NASCAR season is twice as long? Think again. The per-race cost in NASCAR is significantly more than in IndyCar.

I don’t buy what Mr. France is selling. I don’t believe he considers IndyCar a friend, nor do I think he actually believes that IndyCar lags behind Nationwide in any aspect rather than TV ratings. I think he sees IndyCar as the best-kept secret in racing and it is his full intention to keep it that way.

Some will comment on here claiming that I am delusional and I can only see things through my open-wheel tinted glasses. Others will claim I get sore every year around the time of the Brickyard 400 simply because it pains me to see stock cars running on the famed oval. I disagree. When IndyCar screws up, I tend to be fairly vocal about it. Plus, it pains me to see so many empty seats at the Brickyard 400 because I know that race is what keeps IndyCar afloat. The Indianapolis 500 funds the Speedway, while the Brickyard 400 funds IndyCar. So, I really want the NASCAR race at Indianapolis to succeed.

But the Brian France interview was not limited to The Indianapolis Star. Do a Google search and you’ll see the quotes about Nationwide being significantly ahead of IndyCar was picked up by many news outlets. Do you think anyone questioned him? No. His position is such that he can make statements like that and no one calls him out on it. It’s just assumed to be true and it further damages IndyCar. Perhaps that was his plan all along –friend or foe.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “Did Brian France Really Say That?”

  1. France without a doubt would prefer that his fan base never have the opportunity to do a side by side comparison… There will always be dyed in the wool tin top “Stock Car” fans that ain’t gonna watch nuthin’ else… But, anyone who truly loves racing could not deny the superior racing provided by IC and BF knows it…

  2. Carburetor Says:

    Good post George; I couldn’t agree more. I love watching racing, and to a lesser extent have followed NASCAR (way behind my first love of IndyCar), but finally couldn’t take anymore of the parades and fake “debris yellows” to tighten up the field with 3-5 laps left in the race just to fabricate a “thrilling” finish. No way the series is better than IndyCar–except for the funding, sadly. :(

  3. The Winston Cup Series guy is right about one thing–Indycar needs to stand on it’s own.

    I’m encouraged by the guy who’s taking over Lights. He seems like he’s hit the ground running with Lights and the feeder series.

    Gene Kelly–one of the greatest quarterbacks to never win a Superbowl.

  4. I want to give an example of stand alone racing events. Here in Nashville when the Nashville SuperSpeedway was in business we had an IndyCar race and TWO Nationwide races on the schedule. The IndyCar race was always pretty much full and came off as being successful. However, the year after the Open Wheel Unification (or whatever you want to call it) the ICS folks took Nashville off the schedule. When that happened the NSS only had two mediocre Nationwide events, but had a few of the Cup drivers (Kyle Busch who, by the way, slammed his Winning Les Paul Gibson Guitar trophy to the ground like he was Pete Townshend of the Who). The stands were never full for these two yearly races, they were money losers and with IndyCar gone there was no use for the Dover folks to keep the NSS open any further.

    Yes, the management and promotion of this track was not as good as it should have been, in my opinion, but the market was well aware that NASCAR’s second series was running here and STILL people stayed away in droves.

    I am of the strong opinion that if IndyCar never left then we would still have the Nashville SuperSpeedway open for business. Just sayin.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    It would have been funny if Cavin had followed up France’s words with another question about the “Busch Grand National” Series. Unprofessional, but funny.

    France’s statements were abrasive, but they probably are what he believes. Until Nationwide’s television and sponsorship revenues decline and race promoters are trying to drop those races, he doesn’t have much of a reason to believe otherwise. I’m sure he views all forms of racing his group does not control as competition, I’d be surprised if he did not.
    If current trends continue for some of the standalone Nationwide events, he may become more receptive to the teaming with Indycar, but it is not to that point yet.

    Slightly off-topic, I’d like to thank the IMS Nationwide race for providing us with another look at the most entertainingly-sponsored stock car since Kirk Shelmerdine’s Cat Daddy Carolina Moonshine car…
    Yes, I’m talking about Trevor Bayne in the pink Pillow Pets machine.

  6. I gotta say: overreaction, George. Nationwide is significantly ahead of IndyCar in TV ratings (average about 4x as you point out), and number of fans in total and therefore its ability to attract sponsors. Attendance to Nationwide races seems to vary wildly. It was putrid at Chicagoland, but it is always putrid there. IndyCar attendance at Chicagoland was also putrid. It may be more of a Chicagoland issue. I would say, overall, Nationwide is on par with IndyCar in attendance. That’s just a guess, since IndyCar very rarely puts out attendance numbers and any that come from NASCAR seem very inflated. As for the friend/foe thing, I think NASCAR truly is pretty indifferent about IndyCar. It’s like McDonald’s worrying about Dave’s drive in. If France was really honest, he’d have probably said “we don’t really care that much.” I see zero reason from a business perspective for NASCAR to team with IndyCar in an event. The only plus side would be to put butts in seats, which helps NASCAR at ISC tracks. The paring would probably help IndyCar, as others have mentioned, but if I’m running NASCAR I’m saying what France is saying, “IndyCar needs to stand on its own.” I don’t see that as an unreasonable statement from him. All those team owners who fight with everyone including IndyCar for sponsorship dollars don’t want NASCAR to go out of its way to help IndyCar, that’s for sure. If the roles were reversed, everyone here would be saying “let NASCAR die!” So, the friend/foe answer was a little disingenuous, IMO, but that was about all I found mildly eyebrow-raising from the interview. As for the whole snoozer of a race thing, no argument from me that the NASCAR races at Indy were sleep fests. I didn’t watch but five minutes of either race. BUT there are also snoozefests from IndyCar that I don’t think you call out with as much vehemence here. The difference in a snorefest and “interesting strategic race” is often in the eye of the beholder.

  7. Savage Henry Says:

    As always, when in doubt follow the money. NASCAR just signed a 10-year deal with NBC/NBCSN for $400M per year, while a couple years ago IndyCar signed a 10-year deal for $5M per year. Even though those deals are already signed, France is playing defense. When the next deal comes around, he doesn’t want to give up any of his $400M to supplement Indycar’s $5M. Any crossover of fans from his series to IndyCar, which would certainly happen to an extent (given the proper exposure) due to the relative quality of the product hurts his future revenues. It also will hurt ratings, sponsorships, etc.

    He does not want to do anything that would increase eyeballs on IndyCar. I’m sure he is working NBC/NBCSN to drop any promotion of IndyCar in favor of NASCAR promotion. I can’t blame him – this is business and even though things are declining across-the-board, there is a huge amount of money on the table. IndyCar is going to have to stand on its own if it wants to grow.

  8. There are 2 ways of viewing your market & your competition. The first way is assuming that you and your competitors are in the business of growing the overall market size, so regardless of individual market share a “rising tide floats all boats”. The second way is assuming that the overall market size is fixed, and a Zero Sum situation. For every dollar you win, your competition loses one dollar.

    Credit to France for twisting the knife slowly and professionally. I think it’s been well documented over the years that NASCAR considers INDYCAR to be a competitor for a fixed pool of racing fans/sponsorship/ratings $. At least he was honest in his response.

    As I posted yesterday, the move to NBC is a pretty dumb move for NASCAR in the long run. Sure, NBC was willing to pay 54% more than ABC/ESPN, but how happy will NASCAR’s sponsors be when their ratings drop significantly in 2015?

    INDYCAR needs to solve its own problems. I think the IRL’s “partnership” with ISC back in the day shows what kind of “help” they should expect from NASCAR.

    PS – Here’s an idea for a future post. Turn back the Clock to 1950. Tony Hulman has owned IMS for 5 years and races are run under the AAA Contest Board. Big Bill France has just pulled stock car racing together under the NASCAR Grand National Series flag, and is running the races on the Beach in Daytona. Fast forward 25 years, who has been a better businessman?

    Hulman vs. France. A 65 year long war for the soul of American racing. As a dyed in the wool Open Wheel fan it kills me to admit it, but the gun toting, tobacco chewing redneck from down South outfoxed the Gentleman from Terre Haute time and again. Why? A matter of vision. France set out build a racing Empire. Hulman set out to be the caretaker of an institution, IMS & the 500. This would make classic case study in an MBA program.

  9. Giu Canbera Says:

    Ratings on NBCSN are low and it will KILL Nascar a little bit…
    The olny way to Indycar to get some advantage is movin’ more races to ABC/ESPN.
    But it looks that ESPN guys r trying to move out from racing… They r only holding NHRA and Global RallyCross events.

    • John Matthews Says:

      NHRA is only on ESPN because they pay for it I wouldn’t be surprised if it was gone from the network when it’s time to renew the contract.

  10. ESPN will take a ratings hit in the coming years. They lack sports inventory (all they have that matters is one NFL game a week and College football) and there debate style programming is brutal. People will switch to FOX Sports and NBC Sports if they do a better job (which wont be hard). This is an exciting time to be a sports TV fan.

    • Not signing NASCAR won’t be a problem for ESPN. Also, ESPN has plenty of sports inventory as well as in-depth sports news coverage. ESPN has the NBA, MLB, Tennis (Wimbledon and other opens like the French and US), the US open in golf as well as shared coverage of The Masters, plenty of NCAA Basketball and Football and all of the NCAA BCS Bowl games…to name some. They also have the ESPN SportsClassic channel as well as being the home of SEC football. Frankly, they can package any kind of sponsorship imaginable and I haven’t even included their shows like 30on30 or Outside The Lines.

      Steve, all of that matters.

  11. I’m with you George and it pissed me off when I read it.

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    Once again George you have generated some very well thought out responses from the usual suspects, so anything I might have said has been said.

    I will simply add that I agree that IndyCar has to stand on its own.
    The chances of IndyCar and NASCAR ever sharing a race date are slim to none. And who the hell wants to hear “boogity, boogity, boogity” at a IndyCar event anyway?! I think Bill France simply said what someone in his position had to say. Curt was smart enough not to press the issues any further.

  13. Brian France gets it. NASCAR is Indycar’s biggest competitor. I wish Indycar understood that. They are too fixated on Formula 1.

    Would you expect Target to work with Walmart?

    NASCAR’s business model works. Mostly ovals with a few road courses mixed in. Indycar could do worse than try to emulate NASCAR.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Tony Stewart helps to generate interest in NASCAR because he seldom misses an opportunity to jump in a midget or sprint car on a local dirt track. I believe he flipped a sprint car at some dirt track in New York this week. A few other Nascar drivers will race on local tracks also. The truck series on dirt at Eldora was a huge success with fans.

      None of the IndyCar drivers do that. I am not suggesting that it is a simple thing for Marco Andretti to jump in a sprint car somewhere, but IndyCar might at least give the idea some thought as to connecting more with oval racing on a local level. As Bob says here, IndyCar could do worse than try to emulate that aspect of NASCAR. (NOT THE PHONY YELLOWS OR GWC FINSIHES HOWEVER!)

      • Not true! Tony Kanaan has participared the last 2 – 3 years at the charity dirt races at Eldora with Tony Stewart.

  14. Giu Canbera Says:

    IRL Ratings
    2002:

    Homestead (ABC) 1.5
    Phoenix (ABC) 1.2
    California (ESPN) 0.5
    Nazareth (ABC) 1.3
    Indy (ABC) 4.8
    Texas (ESPN) 0.6
    Pike’s Peak (ABC) 1.0
    Richmond (ESPN) 0.6
    Kansas (ABC) 1.3
    Nashville (ESPN2) 0.5
    Michigan (ABC) 1.2
    Kentucky (ABC) 0.9
    Gateway (ESPN) 0.8
    Chicagoland (ABC) 1.1
    Texas (ABC) 0.9

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