By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR’s CEO, Brian France took the stage Sunday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway to address the state of the sport. Over the near 18 minute conference, France appeared miffed and disheveled at times when pressed by the media, but in the end he let his stance be known on a variety of topics, and there were several highlights.
Things began rolling with the question of how the search for a new entitlement sponsor for the NASCAR Cup Series is going, Sprint is of course leaving the sport after 12 years after Sunday’s race at Homestead. France expressed that the process of securing a new deal isn’t going quite as he expected.
“It’s taking a little longer than I thought, but it’s also a big agreement,” France explained. “It’s an important agreement. It’s more than dollars and cents. It’s a fit for us. We are on the very, very short end of it. We don’t want to announce anything certainly around this weekend, but we are in a good spot with that — I believe. And we’ll have to see how it finally plays out.”
France continued on the topic of the sponsor search by saying, “It’s a complicated agreement. We typically don’t start that 24 months out by the way, it’s not how it works. But I’m confident that we’re going to wind up in a good spot.”
From there the talk shifted to the sport’s diversity. Since 2004, the sanctioning body has made a concerted effort to bring more diversity into the sport of NASCAR by way of the Drive For Diversity Program.
12 years later, we are seeing some of the fruits of the labor of that program as Darrell Wallace Jr. became the second African-American driver to win a National Series race a few years ago, Kyle Larson has also delivered incredible results after graduating from the program and on Saturday, Daniel Suarez became the first-ever foreign born driver to win a NASCAR National Series championship.
However, as things have been progressing culturally in NASCAR for more than a decade, there was a bit of backlash earlier this year when France openly endorsed Donald Trump for the United States Presidency. One of Trump’s big promises while running of course was to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. When quizzed on how his endorsement of Trump effects the sport’s diversity efforts, France put his foot down.
“Stop you right there. First of all, nobody wants to hear my political views. Not one person on this stage wants to hear from me politically. So I wont be talking about that,” France stated emphatically. “On my diversity — nobody, nobody in this company has worked harder, done more or resourced it more than me. I founded the diversity council. I fought for every single thing that makes sense, because that is my core belief. Diversity is very, very important. I talk about it frequently. And my efforts there should never be challenged, no matter what my political view might be. That’s a ridiculous thing to do.”
France also explained that he still loves the current format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and that it should look nearly the same as it has since 2014. However, France did mention that he is open to the idea of adding incentives for the regular-season points champion.
“You know we’re going to think about that. I think that’s a fair thing for us to consider. To make sure that the regular season is as important as it is. I think that we will — I don’t know how we’ll do that, but we’ll look at it,” France said.
The last major topic France addressed was dwindling attendance and television ratings. As far as attendance goes, only two races in the 2016 NASCAR season have been declared sell-outs (the Daytona 500 and Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400). France brushed off the fact that it’s becoming increasingly evident that less and less people are making the trek to the race track each passing year.
“What you don’t realize — or maybe you do realize — we report our attendance. We have publically traded companies, and we don’t have publically financed facilities for the most part,” France said. “All the other leagues have that benefit, so they can discount the tickets and give them away. That’s not reported. So we’re at a double standard on that, number one.”
When it comes to the television audience, France is convinced that the size of NASCAR’s audience has not shrunk despite double-digit ratings dips on a weekly basis. France contends that new consumption options, such as streaming events on tablets, are skewing the traditional ratings.
“Number two, we are still pleased with our position in sports. The audience isn’t going away at all,” France said. “It’s sliding in different places and consuming in different ways. Other leagues have 30-percent drop offs — they didn’t lose 30-percent of their audience is just sliding and consuming in different ways. Our digital consumption is off the charts.”
It was an eventful state of the sport address, but after it concluded most of the questions many have about the direction of the sport are yet to be answered.