All in the family: France Kennedy with her son, Ben, after one of his victories at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida. Courtesy ISC
All in the family: France Kennedy with her son, Ben, after one of his victories at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida. Courtesy ISC

Staying on Track

Lesa France Kennedy '83 is the third generation in her family to play an important role in the popular—and lucrative—sport of stock car racing.
April 1, 2011
 

The floor-to-ceiling windows in the executive suite of the International Speedway Corporation’s new headquarters building overlook the dramatic high-banked Turn 4 at the Daytona International Speedway, the only part of the track not obscured by the six-story grandstands that stretch for almost a mile. It’s easy to imagine a field of thundering stock cars banging fenders, throwing smoke, and shedding rubber on the distant asphalt as drivers compete for the honor of winning NASCAR’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500.

For Lesa France Kennedy, the view is a daily reminder of “where we came from and the core product.” France Kennedy ’83, whose grandfather founded NASCAR and built the Daytona track more than fifty years ago, is entering her third year as CEO of the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which owns and manages almost half of the twenty-three tracks used by NASCAR’s premier racing series, the Sprint Cup. From an expansive, uncluttered desk whose main feature is an iPad propped upright on a stand, France Kennedy directs the fortunes of a conglomerate of twelve huge tracks—most hold more than 100,000 people each—across the country, from Florida to New York, Michigan, Kansas, Arizona, and Southern California.

She is one of the most powerful female executives in professional sports, with, arguably, one of the toughest jobs. The last two decades saw booming growth for NASCAR and the tracks that host its races. And as NASCAR goes, so goes ISC. But recent changes in the stock car racing industry and the Great Recession, which hit NASCAR’s core fans—who tend to be working class—harder than those of any other big-league sport, have left France Kennedy to fight a scourge of empty seats in previously packed houses. Her task is now similar to being behind the wheel of an ill-handling racing vehicle with an engine that is slightly off-song.

But even at less than full capacity, NASCAR—and ISC—remains a powerhouse, attracting an average of 85,000 fans to each of its Sprint Cup races and drawing television audiences second only to those of the National Football League. The Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock car racing, continues to host a capacity crowd of 175,000.

The France family has been through rough patches before. France Kennedy’s grandfather Bill France—known as “Big Bill” because of his imposing height and strong leadership style—opened the Daytona track in 1959, eleven years after launching NASCAR. (Daytona was built by the Daytona International Speedway Corporation, which became ISC in 1968.) Big Bill created the 2.5-mile high-banked oval out of swamp land, and the expense pushed him close to bankruptcy. However, payments due were negotiated, and the debts were soon paid off.

May the circle be unbroken: Patriarch Bill France Sr. in 1959 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.

May the circle be unbroken: Patriarch Bill France Sr. in 1959 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.
ISC Archives via Getty Images

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The high-banked turns, which allow drivers to negotiate corners without letting up on the accelerator, and long straightaways made Daytona instantly popular, and ushered stock car racing into a new era in which nervy driving and outrageous speeds replaced the bootlegging ethos that had carried the sport through the 1950s. Other new super speedways built by private investors in Atlanta and Charlotte soon followed. Through the 1960s, the drama produced on the high banks of the South’s new superspeedways drew Detroit’s automakers into NASCAR on a large scale. Chrysler, Ford, and GM began bankrolling multi-car factory teams. That brought even bigger crowds to the tracks, and the company flourished. But when Big Bill’s son—Lesa’s father—Bill France Jr. became president of NASCAR in 1971, he had to scramble to save the family business.

A confluence of events, including a series of fatal racing accidents; the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s seminal report on automobile safety in general; and the resulting Congressional investigation, prompted automakers to withdraw from NASCAR competition, fearing the potential bad publicity if they continued to be associated with a sport viewed as dangerous. On the brink of being forced out of business, France Jr. shortened the schedule, adopted a point system that rewarded independent team owners for entering races, and paid larger year-end bonuses to drivers funded by a new sponsor, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Riding a lucrative wave of live TV coverage and additional corporate sponsorships to a new prosperity that began in the 1980s, the family business grew to a net worth of $2 billion by the time France Jr. retired in 2003. Brian France, Lesa’s younger brother, succeeded their father as the CEO of NASCAR. Six years later, Lesa was appointed the CEO of ISC. (The France family’s franchise extends to France Kennedy’s son, Ben, a student at the University of Florida and budding stock car driver.)

Though the fortunes of NASCAR and ISC are closely linked, they are separate businesses. NASCAR, which sanctions the races and makes and enforces the rules, derives most of its revenue from sponsorships and from fees charged to the tracks for administering the races. ISC, whose twelve NASCAR-sanctioned Sprint Cup races, earns the majority of its revenue from television rights fees and ticket sales, as well as from sponsorships. In addition to the premier Sprint Cup, NASCAR sanctions two national racing series and several regional series. Lesa sits on the board of NASCAR, and Brian, on the board of ISC.

France Kennedy and her brother are determined to move a sport often regarded by the traditional stick-and-ball type sports fan as a subculture—or worse, a non-athletic endeavor—to new levels of popularity. Ultimately, they’d like it to be considered a “franchise sport,” as Brian France puts it, with the sort of success currently enjoyed by the National Football League.

“I think NASCAR is an American sport,” Lesa says. “Our core fan base is definitely working class, but our demographics are all across the board. You’ll find every demographic at our events.” In addition, she says, fans “feel they can relate to NASCAR drivers more so than other professional athletes. Even back in the early ’70s and ’80s, drivers were viewed as everyday working men, and our fan base really connected with them. Still does.”

Ready, set, go: France Kennedy waves the green flag for the start of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Gresham Motorsports Park this past August in Jefferson, Georgia.

Ready, set, go: France Kennedy waves the green flag for the start of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Gresham Motorsports Park this past August in Jefferson, Georgia.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images for NASCAR

It was as a student at Duke that France Kennedy initially developed a new perspective on NASCAR, a belief that the sport could have a broader appeal despite its Southern, backwoods origins. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, the economically diverse background of the student body eventually served as a kind of informal focus group for the future executive.

She joined Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority, and one of her regular projects became inviting one or two friends to NASCAR events. “There were very few people at Duke that knew that I was involved in NASCAR,” she recalls. “I would ask them if they wanted to come to the event, usually a week or so before. They would kind of hem and haw a little bit if they weren’t a fan.” But when they did go, she says, “they were awed by the size of Daytona. The next year, I would get people that had been before line up and say, ‘Can I go again?’ It was really unbelievable, but it would usually only take one time.”

Her friends’ enthusiasm rekindled France Kennedy’s own appreciation for the sport. “Since I was so close to it, I really never had that true appreciation for NASCAR racing,” she recalls. What she learned to appreciate she says now, is “the excitement.”

“NASCAR racing stimulates every sense in the human body,” she says. “There is nothing like feeling the thundering stampede of forty-three 800-horsepower machines as they roar by at 200 miles per hour. The racing, especially at Daytona, is very tight and closely packed. Fans watch intensely as cars battle for position only inches away from another car or the wall. The sound of the engines is heart pounding, and you can smell the fuel and rubber of the tires.”

France Kennedy was the first person in her family to attend college, and the France family had some concern that after graduating she might not return to the family business. “It might not have been etched in stone that Lesa and Brian would continue in the family business,” says Herb Branham, who works at NASCAR and wrote a biography of Bill France Jr., who died in 2007. “Maybe it was etched in sand. They weren’t forced to do it. But you’d better believe that Bill Jr. wanted them to follow the paths leading to their current roles. It started with Brian cutting the grass at the track, and Lesa working in the ticket office while they were in high school.”

In the ticket office, a teenage France Kennedy came under the wing of her grandmother, Annie B. France, Big Bill’s wife, who played a significant behind-the-scenes role in the growth and development of NASCAR as the organization’s treasurer. In 2001, France Kennedy spoke at length about her grandmother’s influence on the growth of stock car racing for an oral history project called Speed and Spirit conducted by the Smithsonian Institution and the Atlanta History Center.

“She really and truly kept the finances together,” said France Kennedy in the oral-history interview. “She was able to counterbalance all of the wonderful ideas and dreams that my grandfather had. She was able to talk some reason into them. She would be able to sit down and to just be pragmatic about things, and he would listen to that.”

Ultimately, France Kennedy says, it was her grandmother’s influence that inspired her to join the family business after graduating from Duke. (She was a double-major in economics and psychology.) “My grandmother talked to me when I was a junior in college and asked me about coming back to the family business,” she said in the oral-history interview. “It took me a bit of time to think through that, because you hear pros and cons about working in a family business. Looking back on it, what a tremendous opportunity!”

Lesa’s decision to return to Daytona Beach was cause for celebration in the France family. “That was the happiest day in Anne France’s life, when Lesa decided to come to work here,” says Juanita Epton, who has worked in the ticket office for more than fifty years. “I guess she had a little too much grit and sand in her to go off and find something else to do.”

France Kennedy started as the manager of the ticket office at Daytona, then moved up to secretary and, in 1989, treasurer of ISC. By the time the company went public in 1996, she had been promoted to executive vice president. Riding a wave of popularity that began with live coverage of virtually all of the Sprint Cup races by ESPN in the mid-1980s, the initial public offering gave ISC the financial wherewithal that enabled it to expand dramatically. The company gradually acquired six tracks that were valued at a total of $1 billion and that hosted Sprint Cup races in six states.

In 2001, the construction of tracks in Joliet, Illinois, and Kansas City, Kansas, added two more facilities to the ISC portfolio and two more races to the schedule. France Kennedy played a major role in the acquisitions and in the development of the pioneering public-private partnership that created the Kansas Speedway. France Kennedy, who handled the negotiations with local and state officials in Kansas, was so deeply involved she even chose the color of the stadium seats: purple and gold to signify the state’s deep-blue skies and fields of grain. After five decades of private funding of facilities, the Kansas track proved NASCAR and ISC could get public support for new stadiums just like other major-league sports, a model for future expansion.

France Kennedy works hard to leverage ISC’s assets. The new headquarters building in Daytona not only provides offices for her company but also rents space to NASCAR and other local businesses. More recently,

France Kennedy was the driving force behind a successful bid in 2010 for the rights to build a $700 million casino, hotel, and conference center next door to the Kansas Speedway—a joint project with Penn National Gaming Inc., a company that builds and operates casinos.

 
All in the family: France Kennedy with her son, Ben, after one of his victories at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida.

All in the family: France Kennedy with her son, Ben, after one of his victories at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida.
Courtesy ISC

France Kennedy’s most challenging personal test came in 2007. Her father died of cancer in the spring at the age of seventy-four; five weeks later, her husband, Bruce Kennedy, was killed when a private plane he was piloting crashed. A physician, Kennedy had become “the rock of the entire France family during France Jr.’s illness,” says Herb Branham, the biographer of Bill France Jr. “Bruce was an unusually well-liked person by everybody and well respected. But Lesa had the ability to gather herself up and come back after the plane crash. She was back in there every day, on the job, hammering away.”

These days, there’s a lot to hammer away at. With the exception of the Daytona 500, for which ticket sales remain strong, the rash of empty seats started not long after Brian France took over the reins as CEO of NASCAR in 2003. In an effort to create a cleaner image for the sport and thereby win college-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class viewers and ticket buyers, Brian introduced increasingly tight rules on drivers’ behavior on the track to prevent fenderbanging and began penalizing drivers for using off-color language.

“The people in Daytona tried taking the sport in a different direction,” according to H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, a retired racing promoter for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track owned by ISC’s publicly owned rival Speedway Motorsports. He says the heritage of a sport that grew out of the Scots-Irish traditions of the Appalachian Mountains, the adjoining Piedmont, and bootlegging was cast aside. Fans were uncomfortable with what they saw as attempts to gussy up stock car racing, Wheeler says. “It’s a fiddle,” he says, “not a violin.”

The fans pushed back. NASCAR eventually relented on its iron-fisted control of drivers but continues with other policies that have raised the ire of core fans, including changing the way championships are determined. To NASCAR fans, the change was the equivalent of tearing down Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.

As her brother has been managing the action on the track, Lesa France Kennedy has focused on moving NASCAR into new geographic markets while supporting his efforts to make the sport more appealing to upscale audiences. She has wielded direct control over the effort to attract new fans from across the country through realigning the schedule, moving races from ISC’s tracks in the Southeast to those in other regions of the country. Since she graduated from Duke, the number of Sprint Cup races in the Southeast has been reduced from twenty-four to eighteen.

Chris Browning, the president of ISC’s Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, has experienced the changes firsthand. Darlington, the first high-banked Southern speedway, built in 1950 and later acquired by ISC, has lost one of its two race weekends. “You’re trying to grow the sport, and at the same time, you’re trying to retain your current customers and fan base,” says Browning. “Then you have to try to look after your sponsors. It’s tough.”

“Having so many competing interests is the hardest part of realignment,” says France Kennedy. “What’s going to make it better overall for all the stakeholders? You have to get the balance right.”

The difficult decisions on realignment that France Kennedy has made don’t surprise Zak Brown, the founder of Just Marketing International, a global firm based in Indianapolis that manages $300 million in motorsports sponsor investments. “Lesa is very switched on and can be very aggressive when she needs to be,” he says. “She’s a gentle person who makes tough decisions. She’s not afraid of those decisions. But she always carries herself in a polite manner.

“She’s a tough cookie in a gentle form.”

Last year, the sputtering economy forced France Kennedy to make some tough decisions. In the first half of 2010, ISC reported a 20 percent decline in ticket-sale revenues—$74 million compared with the $92 million taken in over the same period the year before (part of the drop resulted from a reduction in the cost of tickets). Shortly afterward, France Kennedy announced a 20 percent reduction in fulltime employees to help maintain longterm profitability for shareholders.

Because ISC is by far the market leader in motorsports entertainment in the U.S.—which also includes IndyCar, sports car, and drag racing—carries relatively little debt, and has substantial cash reserves, it should weather the current downturn just fine, according to Brown. And the fan base and television audience are both still relatively large. “A lot of other sports would like to have the kind of problems going on in NASCAR,” he says.

Each track that hosts Sprint Cup events receives 60 percent of television rights fees for each race under a multi-billion dollar contract with three networks that runs through 2014, a significant offset for poor ticket sales. In the third quarter of 2010, ISC’s television revenue was $61.6 million, and the revenue from admissions to tracks was $42.5 million. Although TV ratings have fallen noticeably, owing in part to ongoing fan discontent, Sprint Cup events retain their ranking during the race weekends of first or second among sporting events and fare well compared with network programming.

France Kennedy remains confident about the long run, not only because ISC is financially secure but also because she believes NASCAR continues to have advantages over other majorleague sports. In addition to lowering ticket prices, ISC is placing more emphasis on the fan experience at its tracks.

“Your favorite drivers are in every race—that sets our sport apart,” she says. “Our drivers are more accessible. There’s the overall experience of so many things that go on in the pre-race activities and building up to the event itself. The races are exciting all day long.”

More than ever, “I think it’s for everyone,” she says. “You just have to try it.”