Brian France: NASCAR not only sport feeling impact of digital age

Photo by Jerry Jordan/ Kickin' The Tires

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. – NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said NASCAR isn’t the only professional sport that is trying to capture a younger audience in an age where content consumption is changing.

In an impromptu media session ahead of the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Sunday, France was reassuring as he explained that NASCAR was in the same boat as other sports.

“Well, you obviously understand that the digital age is well within the present and the future so we’re very focused on that,” said France, with his 6-year-old son, Luke, in tow. “We are very focused on social. We are very focused on getting young fans interested in our sport.”

“And by the way, we are not isolated here. Every sport is trying to unlock the new consumption levels and fan interest by a younger demographic. Of course we love our core fans. Everyone does. But every sport is thinking carefully of how to reach millennial fans to get them excited about their sport.”

France said he has talked to all the commissioners at one point or another and learned they too have their work cut out.

“They are all focused on that and it’s not easy by the way because things are dramatically changing; not just for our industry,” France continued.

In fact, France pointed out that the change spans well beyond sports.

“You go back and look at any patterns that are going on,” France added. “And look at retail – just picking things up — where the shopping trends are now obviously online. It’s all over the place.

“So everybody, sports or otherwise, is taking a very careful look but it’s changing fast. And we got great people and great industry so we will navigate it. But it will take a while to figure it out as it will for everybody else.”

France’s rare sighting at the track this season came just five days after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his plan to retire at the end of 2017. He thanked NASCAR’s most popular driver, son of the late seven-time champ and Hall of Famer, for his contribution.

“He’s meant a lot to the sport in many ways on and off the track; not just his popularity and whatever,” France said. “But carrying on the Earnhardt name in such a good way. He was always competitive on the track; always raced at a high level and always worked with NASCAR to make the sport better, just like his father did.

“It’s not always the case with the drivers who come. Some of them just drive the car and that’s what they do. Dale Jr. was quieter about that but nonetheless it was important to give his input in a quiet way and we always listened to him.”

France though isn’t surprised to see drivers hanging it up earlier than in the past. Jeff Gordon retired at the end of 2015 at the age of 44. A year later, Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, left the cockpit for good at 45. And in January, Carl Edwards abruptly walked away at 37.

And France expects that age to get “lower and lower” after seeing drivers go till their “late forties and even 50s.”

“I said this a long time ago,” he said. “I could see around the corner that careers were not going to last as long as they did previous decades with NASCAR. And the reason is the demands are high. The opportunity to leave a race car and do something else because of the financial situation that the drivers are fortunate enough to be in, it allows them to pick and choose their careers a little bit differently.”

But despite the transition, France is encouraged by the deep talent pool that’s coming. He is referring to youngsters like 24-year-old and points leader Kyle Larson, and 26-year-old Joey Logano, his young son’s favorite driver.

“We are excited about that,” France said. “They got to compete at a high level and they can’t be humble about that. They can’t be humble as they race out there with veteran stars who they looked up to. They can’t be humble to say I’m happy to be here. They are here for a reason; they are very, very good and they stay for a reason, meaning that they have to compete at a high level.

“So I’m excited at our pool both in the Monster Energy series and the Xfinity Series. Both are working the way we want them to work.”

And as for the expectation of Monster Energy, France had one word to describe the way things have gone with the new sponsor: “great.”

“I think they are bringing what we hoped they would bring, that sort of youthful kind of edgy, they do it in entertainment, if you were out in California, massive crowds watching some of the things they were doing interactive with our fan base and then digitally, socially they are one of the leading companies in the country,” France explained.

“I think they are just great and we are excited to have them.”

France also acknowledged the NASCAR media for the hard work.

“This is a tough sport to cover, right,” he said. “It’s multiple days away. It’s not one day. It’s multiple races. It’s a lot of work to cover this sport. And I know our entire team thanks each and every one of you for helping us tell the NASCAR story.”

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