Given the restrictions in place a year ago, we’ll consider this coming week the real kick-the-tires moment for Daytona’s new Speedweek. Yes, Week.
Six Days, actually, unless you count Monday night’s kickoff event at One Daytona. Go ahead and count it: Speedweek it is!
Well, OK, unless you want to pitch in January’s Rolex 24 happenings, as well as March’s Cycle Week action, and call the whole shooting match Speedweeks, as we had done since the days Richard Petty was wearing short pants.
After a year and a half of adapting, sometimes scheduling on the fly, adjusting and readjusting how a NASCAR weekend unfolds, the sport’s overlords have put down the markers and set things up just the way they want.
NASCAR 2022 season could be a shift
We appear to be in the midst of NASCAR’s third generational shift, and just as the first two brought monumental maneuvering, this current changing of “the way things are done” is climbing through the gears and promising more lane changes ahead.
Big Bill France, with some help and cooperation, cobbled together a stock-car racing league in the late 1940s and, over time, gave it consistency and organization. After 20-some years, he handed off to Bill Jr. whose early years coincided with the arrival of the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, which birthed the Winston Cup but ushered in a bold new era of promotional might.
If Big Bill took NASCAR from dirt roads to pavement, Bill Jr. took it to the interstates and superhighways. In his final decade in charge, Bill Jr. had an additional marketing advantage — the Dale Earnhardt-Jeff Gordon rivalry. Bill Jr.’s final grand move was the first-ever wall-to-wall network television deal, which began in 2001.
NASCAR was rapidly growing, Bill Jr. knew it, and he used his growing leverage to land the first multi-billion-dollar TV contract.
“We’re not gonna stick our heads in the sand and keep getting our ass kicked,” he once said.
Brian France and the third generation of France family leadership began in 2003 and he brought his own idea of change. It centered on finally putting NASCAR in the upper rungs of national sport, which meant taking the product to the major metropolitan centers.
The results were mixed, but along the way Brian oversaw updated network contracts that kept growing in value.
Brian’s unseemly departure in 2018 led to Jim France stepping in to regain some grip and keep things between the walls and pointed forward. Jim, Brian’s uncle and Bill Jr.’s younger brother, remains CEO of NASCAR today, while niece Lesa France Kennedy (Bill Jr.’s daughter) is executive vice chair.
The overall perception: Though the strong tailwinds of the late-’90s and early-2000s may never return, the rudder is steady and the sails are providing forward momentum.
Since 2018, Steve Phelps has been president of NASCAR and in charge of the shop’s daily goings-on. However, we currently appear to be moving into the next generational transition of NASCAR leadership. The unofficial announcement wasn’t an announcement at all, but it sure had the feel of something worth noting.
Last week’s debut of the L.A. Coliseum as a NASCAR stage was choreographed by Ben Kennedy, Lesa’s son and the fourth generation with a corner office. Ben parked his own racing career a few years ago to put on a blazer — for now his title is Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation.
He’s been a big player in the recent revamping of the schedule, but the Coliseum was a major gamble. It’s been labeled a big success, and along with other promised maneuvers ahead, it has Ben getting more and more out front.
We’ll see how the coming week rolls out, but don’t be surprised if Ben Kennedy’s stride continues to lengthen. His reputation, from the garages to the executive suite to the employee break room, is a good one.
Next Gen cars put Daytona 500 in spotlight
Chances are, however, the executive getting the most spotlight this week will be Steve O’Donnell, who runs the racing operation — Chief Racing Development Officer is the official tag. With laser focus on the new Next Gen race cars, any issues will have everyone looking to him for an explanation.
In the end, as always, it’ll all culminate in the final half-hour of the Daytona 500, which always, without fail, builds and builds to crescendo like a growling Bolero.
Shortly thereafter, the haulers are packed and they’re off to the next town, then the next, and except for a driver whose professional life might’ve forever changed next Sunday, it’s all forgotten.
— Reach Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: With Daytona 500 near, is NASCAR changing lanes again?