Recent leadership losses in NASCAR raise questions
by Tom Bowles
The life and times of Jim Hunter were celebrated wonderfully this week with a visitation followed by a wonderful service Wednesday at Darlington Presbyterian Church. NASCAR’s former Vice President of Communications, who passed away last Friday following a lengthy battle with cancer, was remembered as a caring father, friend, and passionate leader for the sport he helped mold into a national powerhouse since entering the stock car workforce in 1968. But as the last of the sport’s “old guard” made his peaceful transition into another world, those left remaining in this one had to privately be thinking the same question many down in Daytona Beach have been asking for several months:
Hunter’s passing is just the latest in a number of NASCAR’s aging leaders who have either left the Earth or their jobs the last few years. Chief among them is Bill France Jr., whose 2007 passing has sparked a three-year period where the sport has lost Bristol Motor Speedway President Jeff Byrd (death), former Technical Director Steve Peterson (death), legendary Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler (retirement), New Hampshire Motor Speedway President Bob Bahre (retirement), top journalist David Poole (death) and even Motor Racing Outreach founder Max Helton (death) in just the last two seasons. The current head of NASCAR’s Public Relations Department, Ramsey Poston is leaving his post at the end of the year, as well as Sprint Cup Director John Darby, whose replacement has yet to be named despite the announcement of a “transition” in February.
It’s a long list of star power fading into the sunset, complicated further by the number of those still hanging on who are reaching the end of their tenures. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Speedway Motorsports, Inc. leader O. Bruton Smith, the man once looked at to fight NASCAR for control of the sport, is now 83 years old. Chairman of the Board at ISC, Jim France, is 66, while brother Bill’s former wife Betty Jane is over 70; together, they own 65 percent of the stock in a company whose future is increasingly uncertain in the midst of massive attendance losses at each of its major facilities around the country.
But the Social Security crowd isn’t just limited to executives. Cup Series owner and Indy 500-winning legend Roger Penske is 73. So is NASCAR’s King, Richard Petty, reduced to merely a figurehead in the nearly-bankrupt RPM organization he’s trying to purchase. But how long will Petty be an active leader even if he succeeds? Ford power Jack Roush, who nearly lost his life in a plane crash in July, is 68, while Toyota rival Joe Gibbs turns 70 this year. Of those listed, only Gibbs, whose son J.D. runs the day-to-day operations of the program, seems to have a seamless transition plan in place.
So as NASCAR heads into a turbulent offseason, a crucial turning point in its history after four straight years of clear-cut decline, a “next generation” to replace all these leaders remains unclear. Sure, there’s a small handful of promising young owners coming up the ranks with Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch attempting to keep his team afloat in the Truck Series, and Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip having already made it in Cup. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
But five men aren’t enough to bail water from a sinking ship whose natural transition of leadership seems to have stopped across the board. Having no rookie drivers in the Cup Series is one thing, but what’s troubling is in the backrooms where the sport earns its money, there’s no All-Star executive I’ve named rising through the ranks to help Brian and Lesa France, and NASCAR President Mike Helton help engineer a turnaround. Going along with the Election Day theme of the week, if given an opportunity to vote these people out of office, as so many fans often push for, a legitimate question to ask is whom to vote in.
A quick look at ISC’s track presidents shows that five were put in their current positions within the last two years, but no one stands out as a “Humpy”-type promoter capable of injecting attendance and bucking the negative trend. And after all, you can’t just take Joe Schmo off the street and make him the leader of a racing organization. Years of knowledge, budgets, and charisma must be in tow, along with an understanding of the media that Hunter had down pat. It was he who led the charge after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, fostering explosive growth with the way the horrifying tragedy was spun into a positive to both encourage track safety and get millions to take a second look at a sport they’d never heard of.
More than ever, this sport is in need of innovative ideas as much as fans want a return to the status quo: no Chase, no Fontana, races at Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, and Darlington twice a year. It’s cute to get sentimental, but unhelpful to a NASCAR pocketbook that’s rapidly shrinking when Martinsville’s two dates averaged a paltry 48,000 in attendance in 2010. How are you going to convince shareholders that abandoning the second and third-largest media markets, Chicagoland and Fontana, for a half-mile track they don’t even own and needs millions in renovations will be financially viable?
The ugly truth is you can’t, and the millions in renovations to turn Fontana into a short track aren’t going to be on the table, either. So the sport and its track ownership branch is in a tricky conundrum, needing to get back to its roots and increasing competition on what’s been sleep-inducing 1.5-mile ovals. Unfortunately, those shutdowns across the country would cost NASCAR-armed ISC its viability. At the same time, NASCAR needs a new, sleeker-looking car just three years after the last disastrous design while encouraging new ownership to challenge a stagnant period of domination at the top by the same select country club elite.
That’s not an easy list to tackle, the current list of problems for the newest Congress tame by comparison. But at least in Washington, D.C., there’s an infusion of new leadership every two years pushed forth by a nation capable of generating change when needed. For a private corporation like NASCAR, it’s dependent on the natural development of people it hires, hoping they will one day be capable of evolving the business to keep it profitable.
Who will step up on all sides of the fence to make that happen? From the experts that cover this sport behind a computer to the leaders inside the granite walls of Daytona Beach, I don’t think anybody knows, leaving Brian France in the awkward position of fixing a NASCAR that’s broken under his watch with the same people who helped break it. And that, perhaps more than any other issue, could be a damning statement for a sport in need of an injection of fresh blood just about everywhere.