Bringing NASCAR Into Prime Time

Today 75 million Americans call themselves NASCAR fans, but I was fortunate to grow up in the sport. My grandfather William H.G. (Big Bill) France organized NASCAR in 1948, and my father, Bill France Jr., ran the sport from 1972 to 2003. So when I was a kid, I spent a lot of weekends at racetracks watching drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson and Buddy Baker race side by side.

Back then, fans had a difficult time enjoying races from the comfort of their living rooms. NASCAR races were broadcast on television only regionally, usually on tape delay, and often high up on the cable dial. About a decade ago, when I was in charge of NASCAR's marketing, I set out to change that—and it became both a turning point in my career and an important moment in NASCAR's evolution.

My grandfather had launched a nationwide network of NASCAR radio broadcasts in 1970, but our television broadcasts weren't as centralized. NASCAR has always owned its media rights, but up until 2001 each track was permitted to negotiate its own broadcast deal for its races. As a result, there was little rhyme or reason as to which channel or at what time fans could tune in to our races—which, depending on the race, might be broadcast on ABC, CBS, ESPN, The Nashville Network, TBS, Jefferson Pilot or the Mizlou Television Network. These deals were lucrative for track owners, but I knew that if we consolidated the broadcasts to make it easier for fans to watch races, we could vastly improve the sport.

This project wouldn't be easy. First I had to convince my father, NASCAR's chairman. He's always said that for NASCAR to be successful, everyone has to win, and after I explained the merits of creating a national broadcast partnership, he understood the concept and liked it. But he was also realistic: negotiating a deal like this would require guile, diplomacy and genuine toughness.

At the time, there were 20 track operators who ran our 33 premier events. With a team of colleagues, I set out to meet with each of them and lay out our vision for a new television strategy. We assured the tracks that a consolidated television package was not only better for them, but for the entire industry. Under our proposal, the tracks would receive 65 percent of the television revenue, the teams and drivers would receive 25 percent, and NASCAR would receive 10 percent—but the revenue pool would be much larger.

Every major network expressed interest in buying the rights to broadcast NASCAR. Each presented compelling proposals that included schedule boards and promotion plans. As our team prepared to choose among them, I asked the competing networks to come to New York to make their final offers.

The night before the final meetings, my team heard that Fox had decided not to attend. This wasn't good news—it could affect our entire negotiating strategy. I assembled my team to discuss our options. Fox had a very strong proposal for how to promote NASCAR, and we all wanted them at the table. However, we also realized that we couldn't suspend the entire process just for them. Fortunately, the next morning the Fox team showed up in our office—it appears the rumors about their pulling out were just a negotiating ploy. Regardless, I'm glad we all stayed in the game. We ended up signing a deal to air NASCAR races on Fox, NBC, FX and TNT, starting in 2001.

Overnight, our new television lineup changed the sport. We instantly reached a broader audience. NASCAR went from a haphazard schedule of mostly cable broadcasts to a coordinated schedule that airs primarily on broadcast television. This TV deal was the biggest accomplishment of my career—and it was a factor when, in 2004, NASCAR's board entrusted me to take over as chairman and CEO. We recently renegotiated the television package, which now includes FOX, Turner and ABC/ESPN. Today the television production is stronger than ever and NASCAR continues to be the second-most-popular regular-season sport on network and cable television.

Looking back on the process, I remember it being an exhausting whirlwind, but it was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life—and one that improved NASCAR forever.