Chris Isidore Commentary:
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NASCAR shifts into a higher gear

The popular sport's CEO discusses the race car of tomorrow, a need for a more diverse group of drivers and desire to expand into new markets.

A weekly column by Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- It seems obvious to say this, but NASCAR did not become as successful as it is by standing still.

Brian France, CEO of the sport, knows this as well as anyone.

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In his first days in the job he took over from his father in October 2003, he implemented a 10-race, 10-driver playoff system, known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup, over the objections of many longtime fans. But he eventually won over most of his critics.

He says it's important for the sport to innovate and evolve, but he also knows all too well how difficult that can be.

"Nowhere is change viewed more adversely than sports," he told Fortune magazine's Innovation Forum this week in New York. (Fortune is published by Time Warner, which also owns

"The time to make changes in my view is when you don't have to. If you've got a situation where you have to change, that's a much tougher environment. You get more momentum when you don't have to change," he said.

France isn't of the opinion that the sport has to change, even though its ratings on GE's (Charts) NBC and News Corp (Charts).-owned Fox fell this year for the first time in three years.

Ratings for NASCAR are second only to the National Football League in the world of sports, and France said he's not too worried about this year's slip.

"Ratings are going to be up and down in any given month or even a year," he told me before the forum. "Everyone is chasing the 20 percent of the population that is the casual sports fan."

France talks frequently about going after casual fans by trying to get better coverage for the sport in various markets around the country, not just the traditional racing hotbeds in the South.

He made a big push in New York this week, bring NASCAR cars to Times Square and the sport's annual awards program to the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

He also is pushing hard to open a track on New York City's Staten Island, rather than on less expensive land outside the city, even though a track in the suburbs would be as easily accessible to the region's NASCAR fans as the proposed Staten Island site.

"We don't think in this market that would capture metro New York correctly," he said when I asked him about a location outside the city. "We already have tracks nearby. Pocono is 100 miles away. We want to get something in one of the five boroughs."

Better coverage between race days is also one of the reasons he's pleased that the sport is going back to Walt Disney (Charts)-owned ESPN starting next season.

"They are by far the leader in sports. It was definitely not in our best interest, but we didn't have a choice," he said when I asked if NASCAR had been hurt by moving away from ESPN when it signed its lucrative deals with NBC and Fox and their cable partners starting with the 2001 season. "It got into economics. They saw the value differently. It was disappointing."

During the six seasons the sport has been on NBC and Fox, it's changed a lot.

Besides introducing the chase, NASCAR replaced cigarette brand Winston with cell phone provider Sprint Nextel (Charts) as its primary sponsor. And Sprint Nextel has helped bring more technology to the sport, including hand-held devices that let fans at the track watch the view inside the cars and get real-time statistics.

And France said the majority of fans will be viewing races very differently five years from now. "We think that was one of the big benefits we had when we chose Sprint Nextel," he said. "They have a lot of technology that is here and more coming."

Fans will also be watching very different race cars, as well as a very different group of drivers in the future.

Next year NASCAR will start introducing what it calls the "Car of the Future." Despite what a nonfan might think, the new technology isn't about going faster - in fact increased drag might leave it a little slow.

But besides some safety innovations, the new cars will also allow NASCAR teams to use fewer cars a season. That will allow less well funded teams a greater opportunity to complete.

In addition, some changes in aerodynamics could make it easier for cars trailing in a race to move up in traffic. Once again, France is making the change in the face of resistance.

"The drivers who are winning today aren't interested in any changes for the car," he told the Fortune forum. "Whatever we do on that area, we'll always have some people say 'I like the old car better.' "

Next year will also see Toyota (Charts) start to provide cars to NASCAR for the first time, the first Asian automaker to do so. France acknowledged that the sport did a lot of studies of fan reaction before deciding to go ahead with the move but said he's confident the Japanese automaker will be well accepted by the traditional NASCAR fan.

And he's also hopeful about efforts to get a more diverse group of drivers into NASCAR. Formula 1 veteran and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya joins the circuit next season, and the sport is working on programs to help black, Hispanic and female drivers get a shot at racing at the sport's top levels.

"We're fielding race teams, giving young people, minorities and others, who would never have the opportunity, the chance to showcase their skills," he said about a program known as the sport's "Drive for Diversity," which helps minority and women drivers at the sport's lowest levels, its regional local tracks.

"Hopefully they'll respond and move up through our system," he said "You just don't land in the Daytona 500. We're getting some young talent, African- American and Hispanic drivers that I think are going to make a breakthrough. That's our goal."

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