Danica Patrick displays the flag after winning the pole during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Patrick became the first woman to secure the top spot for any Sprint Cup race.
Danica Patrick wins the pole during qualifying for the Nascar Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race on February 17

Brian France has a lot riding on Florida’s weather staying fine on Sunday. The chairman of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing hopes that a young star driver and a new generation of cars on show at this weekend’s Daytona 500 race will end a run of disappointing ratings, falling ticket sales and patchy sponsorship for the sport better known as Nascar.

A year ago, rain postponed the season opener for the first time in its 53-year history. Aired on a Monday, its television audience fell from 15.6m to 13.7m, far behind the 19.4m the race had attracted as recently as 2006. This year, though, the forecast is fine, and buzz is building after Danica Patrick, a former IndyCar driver, became the first woman to secure pole position for the Daytona 500.

The weak US economy has been as unkind to Nascar as the elements, with cash-strapped consumers staying away from tracks. The Charlotte Observer calculated that ticket revenues at Nascar’s three largest track owners fell 38 per cent in the five years to 2012. Worries about a shrinking and ageing fan base have also affected sponsors.

“It’s been choppy,” admits Mr France, the grandson of William “Big Bill” France, founder of Nascar. He took over the family-owned private company in 2003 and now commands a sport with estimated annual revenues of $3bn.

Some large sponsors have cut back, he admits, but Sprint has extended its deal until 2016 and 114 Fortune 500 companies now back Nascar, more than in 2008. With tracks reversing past price rises, the sport is “coming through that difficult time a lot of people have been facing”, Mr France says.

The former racetrack manager has changed Nascar’s rules in the past to enhance the suspense. The new Generation 6 cars are his latest effort to encourage tighter races around Daytona’s banked turns. They are based on standard models such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, but with new features such as wider bumpers and lighter, more aerodynamic bodies that Mr France hopes will encourage “close competition and lots of passing”.

Their first big test at Daytona could influence Nascar’s biggest revenue stream as some of its largest TV rights deals are up for negotiation. In October, Fox paid $2.4bn, 33 per cent a year more than in its previous deal, to show the first 13 races of the season until 2022.

Mr France hopes to extend Nascar’s agreements with Walt Disney’s ESPN and Time Warner’s Turner by late summer. “We know the sports landscape is very favourable to premium sports producers and we’ll be pricing for that,” he says.

Nascar, which passes 90 per cent of TV revenues to tracks and teams, is not alone in securing rising prices for its rights, but some leagues have secured bigger increases. Mr France says he is confident that rights inflation will continue “for the foreseeable future” as competition intensifies among networks for events that deliver large live audiences to advertisers.

Mr France will not be selling Nascar’s digital rights, however, having decided that their strategic value exceeded their commercial value and taken them back from broadcasters. With a new Nascar.com, relaunched in January, it will be easier to co-ordinate sponsors’ campaigns across all outlets, he says.

For now, “digital is not meaningful yet on the revenue side”, he says. However, engaging fans online could be crucial to address concerns that younger audiences are losing interest.

To that end, Mr France has opened a “fan and media engagement centre” in Charlotte, North Carolina, that monitors online and traditional media to understand how fans react to races.

Ms Patrick, with more than 700,000 Twitter followers, may help generate social media chatter as well as draw female TV audiences. Nascar is also courting the Hispanic demographic. This season, 15 races will be shown on the Spanish-language network Fox Deportes, with information on Nascar’s history and rules for viewers who may not be familiar with the sport.

“It’s part of a continued effort for us to get a more diverse fan base,” notes Mr France, who will also launch a new ad campaign for Nascar during the Daytona 500.

For now, that fan base remains heavily domestic, despite events in Montreal, Mexico City and beyond. Further afield, “we have opportunities. We just want to do this carefully and with people on the ground,” he says.

Mr France has four young children to continue the family business. Will they one day take over from their father as he did? “If they want to work hard and earn things, yes,” he says. “There are no trust funds on my side of the family.”

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