The story is the stuff of legend.
Big Bill France brought together a ragtag group of racers, race car owners, promoters and track owners at the Streamline Hotel on Daytona Beach in 1947 with this crazy idea of organizing all their efforts into one unified effort to grow the sport of auto racing. They may not have been ragtag, but it helps promote the romance of the narrative; never let the truth get in the way of a good story, my grandpa always said.
Out of that meeting came the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing — you know, NASCAR — in 1948. Stock car racing was becoming a big deal across the country as the boys came home from World War II (I am writing this on V-E Day) wanting an outlet for the mechanical skills they picked up in the armed forces and became entangled with the more colorful side of racing’s history: the bootleggers running liquor with the obvious need to outpace the law.
Big Bill recognized the growing interest and took a leap, betting on the automotive culture continuing to grow with NASCAR playing a vital role in it.
His gamble paid off and, in 1972, Big Bill turned over to his son, Bill France Jr., a sanctioning body that had just attained Winston as an entitlement sponsor and was making serious inroads into the American sports consciousness. For the next three decades, Little Bill continued his daddy’s work and continued to grow the sport out of its base in the Southeast, secured television rights deals that rivaled those of the big-four sports leagues.
In 2003, the mantle of CEO of NASCAR was once again passed down from father to son. This time it was Little Bill handing the reins to Brian France. So, for 70-ish years, NASCAR has had three head honchos all with the same last name. (Point of clarification: NASCAR is a privately held company owned by the France family, unlike its sister company, International Speedway Corporation, which is publicly traded but run by Lisa France Kennedy, Brian’s sister). That’s the kind of stability most companies wish for.
To put that in perspective, there have been seven popes in that time span. In the sports world, MLB has had nine commissioners, six for the NFL and five for the NBA.
But, as many race fans will tell you, the shine is definitely long gone from the apple under Brian France’s not-so-watchful eye. TV ratings have been on a negative trajectory for some time. As have attendance numbers. Of late, NASCAR has had trouble putting enough cars on the track to have a full field. As for the fans, many bemoan the changes that have been instituted since Brian took the reigns – the Chase/Playoffs, the removal of races from Rockingham and Darlington, the failed Car of Tomorrow and I could go on, but you get my point.
To NASCAR’s credit, race fans are a hard bunch to figure out. They complain about something and then, as soon as something gets changed to address the concern, they complain about the change. But they are the ones spending the money to prop this whole thing up, so they can be fickle.
All that said, the rumors/speculation/reports that the Frances have enlisted the help of Goldman Sachs (not to be confused with Greg Sacks – that joke works better spoken than written) to help them sell NASCAR isn’t much of a surprise (how’s that for burying the lede).
Word around the campfire is that the investment firm is out gauging interest of potential buyers for NASCAR. Does this mean that the founding family is divesting themselves of the sanctioning body tomorrow? This year? The next 10 years? Who knows, but I do believe where there is smoke there is fire, despite the internal memo that circulated from NASCAR President Brent Dewar on Tuesday that said the France family was committed to NASCAR.
I’ll be honest, should NASCAR find itself under the stewardship of someone other than its current CEO, I can’t say that would be a bad thing. We are now in year 16 of this current administration and I, like many fans, can’t say there are a lot of good things that have happened to continue the sports’ growth, especially coming on the heels of two decades of explosive growth. Real change is needed if NASCAR is going to continue to be a thing and new ownership and a new family may be what it takes to make that happen.
It just won’t have that same Daytona Beach/Streamline Hotel romantic story.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.