Brian France had just helped his family present a humanitarian award in honor of his late mother at a glitzy Las Vegas affair when his night went awry.
The NASCAR chairman followed his wife toward the stairs at the front of the stage so the couple could rejoin their table in the audience at last year’s award ceremony. As they descended into the crowd, France clipped the back of his wife’s gown and both tumbled to the carpet. At least one championship driver was among the attendees at the first row of tables who rushed to help Amy France to her feet.
Brian France’s second gaffe came later that November night when he awkwardly presented Martin Truex Jr. with his championship ring. Well, France didn’t really present it, rather he tossed the box — the way you might pass your buddy the remote — toward a befuddled Truex. As France quickly exited the stage, Truex was unable to mask his amusement.
On Monday, France took an immediate leave of absence as chairman and CEO of NASCAR following charges of driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of oxycodone. On Sunday night, maybe two hours after future superstar Chase Elliott scored his first career Cup victory with a win on a road course in upstate New York, the leader of NASCAR was pulled over in the tony Hamptons section of New York’s Long Island.
Police said France blew through a stop sign, had a blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit, smelled of booze and slurred his words during his arrest in Sag Harbor. France was also in illegal possession of oxycodone, they said.
He spent the night in jail and announced his leave from NASCAR about eight hours later.
The charges are serious enough that privately owned NASCAR, which has a board but is essentially run by Brian France, his sister and his uncle, had to take some sort of action. NASCAR is in a free fall in ratings and attendance, and it is in serious search of deep-pocketed sponsors. France has done almost nothing publicly, has been practically invisible since that night at last year’s awards ceremony and has yet to directly address reports the family is interested in selling at least a portion of NASCAR.
Now he’s on indefinite leave to “focus on my personal affairs,” as he stated in a two-sentence statement. NASCAR, also using only two sentences, acknowledged that Brian France had taken a leave and stated that Jim France, his uncle, and the vice chairman and executive vice president, was assuming the roles.
So what happens next? Nobody knows. Brian France has been so inapproachable the last several years, few even know what he does. He’s in charge of day-to-day NASCAR, but he’s got a layer of frontmen putting out all the fires and answering all the critics. It’s been confusing to watch because Brian France, the one who should be leading the cavalry, has been conspicuously absent.
He has personal issues, like so many others, that he acknowledges he must address. He’s also got a professional issue he needs to answer:
Does Brian France even want anything to do with NASCAR?
Did he ever?
He’s a third generation leader of NASCAR and never really had a choice but to take that role. His grandfather started NASCAR, his father led its growth and transition into the mainstream, and then came Brian. Really, what else was he going to do?
It couldn’t have been easy growing up a France, a dynasty of dictators who were unwavering in negotiations, and Bill France Jr. certainly demanded excellence from his only son. Bill France Jr. was in failing health when he turned the business over to Brian in 2003, but after 31 years in charge, he couldn’t help but question his son’s every move. France Jr. was seated in the crowd at a news conference when he grew so irritated with Brian’s presentation that he grabbed a microphone to give his own explanation.
That can’t be a fun way to transition into an important job. Right away the differences between father and son hindered the changing of the guard. Brian France’s leadership style could not be more different from that of his late father; he’s distant and appears disconnected. He never sits in front of the NASCAR hauler chatting with anyone who comes by, and he has very few social relationships in the industry.
He’s been awkward and aloof since the day he got the job. But for so long, all that was accepted as France’s inability to climb out from his father’s shadow. Along the way he’s made news for a variety of non-racing reasons: a nasty divorce, a custody battle, a 2006 incident in which he crashed into a tree but wasn’t charged, his banning of the Confederate Flag at racetracks, his public endorsement of President Donald Trump at a rally he attended with active and retired drivers.
France also initiated NASCAR’s substance-abuse policy, which offers a “Road to Recovery” to any member that fails a random test. He waged a lengthy and expensive battle against driver Jeremy Mayfield, the first to fail under the policy, in an attempt to force Mayfield to follow the path back to competition. Mayfield has not raced in NASCAR since 2009. It’s only fair that France be held to the same standards as Mayfield and be a standard for NASCAR and the France family.
But, moving forward, France must ask himself if he really wants to be the face of NASCAR anymore.
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