Monday, March 18, 2013

NASCAR's Most Powerful

Two of NASCAR's most powerful: Mike Helton and Rick
Hendrick.  Other guy is not on the list.
Sports Illustrated Magazine recently released its list of the 50 most powerful sports figures.  Brian France was 40th, behind the commissioner of every other major sport and several college conferences, half a dozen team owners, shoe company heads, several agents, multiple sponsors and the head of EA Sports – but ahead (by one position) of the two women who run sports marketing for Coca-Cola.  He was also well behind the only other racing related name on the list, Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, who was 22nd.

Even though Brian might be the guy heading the family that owns NASCAR and has a controlling interest in International Speedway Corporation (ISC), he’s not the most powerful person in NASCAR’s day-to-day operation.  Here’s my list of the most powerful people in NASCAR:

Mike Helton:  One of the last things Bill France, Jr., did – and one of the smartest things he ever did – was to name Helton president in 2000.  Through all of the sports troubles in recent years, Helton remains one of the most respected people in the garage area – if not the most respected person.  He understands both the competition and marketing sides of the sport.  You’ve got to wonder how NASCAR would be different if he was given complete freedom to run it.

The Frances:  Helton doesn’t have that freedom because the France family still owns the sport.  Brian is Chairman and CEO but at times seems detached.  Recent run-ins with Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin indicate as much.  At other times he seems more interested in bringing a NFL team to Los Angeles than he does with running NASCAR.  He’s also been busy with a high-profile divorce case and then trying to keep settlement records sealed.  Many think Brian’s sister, Lisa Kennedy France, CEO and vice chairman of ISC and vice chairman of NASCAR, is the real power (brains?) in the family.  Forbes named her the most powerful women in all of sports in 2009.  Jim France, the son of Bill France and brother of Bill Jr., is vice chairman and executive vice president of NASCAR and ISC chairman of the board, although he does not appear to be active in the day-to-day operations. 

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations.  Perhaps the most powerful person in NASCAR most people don’t know.  The first rule of crisis management is when it hits the fan, trot out your top guy to talk to the press.  But in the hours following the Nationwide crash at Daytona, it wasn’t Helton or a France out front, it was O’Donnell.  He didn’t (couldn’t?) say anything, but he was the guy in the chair. A NASCAR employee since 1996, O’Donnell has been rising through the ranks and may be in line to move into Helton’s role.

Robin Pemberton.  Next to Helton, who he reports to, no one is more visible publicly than Robin Pemberton.  He’s the vice president of competition and is the liaison between NASCAR and competitors in all three national series.  He also heads up the three arms of the NASCAR Research and Development Center – safety, competition and cost management.  Pemberton is racer, having worked as a crew chief for the likes of Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Kyle Petty.

Bruton Smith:  Controls Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns Charlotte, Bristol, Atlanta, Sonoma, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Texas tracks, Smith has long had a tenuous relationship with NASCAR’s leaders.  While the 85-year-old Smith has turned much of the day-to-day operation over to his kids, he remains very active.  Perhaps too active.  It was his suggestion last year to have commercial yellow flags or “time outs” to spice up the action.  Ironically, Smith also has been in news recently, saying he’d be interested in owning the NFL Charlotte Panthers football team.  He also owns Sonic Automotive, one of the largest auto dealership groups in the country and, like France, he has a net worth well north of $1 billion.

The owners:  When you talk about the most powerful car owners, there’s Rick Hendrick and all the rest.  Another big car dealer with more than 100 franchises, Hendrick has direct lines to both GM headquarters in Detroit and NASCAR’s HQ in Daytona Beach.  Jack Roush, as the lead Ford team, still probably ranks second, although his power has slipped in recent years.  And Joe Gibbs is third by default, as Toyota’s lead team, although he has never sought to be a NASCAR powerhouse.  After all these years Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are still seen as interlopers from open wheel racing and as long as they attend the IndyCar race on Sunday instead of a NASCAR race, they will remain that way.

The drivers:  Drivers are in a tough place.  Speak out (or just state the obvious) and your wallet could end up lighter.  As a result, drivers don’t have a lot of say – or power.  Jeff Burton used to be called the mayor of the garage, but his power has waned along with his performance on the track.  That leaves Jeff Gordon on top, followed by Tony Stewart, who gets a boost in his joint role as a team owner.  Both have spoken out at times, then retreated into their shells when NASCAR brings the heat.  The mantel is there for anyone who steps forward and I’m really hoping Brad Keselowski does.  NASCAR called him in and warned him after his comments to USA Today about the challenges the sport is facing, but he was dead-on.  While he doesn’t yet rank with Gordon or Stewart and probably half a dozen other drivers, he is the future of NASCAR and as such, may become the most powerful of them all.

The weekend’s races:  Thought the Cup race at Bristol was pretty good, the Nationwide race even better.  In an attempt to step up its game, Fox tried a few new things in its coverage, some of which worked, some of which didn’t.  Michael Waltrip wandering around driver introductions conducting interviews – not so much.  The grandstands were only two-thirds full on Sunday, however…The transitional year to a united sports car racing series could be a long one.  I’d been looking forward to Sebring, but not much drama or excitement there…The F1 race from Australia delivered with a good blend of racing and strategy.  It had the most passes for the lead in the race since 1971 and for any F1 race since 2010, although the passes were the result of pit stops.  Red Bull was outsmarted and outrun by Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus, which bodes well for the season.  Of course things started the same way last year… 




  1. What I got out of this article is Brian & Bruton should step aside, most would agree on those points.

    Please write about the lucrative TV contracts while ratings are dropping. In my opinion, Brian & Bruton just got richer while prize money will only slightly increase (small percentage of overall team income). Sponsors do look at ratings, and teams are going to have even a harder time in the future.

    From what I see, the Danica honeymoon only lasted through Daytona. The last 3 races, ratings have dropped last year.

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