Aside from sunshine, beaches and orange juice, it would be difficult to identify a Florida original that could rival the international popularity of NASCAR racing. Founded in 1948, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has grown to become one of America’s most popular spectator sports, as well as a multi-billion dollar industry. In addition, few sports can point to one individual as its creator and visionary leader like NASCAR’s founder William “Big Bill” France, and one family as the keeper of a sport’s legacy like Daytona’s France family.
France Sr., a mechanic and auto-repair shop owner from Washington, D.C., moved to Daytona Beach in the mid-1930s and became involved with the racing community that congregated there to race primarily on Daytona’s beaches. France saw the potential for the sport and gathered other enthusiasts to form NASCAR, serving as its first president and playing a central role in shaping its development in the sport’s early decades. The Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, becoming the season opener of the NASCAR season and the sport’s marquee event.
In 1972, France’s son, William France Jr., took over the presidency of NASCAR from his father and drove the sport to a whole new level. During the next three decades, he was instrumental in transforming NASCAR from being popular primarily in the southeastern U.S. into a sport with a global fan base. France Jr. also led NASCAR into a new era of lucrative corporate sponsorships and billion dollar TV contracts. How many sports can boast a fan base of which 66 percent are willing to pay more to buy a sponsor’s product? Or where 36 percent of the 75 million fans could name every sponsor of the top 30 ranked cars? As Bill France Jr. once said, “A racecar is one of the largest billboards you can have.”
The other uniqueness that many don’t know about NASCAR is that 40 percent of their fans are women. In fact, those women purchase over a quarter of a billion dollars annually of NASCAR-licensed products. Of course, that is not the primary differentiator of NASCAR, among the pantheon of leaders in the sports world NASCAR’s third generation torchbearer for the France family is a woman, Lesa France Kennedy.
She was hailed as the “Most Powerful Woman in Sports” by Forbes in 2009, honored with the “Women Making History” award from the National Women’s History Museum in 2014, in addition to garnering “Most Influential Woman in Sports Business” and “Female Sports Executive of the Year” by Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal. Her influence is far reaching, as the races are now broadcast in some 180 nations and as Daytona Rising débuts at this year’s Daytona 500. A $400 million transformation of the iconic, almost 60 year old track, into what Speedway President Joie Chitwood calls a “Motorsports Stadium.”
Creating the Maximum Fan Experience
“Our family members have varied backgrounds with varied interests, but we all share the passion for what we are doing at NASCAR,” France-Kennedy observed. “Also the investment we have made and are making in our community reflects an approach my parents really paved the way for, to support what is best for this area.”
“The Daytona Rising project is the flagship race track for all of NASCAR,” she continued. “Therefore it was important, from the standpoint of the sport, to make this location the best track on the circuit, with all the modern amenities which will maximize the whole race day experience. What we’re doing here also reflects how we are changing with the times. My grandfather was right for his era, my father’s leadership was extremely critical in launching us onto the national stage that NASCAR now enjoys and my brother is incredibly strong on the television broadcast side and in marketing (Brian France is CEO and Chairman of NASCAR). Our challenge is positioning our sport within the larger sports world.
“My father realized NASCAR needed to be televised nationally; up to that time we were primarily a spectator sport,” she explained. “We still draw more spectators than any other sport and that has always been our hallmark, the race day fan experience. But the television platform took us to another level, and my brother has taken it to an entirely different level when he consolidated all the TV broadcast rights. That took my dad’s original concept and multiplied it, I can’t tell you how many fold.”
Today, NASCAR has three national series, as well as four regional series and two international series. The organization sanctions over 1,200 races at 100 tracks across North America. The International Raceway Corporation, which France-Kennedy serves as CEO of, owns 12 tracks, boasting memorable names like Darlington, Talladega and Watkins Glen, not to mention Daytona International Speedway.
“We look at what the fans want, which they are more than willing to tell you. I don’t think there is another sport where the fans can get as close as they can to the drivers and the cars with NASCAR. That is part of the tradition, that up close and personal connection.
“Daytona Rising is designed to appeal to our core fan base. With all the vertical transportation, escalators and elevators, they won’t have to carry their coolers 50 rows up. Again, that is a unique NASCAR fan experience, bringing your coolers to the track,” she added. There are in fact 40 escalators in the stadium, along with 14 elevators and five expanded and redesigned entrances which are called ‘Injectors.’ Each Injector is branded and designed by a major sponsor to take the retail and entry experience to a different level.
“It is also designed to attract a younger, more diverse audience. We will have 1,600 video screens throughout the facility, so the fans are always connected, and we’ve recreated social areas called ‘neighborhoods’ where fans can interact,” France-Kennedy said. “The whole hospitality experience that is currently outside the track, will move up within the structure. The merchandizing we have seen is remarkable. NASCAR probably has more technology involved in the actual fan experience than any other sport. If someone comes to a race, it is likely they will want to come back.”
The Connection & Commitment To Community
The sense of connection and commitment to the local area was a subject France-Kennedy continually pointed back to. “My father had the attitude that all the stakeholders who were involved in the race experience needed to be successful, the fans, the sponsors and the driving teams. But he always balanced that industry motivation with his commitment to the community. That is something that we have replicated at each track throughout the country. The tracks have to work closely with the community, so that they also have a winning experience. The economic impact on the areas where we operate is significant. The Daytona Rising project will add 6,300 new jobs to this community. The influence we have here can be replicated, in its own unique way, in the other areas where we have operations.”
Both the Kansas and the Chicagoland Speedway, which opened in 2001, were the first racetracks France-Kennedy was involved in building and had the overwhelming support from the community, who saw and embraced the economic impact. “They virtually sold the idea for us,” she said. “In Kansas we were in the middle of nowhere, I mean nowhere. They took me out to see the sight, on a cold day in January, and it was just a giant hole in the ground. Today there is development all around the speedway.”
There are events that take place at the Daytona speedway almost weekly, not only various motor sport events like Coke Zero 400, the motorcycle races during Bike Week or the Rolex 24 which people come from all over the world to attend. Next Memorial Day weekend they will host what they believe will be the largest country music festival on the East Coast. “We thought about things like that in the past, but when we redesigned the facility we started with a blank sheet of paper and now we can host these types of events. We have tours every day, over 300 days a year there is something going on. There are nine million visitors to Daytona a year, no one can tell what that could grow to as things develop.”
Joie Chitwood, the president of the Daytona International Speedway summed up France-Kennedy’s contribution, “Lesa’s passion for both International Speedway Corporation and NASCAR is unrivaled. Her vision to reimagine the Daytona International Speedway is similar to when ‘Big Bill’ France, her grandfather, created the property in 1959. Her commitment to the fans with the creation of the world’s first and only motorsports stadium is a significant moment in the history of our sport.”
NASCAR by the Numbers
- Annual NASCAR revenue: $3.1 billion
- Average NASCAR ticket price: $92.16
- Number of NASCAR fans: 75 million
- Average NASCAR race attendance: 99,853
- Total annual NASCAR attendance: 3.6 million
- Number of households that watch the Daytona 500: 12.5 million
- Annual worth of NASCAR television contract: $560 million
- Percent of NASCAR fans who are women: 40 percent
- Annual amount spent by women on NASCAR-licensed products: $250 million
- Percent of NASCAR fans who are minorities: 21 percent
- Percent of kids age 7 to 17 that reported being NASCAR fans: 50 percent
- Percent of fans who are willing to pay more to buy a sponsor’s product: 66 percent
- Average annual amount a sponsor invest in a racing team: $15 million
- Percent of NASCAR fans who could name every sponsor of the top 30 ranked cars: 36 percent
INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY CORPORATION RACE TRACKS:
- Daytona International Speedway in Florida
- Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama
- Michigan International Speedway located outside Detroit
- Richmond International Raceway in Virginia
- Auto Club Speedway of Southern California, near Los Angeles
- Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas
- Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona
- Chicagoland Speedway near Chicago, Illinois
- Route 66 Raceway, near Chicago, Illinois
- Homestead-Miami Speedway, in Florida
- Martinsville Speedway in Virginia
- Darlington Raceway in South Carolina
- Watkins Glen International in New York