NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France took time on Friday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway to address the state of the sport 11 races into the 2011 season.
France touched on topics ranging from the 'have at it' philosophy and clarifying what probation means, also addressing attendance numbers, getting back to the roots of the sport, highlighting the Nationwide Series regulars, split-screen commercials and the possibility of shortening races.
Below are some of France's selected quotes.
On the 'have at it' philosophy:
There are limits and I think you saw one of the limits is if you put anyone in danger, like what happened with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch where it was after the race that happened... I think it's important to know that if you look throughout NASCAR's history, one of the videos that is shown the most Wednesday night (at the NASCAR Hall of Fame dinner) was the famous finish in Daytona with Richard Petty and David Pearson hitting each other and spun out in the grass. You go through our history, that's part of it. Contact, the emotion, in particular late in the race. We have said we can over-officiate and over-regulate in some circumstances over a 60-year period of time.
I think our point was a couple years ago was we thought we might have been in a pattern of that. We wanted to put it in the drivers hands. We never said there was no limits with that. You can't just go around with a missile and a weapon out there, but if you're having contact, that's part of NASCAR. It's tough for us, but that's what we do. It's tough for any sport to have certain areas of the game – or in auto racing – that are subjective as to what is too much.
We will figure that out. We will remain obviously a contact sport. We are going to remain with the basic philosophy we're putting more of it in the drivers hands. If they go over a line that we think is there, we'll deal with that.
On whether NASCAR needs to clarify penalties:
There's a 60-year history of how we officiate the event. Most of our top officials, certainly Mike Helton who is in charge every weekend, has been at the helm for a decade or longer. This shouldn't be a big surprise for anyone to try and read us and how we're going to officiate the events.
Late in the event, if your car is faster than somebody else and there is some contact and somebody gets by, that's NASCAR racing. We celebrate that. Throughout our history, look at the All-Star, some of the great finishes have all been with contact. Earnhardt and Bill Elliott going through the grass, that's just how it is.
The drivers know us well enough to understand. They certainly have conversations and we'll be happy to reiterate our situation.
On the definition of probation:
What probation means is there is a different set of eyes and expectations that are placed on a driver that is placed on probation. They are going to have a lot more limited flexibilty on how we'll officiate them if they should they be in a similar area they had just violated. Why it is important to have consistent rules, even in the All-Star Races, is there are safety elements that are effected, there are lots of different reasons why we just wouldn't want to say we're not going to have a standard set of NASCAR rules in the All-Star Race.
Keep in mind, given that there are no points in the All-Star Race, by definition it gets more aggressive. We know that. That's fine. Drivers take more chances, they're not worried about where they are in the points standings, so it's going to be more aggressive and more competitive. But if we took the lid off and just said there are no rules, or don't worry about any ramifications that might extend into next week at all, then we believe – I said earlier in my remarks there has to be limits to all of this – that would be above the limits we would think going into an event wouldn't make any sense."
On whether poor attendance could cause tracks to lose race dates:
We don't like to see empty seats. We like to see as many fans enjoying this great competition as possible, but we're also realistic that some things are going to take time. There are not many sports that aren't being affected one way or another in attendance and how they do a lot of things.
We need the tracks to be sensitive. We've got high gas prices now that are upon us, and that's obviously a factor for our fans to consider. We certainly don't want to see empty seats and we're working with the tracks to get the best dates possible and go from there.
On whether NASCAR is trying to get back to its roots:
I don't think there was a time when we didn't think the best racing in the world was important or the core fan wasn't important. That just wouldn't be accurate. Obviously, we have a job to do, which is satisfy the core fan in every way we possibly can and try to do that. We also are trying to be appealing to ways to new fans.
Sometimes there is a different path you have to be on, slightly different, to accomplish both things. You are never off one path for long and they're never very far apart.
We're reacting to how young people in particular are taking in with their favorite sports or learning about their favorite sports. It's very different than it was then say 10 years ago, say five years ago. You just can't have your head down when all those things are going on while you are trying to grow your fan base.
On promoting the Nationwide Series regulars:
I think you'll see us take a slow, steady step making sure we get the most out of the Nationwide Series which needs to be analogous to college football to build some stars that come from Saturday to Sunday for us. This was a big step, but it's not going to be the only step. We will be looking at ways to enhance the young drivers and their talents, and new owners for that matter, in the Nationwide and other national series that don't just get this percolation of Cup drivers to the point where it just homogenizes both Sunday and Saturday, it doesn't deliver those benefits we would like to see of showcasing young drivers, young talent and new owners.
On the decision to use split-screen commercials by Fox in Dover and ESPN in Chase races:
We had been informed. Obviously it's not a brand-new concept, it was tried a decade ago or so with some mixed reviews. They're trying some different takes at it. If it enhances the viewing experience and works with the advertisers, we're all open to that. I think we're going to trust our TV partners to try some new things and they will be as critical as we will be to see how well it will go.
There is no question the television landscape – with that has happened with Comcast and NBC coming together and recent deals, the PAC 12 deal and others – that sports content has never been more important to all the networks who are the business and some new ones that are getting into the business.
Our obligation and hope is to get renewals done with our incumbents. When that day comes where that's not possible – which I hope it doesn't come because I think we have the best line-up of broadcast partners – we'll deal with that and have to see how the split-broadcast affects that.
On shortening races:
We have shortened races. Over the last five or six years we have shortened races, even in the Nationwide Series. We will be open to that if it works for the tracks, if it works for our partners and obviously if the fan base wants that. That will be something that it will be case-by-case. Would we be open to that? Yes. Have we done it before? Yes.