CRANDALL: The man who saved NASCAR?

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CRANDALL: The man who saved NASCAR?

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CRANDALL: The man who saved NASCAR?

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Jim France is ordinary. Aside from his famous last name and the power he wields, France does not stand out in a crowd. The 75-year-old NASCAR Chairman and CEO can go largely unrecognized to the average fan, even when roaming through the infield of whichever facility NASCAR is visiting that weekend.

But just because France blends in, doesn’t mean he isn’t there. France is almost always there. He is always observing. In the 17 months France has led the way, that characteristic is what has come to be appreciated the most.

“Kind of the funny thing about it, you could be walking around and look, well, there’s Jim over between the haulers or over on pit road,” says Len Wood of Wood Brothers Racing. “He’s everywhere, and he’s not in disguise or anything; he’s just Jim. He’s visible, but he doesn’t stand out. Not flashy, by any means.

“Bill [France] Jr. had the sport coats and the shirts with the white collars and the white cuffs and the cufflinks; that’s not Jim, and I like that. He’s more down to earth. I’m not going to say he sneaks around, but it’s almost like you turn around, and there he stands.”

He’ll be there, likely in dark jeans or a polo. Maybe a pullover and some slacks.

France has been at the helm since August 2018 after his nephew, Brian France, stepped away following an arrest in Sag Harbor, New York. The 2019 season was Jim France’s first full year as Chairman and CEO, a move that has quietly gone from using the interim label to being permanent as the sport keeps going onward.

France has always operated from the shadows. He isn’t one to hold media addresses or seek the spotlight. Even in meetings, France takes a sit-and-listen approach before personally following up. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, says France may not be a rah-rah kind of guy, but he’s a great listener.

“One of our partners was telling a story about how it was Daytona at nighttime, and Jim is standing not where the main garage is, but kind of where the backmarker cars are parked. Just standing there, watching,” Wilson details. “Again, this at like 9 o’clock at night, and it’s pretty cool when somebody in that position is so engaged, and it may be understated.

“Let me put it this way. Without Jim at the helm right now, I think our sport would be in serious trouble. I think there are very real concerns that the sport has faced, and I think it was Jim and his leadership, and his acknowledgment that we do have some problems and we do need to act… his leadership has been paramount to getting us to where we are right now, and getting us to where we will be in another year. A couple of years ago, frankly, what we heard was a lot of rationalizing [that] it’s not that bad, we need to just change our messaging. They have come around, they have acknowledged that actually it is bad and we do need to act on this. So, again, it really has been critical.”

Joey Logano is one of many in the paddock who believe that NASCAR is benefiting from Jim France’s leadership style. Image by Jarrett/LAT

The more you ask about France, the more often you’re met with similar sentiments. Brad Keselowski of Team Penske prefaced his response by saying France is a ‘nice guy’ who listens, has a passion for the sport, and is present.

Joey Logano echoes much of what his Team Penske teammate says. Logano had the opportunity to spend time with France after winning the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship, which provided him a chance to sit down in a more intimate setting and have a conversation with France.

“Throughout the year, he’s very involved,” says Logano. “He is the listening type of leader, which is a good thing. A lot of the meetings, he kind of sits there and takes it all in, and then eventually he’ll say a few things that are very meaningful. He’s not full of words that don’t mean anything. He waits for it and makes sure when he speaks, it’s for real and is something that really guides everyone, and guides the conversation, and lets the conversation happen. That’s been great to have. I think he’s great for our sport [being] 100 percent honest with you. I would say probably anyone in this industry would agree with that at this point.”

Kevin Harvick offers a seemingly perfect summation of France’s leadership style.

“It’s obviously a much different leadership style than previous, and I think a lot of that is just being present,” says Harvick. “The thing that I have learned about Jim – I did not know Jim very well before he took charge – but the thing that I have learned about Jim is he’s a race fan in a big way. Loves racing. Been around this sport a long time, but not only around this sport, around racing in general, and is just consumed by everything racing and wants the sport to be what it was and is continuing to make changes and move forward. You’ve obviously seen those changes as we’ve seen things progress through the last year and a half. It’s been fun to see him and his enthusiasm at every racetrack.”

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