Board Of Frances Still In Charge

Bill France may be stepping down as the day-to-day president of the stock-car sanctioning body founded by his father, but don’t for one second believe the France family is getting out of the sport.

More to the point, the France family isn't ceding control of the sport to anyone other than the France family.

That said, Tuesday's decision to name Mike Helton president of NASCAR - and effectively replacing France - was a significant and bold step for the company.

Done just a week before the NASCAR crowd descends on New York for the annual festivities surrounding the Winston Cup banquet, the management shift sends a signal, albeit a small one, that NASCAR is taking another step away from its mom-and-pop roots and into the corporate world.

Oh sure, the sport has a whiz-bang $2.4 billion television deal, generates about $1 billion in the sale of licensed products each year, and makes countless millions more through a variety of sources, yet at the very heart of NASCAR is a family-run business no different than the local deli… just bigger. Call it Bill's Corner Store, if you will.

And as long as Bill is still behind the counter, the store is considered the neighborhood stop, willing to create accounts for the locals who will pay their tabs at month's end.

The only way for such an operation to get away from that thinking is to take Bill out from behind the counter and let someone else call the shots.

For NASCAR, that someone is Helton, an extremely capable executive who has been able to successfully keep NASCAR on track - during an often stressful period marred by the deaths of three young drivers - while France has battled cancer.

France says his still undisclosed form of cancer is in remission, though admits it was during this time that he realized NASCAR needed a succession plan.

"It was time," France, 67, said Tuesday during the announcement of the changes. "Obviously, the health problems I had last year maybe woke people up, maybe we needed to be better prepared."

Surely, it's terribly sad that the changes come after a time when France has been in a fight with cancer. His presence has been absent from the sport.

He'd often been referred to as a benevolent dictator, as had his father who founded NASCAR in 1948. But since revealing he had cancer in 1999, he's been mostly away, leaving fans and the media to wonder how he was doing, and what, if any changes were ahead in his absence.

Drivers and team owners were rightly concerned, as France was not only their ruler, but a real friend.

True, some of those questions about France were answered on Tuesday, with the announcement of Helton as president and France becoming chairman of a five-member board of directors, consisting of his son Brian, daughter Lesa France Kennedy, brother Jim France and Helton.

As most know by now, Helton's rise now marks the first time in the 52-year history of the sport that a France hasn't run the day-to-day operations of NASCAR.

Certainly, one can assume that the France-controlled board of directors will have the final say on all matters. And France made that clear in announcing the changes.

Yet, by naming Helton his replacement, rather than tapping a sibling or kid, sends a much larger signal out to each person working at NASCAR. A signal that people can rise from within to hold the top spot at the sanctioning body.

In a sense, it tells each of the nearly 400 people working there that they could too someday run Bill's Corner Store.

It could have been so easy to slip Brian or Jim into the president's role. Heck, nine out of 10 people with any connection to the sport would have expected it. It takes guts to name someone outside the family to such a plum spot.

That’s not an insignificant factor. Employees who believe they might have a chance at the big chair are much more loyal and dedicated than those who know they'll never have a shot at getting the top job.

Likewise, such a move sends word to the corporate community that Helton is the man in charge, rather than someone holding the seat until France returned from his recuperation.

"It's a progression of the so-called one-man czar to a more corporate structure," France said. "We're going to be careful that it doesn't bog us
down from a bureaucratic standpoint."

Companies in today's business world need sure leadership, and by naming Helton to the top job, NASCAR told the world that the sport was OK, no matter what was happening to Bill France behind the scenes.

The new set up also gives France an exit strategy. The hardest part for any leader is understanding when to leave - when to retire - and then answering the questions about who will take over.

This new deal gives France a way to step back, graciously.

Hopefully, of course, the change will take some pressure off France so he'll be able to sit and enjoy some of the fruits of his labor. To that end, he'll have time to lick cancer and the side effects he's had to deal with.

He deserves it. Under his tenure, the sport has gone from a Sunday afternoon afterthought into one of the hottest properties on the planet.

Now it's up to Helton to keep the fire burning - while answering to the Board of Frances..

If you have questions, comments or ideas you'd like to send to Richard Huff, you may do so at RichMHuff@cs.com

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