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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins, was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski