CHARLOTTE, N.C. – NASCAR needed 99 races for budding superstar Chase Elliott to finally win his first Cup race and didn’t even get a full day to celebrate the milestone.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France has taken a leave from his family owned company following his arrest Sunday night on charges of driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of oxycodone . France blew through a stop sign in Sag Harbor, New York, police said, not long after Elliott crossed the finish line some 350 miles away in Watkins Glen.
Police said at the time he was pulled over France struggled to keep his balance during field sobriety tests, his eyes were red and glassy, and tests showed his blood-alcohol content was nearly twice New York’s legal limit. Officers found five oxycodone pills during a subsequent search, police said.
The head of the most popular racing series in the U.S. spent the night in jail – a punch to the gut for a series reeling from slumping attendance and television ratings, and a decline in blockbuster sponsorship deals. France shifted the attention away from Elliott’s victory, which signified a passing of the torch and a rare feel-good moment at a time of almost constant negativity in NASCAR .
Jim France, uncle to Brian France, has assumed the interim titles of Chairman and CEO and is assisted by Lesa France Kennedy, Brian’s sister.
A day after the shake-up, few seemed concerned about the direction of NASCAR with Brian France sidelined.
“Lesa and Jim are going to do a great job,” Denny Hamlin said Tuesday. “I’m confident in the leadership of NASCAR. I know all of the executives really, really well. I get invited into some very intense meetings with them at times, and am very confident that those guys can take the reins and do a great job.”
Because NASCAR is privately owned and run in large part by Brian France, Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy, there is no clear indication of how hands-on Brian France was or what kind of void his absence will create. The stakeholders are hopeful Jim France, the second son of NASCAR’s founder, can be a steadying hand in trying times for the series.
“We’ve got to look to our sport’s future, what we can change and what we can do next,” said Kyle Busch. “Brian’s been our leader for a long time. Look forward now to the opportunity to have Jim France in there.”
Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy have always been in the mix of both NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., but the role of face of the family fell to Brian. He’s the grandson of founder Bill France Sr. and replaced his father, Bill France Jr., as head of NASCAR in 2003.
Brian France took charge during a time the sport was booming in popularity and sponsors were beating down the door to get their logos on a race car. Although many of Brian France’s initiatives were progressive and needed in some form, staunch fans have vehemently rejected his vision.
Brian France introduced a playoff system, overhauled the design of the series’ cars and pushed for diversity within the circuit’s predominantly white, male ranks.
But as viewership has declined, sponsors have pulled out of NASCAR and Brian France has not made himself available to the public. He appeared increasingly detached from NASCAR over the past several seasons and is rarely seen at a race. Aside from an occasional random call to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Brian France has said almost nothing about NASCAR’s woes this season.
His lack of engagement created a logjam at the top of NASCAR. Chief Operating Officer Steve Phelps and executive vice president Steve O’Donnell have tried to clean up NASCAR’s mess, but they have been handcuffed like many NASCAR executives by an absence of leadership at the very top. Both Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy have become more involved this year and had privately been picking up the slack for Brian France.
If the rest of the France family is taking charge, the message needs to be delivered publicly, said Ramsey Poston, who spent more than 10 years as a communications executive for NASCAR.
“It will be important for NASCAR leadership to reassure key partners that the sport is in good hands and is positively moving forward,” said Poston, who is now president of consulting firm Tuckahoe Strategies. “Very quickly, Jim France and others should be working on a plan to restore confidence in the sport and roll out a definitive vision for the future.”
It’s not likely to happen soon as Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy are not accustomed to public roles. So neither said anything as of Tuesday, and the attention instead was steered back toward Elliott. He was greeted by several hundred supporters Sunday night when his plane landed in Georgia, which he touched on during a national conference call conducted by NASCAR.
As for the off-track news that usurped his victory?
“I haven’t ever had any issues with Jim,” Elliott said. “I expect them to do fine, and it doesn’t change my job, so I’m going to do my thing.”
So it is basically business as usual for NASCAR, and that’s exactly the way it should be, said longtime France family adversary Bruton Smith. Owner of rival company Speedway Motorsports Inc., Smith sparred with Bill France Jr. during his 31-year leadership reign, but has a better relationship with Brian France.
“Our sport is big, big, big and it’s bigger than just one person,” Smith said. “We go forward. We have to in this sport. At this point in time, NASCAR needs friends and people that will help. It’s a great sport and we go forward and we all should be very protective of it and be willing to lend a helping hand.”
Smith also noted France’s arrest gave NASCAR an opportunity to make a change after years of race fans calling for the ouster of Brian France.
“They were catching a lot of heat by not doing something,” Smith said.
But Felix Sabates, who has had at least partial ownership of a top-level NASCAR team since 1989, believes Brian France has been unfairly blamed for the downturn in the series. He said the entire industry shoulders blame for NASCAR’s slide, and owners and drivers have combined to drive operating costs through the roof.
“I think NASCAR, owners and drivers need to get on the same page to reverse the trend, and everyone has to share in the responsibility,” Sabates said, arguing Brian France deserves a spot in the sport when he decides to return.
“We need to find it in our hearts to forgive Brian for his mistakes,” Sabates said. “Whenever he finishes what he needs to do, we all at NASCAR need to welcome him back with open arms. There is a side of Brian most people don’t see. He is fun to be with, he knows as many funny jokes as his daddy, he is very charitable. He is a very simple person.”
Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond, Virginia, and Pete Iacobelli in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, contributed to this report.