Brian France: State of NASCAR is in a good place and getting better

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There were no major announcements like last year’s introduction of the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup format, but NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s “State of the Sport” address on Monday covered a number of areas that indicate the sport is progressing and moving forward.

France talked about a number of topics, including how pleased NASCAR was at the way the new Chase format played out, increased use of technology in the sport, green initiatives, the final year of Jeff Gordon as a Sprint Cup driver and more.

Here are some of the highlights of France’s address, along with his comments:

WHERE NASCAR IS RIGHT NOW: “It’s a time when everybody’s coming off, in this case, an amazingly strong year with perhaps our greatest Chase, and certainly in recent memory. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of momentum and it’s also a time when all the teams have a clean slate.”

HOW THE NEW CHASE PLAYED OUT FROM PERSPECTIVE OF FANS: “It’s overwhelmingly popular with the most important stakeholder, our fans. Research and data we got in over the winter not only suggests that, it determines that loud and clear. They liked the fact it tightened up competition, they liked the drama down the stretch, liked the emphasis on winning and one of the things they really liked is the idea that we weren’t going to change anything. They strongly suggested that we didn’t, and we’re not going to.”

WHY THERE ARE NO MAJOR OR EVEN MINOR TWEAKS TO THE CHASE: “One of the magical parts of this Chase, and we want to make sure we keep it this way, is the simplicity of it. Win and you get in. … Whatever we would do in the future is we want to make sure simplicity is right there. The other thing you can expect to see next year is the strategies by the teams. They’re undoubtedly going to be looking at how things went. Some of the strategies they used to get into the Chase, I think teams trying to win earlier, the strategies coming in and out of those transfer events, that’s going to make it that much more exciting as the teams and drivers get a better feel for that format.”

TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENTS: “I’ve said over the last 4-5 years, we’re going to be on what I call a steady march to innovation. We’re going to balance that with the cost and the benefits to the individual teams and to the sport. But given the car manufacturers, in particular, and everybody else has innovation on their minds as part of their DNA, NASCAR needed to follow suit with that. We also want to be a place that if you bring some of the greatest technology companies into our sport to look around, I want them to see we’re a relevant place within the market that technology and with new innovation, they’re going to feel comfortable here. Maybe that hasn’t always been the case, but it will be now and in the future. It’s very important to us.”

GREEN INITIATIVES: “I know from time to time I’ve gotten some long looks like, ‘Really, NASCAR? You’re burning fossil fuel. How can you lead in that area?’ It’s innovation but also for all the right reasons a way for NASCAR to take a lead on something that is so important to millennial fans, ourselves and our stakeholders, which is preserving our environment in a way that is better off than when we started out. I’m pleased to say all of our Green initiatives are building momentum, all of our stakeholders within our ecosystem – drivers, teams and tracks – are participating and it’s improving things on and off the track.”

COMMUNICATIONS WITH DRIVERS, TEAMS AND TRACKS, PARTICULARLY DRIVERS AND OWNERS: “It’s never been stronger. I don’t just say that because it’s convenient to say. I say that because of all the input and all the meetings that happen all the time, at different places … and I think when you talk to the teams and drivers, there’s an unprecedented amount of cooperation to get that input as we look at rules packages now and into the future, where the sport is going, where do they fit in, what are their concerns. That’s going to continue. … The other key stakeholder that we’re joining at the hip, closer and closer, are the car manufacturers. We met with them last week at Detroit, around the Auto Show, and all three manufacturers were highly represented and greatly appreciated the time we got to spend together and so did we. We shared our plans for now and the future, how they fit in, how central they are to that, and they shared theirs. That relationship with car manufacturers has never been more important and never been running better.”

THOUGHTS ON JEFF GORDON AND 2015 BEING HIS LAST SEASON: Jeff’s a friend of ours, a friend of mine personally, and I don’t have to tell you what he’s done for the sport and the amazing accomplishments on and off the track. From everybody at NASCAR, we wish him a strong final season. He came real close to competing and trying to win another championship. I know he’s going to try to accomplish that on his final season. We wish him well. He’s not going to go very far from the sport, one way or the other.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN 2015: “I don’t think we have a glaring weakness, per se, but think our biggest challenge is our biggest opportunity, to get the rules packages exactly where we want them to be. We’re making a lot of progress. … We said we’re going to be earlier than ever to get rules packages to the teams. That’s helpful in a lot of ways for them to get comfortable with what we’re doing. From a cost standpoint, they’re able to phase in and phase out old packages with new. We’re targeting sometime in the spring, which would be a historic thing for NASCAR to do that, with the ’16 rules packages. That’s the hardest thing we do, balancing safety, costs, a whole bunch of different ideas, agendas and opinions. But at the end of the day, that’s what makes NASCAR NASCAR.”

WHAT LESSONS DID HE LEARN FROM HIS GRANDFATHER (BILL FRANCE SR.) AND FATHER (BILL FRANCE JR.) THAT HE NOW USES: “They had very different styles. My grandfather was more of a bold leader and consensus builder. My father was more of a guy with hands on, make things happen every day. … What’s really clear is things are very, very different today. They’re much more complex. The amount of people we have, experts and individual disciplines. … My job is to communicate with them and make sure we keep hitting those goals.”

RULES PACKAGE: “We try not to do any in-season tweaks unless there’s a safety concern or because of costs. We judge rules changes quite simply by lead changes, race winning, how many different winners, how many each manufacturer is able to have a fair shot at competing. There’s plenty of data to help us. And then there’s watching what we watch. We want lots of close, tight competition and hopefully lots of lead changes and lots of excitement down the stretch and close finishes.”

IS THERE SOME FINAL POINT OR WILL THE QUEST FOR BEST RACING NEVER END? “There’s no final. It’ll always evolve. The teams will always try to gain an advantage. That’s what they do. They figure out whatever package we present, and try to lead every lap and to have an advantage. Our job is to make sure the playing field is level and more teams have a good shot at competing at a high level. Given that it always changes, we have to change, too. … It’ll always keep us looking ahead.”

NASCAR’S DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: “Every sport is taking a more than a hard look. They’re doing what they should be doing. … I think you’re going to see us, and I’m sure most other leagues as well, when there are those clear circumstances, having a much more severe reaction to how you deal with those things, and it will be no different with NASCAR. We have to let the facts to come in. There’d be no reason for me or NASCAR or anybody else in NASCAR to get ahead of that. Let’s let the facts come in and you can appreciate we’ll be very careful and very aware of what the circumstances are.”

AS JEFF GORDON PREPARES FOR HIS FINAL SEASON, HOW DOES NASCAR CREATE STARS TO FILL THE VOIDS (OF DRIVERS THAT WILL EVENTUALLY RETIRE): “You’re looking at some potentials right here. They can take us to a different audience, too, which is the beauty of our diversity program. We’ve got other drivers, like Chase Elliott coming on, very highly talented, lots of credentials, going back to the past with his father being in the Hall of Fame, of course, and other talent drivers that are young, aggressive and bring their own style to NASCAR. The changing of the guard, that’s always part of sports and part of NASCAR. That’s what you count on to have, a great farm system of aspiring talent with a hopefully diverse background to let their talents and abilities land them with the Sprint Cup Series.”

ANY POTENTIAL TWEAKS OR CHANGES TO THE CHASE IN THE FUTURE IF IT DOESN’T NECESSARILY GO AS WELL AS LAST YEAR WENT? “I won’t give you any specifics other than to say the normal things that you would think of, the drivers who fell out or teams that fell out for one reason or another in the Chase, would have liked to have seen a different points system within a points system or some of those ideas that would have possibly helped them in this particular year. But where we get back to is how do we keep it simple. We made it as simple as we possibly could. That was goal number one. Any change that we would make, even if it were helpful and reasonably easy to understand, it would still be something different, and our view is let’s keep it exactly how we have it now. It’s going to take a fair amount of time for — even our avid fan base, really — to really sort out the strategies necessary to compete, and as I said early in my remarks, advance from one round to the next. … So fans are like everybody else; they’re keeping up with this, but it’s not without its own interesting twists, turns and complexities, and we want to make sure that’s fully digesting before we do anything in the future.”

HOW IMPORTANT WAS IT FOR THE CHASE TO PLAY OUT THE WAY IT DID LAST YEAR? “I don’t know how to answer that. I guess it was really important. It was an important step, had some risks, like anything that is controversial would have, and anything that fools around with tradition will have a big thing. But we wouldn’t do something, and I certainly wouldn’t, if we didn’t have a high degree of certainty it was the right step for us. I think it was important, but we’ll never know because it did work out, and thankfully it did.”

IF AND WHEN NASCAR FINDS A NEW SERIES SPONSOR TO REPLACE SPRINT, COULD SPRINT EXIT SOONER (CONTRACT EXPIRES AFTER 2016), AND ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A 10-YEAR COMMITMENT OR A SHORTER-TERM DEAL WITH THE NEW SPONSOR: “I don’t anticipate anybody being in a position to leave early, but we’ll get out into the marketplace and see.  The longer, generally speaking, that these agreements can last, the better, because they’re building their brand in the most important area of NASCAR. I think the longer the better. It’s the most coveted position in sports because of the positioning of it, so we’ll get out and see where we’re at.”

WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE RACE TEAM ALLIANCE AND NASCAR? “We have conversations frequently with Rob (RTA chief Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing) and all the owners. … I think our position is we hope that they achieve their stated goals, and I think they’re working on them, and we don’t have a lot to do with that.  They’re on their own timeline with all that, and we’re doing what we normally do, which is get input from everybody so that we can make really good decisions, and that’s the way it was and that’s the way it will be.”

WILL CURRENT TEAM OWNERS BE ABLE TO EXPAND FROM THE CURRENT CAR LIMIT OF FOUR TO FIVE OR MORE? “Well, we’re not looking to expand from the current four. But it’s true, I think we would like to see the barrier to entry be lower rather than higher. This is an open sport, and it’s open to teams and drivers who fit the specifications and can compete at a high level, but it’s also an expensive undertaking to go racing at the highest level, and by the way, that’s as it should be, because there’s a lot to come in and compete against for anybody to look at this. But that’s one of the missions that Steve O’Donnell and his team are always taking into consideration, and that goes to our business model for our teams.  It goes to the rules packages, and are we making things easier, are we lowering things, are we making it easy for new teams to look at coming in and competing with NASCAR, or do you need all this institutional knowledge and all this expertise and technology that only a few can have.  We think that’s not where we want to be.  We want to have an open sport where if you’ve got the will to compete, we’re going to make it as easy as reasonably possible for us to compete in this sport.”

HOW DO YOU GROW THE SPORT AND ATTRACT NEW FANS, BUT ALSO KEEP CORE FANS HAPPY? “I get that question a lot:  How do you manage attracting new fans, because you have to do some new initiatives and things that are appealing to millennial fans may not be appealing to some of the traditional fans.  But at the end of the day, our traditional fans love — they love one thing.  They love safe, exciting, real tight racing, and if the packages and the formats give that to them, then they’re generally pretty happy. Millennial fans and other new fans, well, they may have different time constraints, they may have different things that excite them, and different ways to consume our sport or any sport, and so we’re working on that, too.  The good thing is that none of it really competes with one another.  It’s really complementary. If we go after the millennial fan on one end and make sure we’re giving our core fans exactly what they want, they usually go together at the end of the day.”

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500