Column: France Emerges From Dad's Shadow

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 12:54 AM

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brian France walked through the FanZone at Daytona International Speedway without handlers or security. The NASCAR chairman seemed like just another face in the crowd.

Few recognized the sport's most influential man, who was back at the track after a month away following the June 4 death of his father, former chairman Bill France Jr. France hardly eased into his return. He charged back, spending much of last week making it very clear this is his sport now.

He defended NASCAR's strong new stance against cheating. He voiced his disapproval of suspended crew chiefs coming to the track during their punishment. His top competition officials _ the ones who told crew chiefs they could be on the grounds as long as they weren't in the garage _ were sent scrambling to close the loophole.

"We went to the proper people and asked them what the rules were and what they wanted us to do," said Tony Eury Jr., who attended five of six races during his suspension. "I just don't think he knew, to be honest. Brian didn't know what they were doing."

There's always been a perception that France spent his first three years as chairman ruling from afar, thus creating a disconnect from the day-to-day decisions of the family business. That he was ostensibly unaware of what was going on may have proved that has sometimes been the case, but once France saw the crew chiefs flaunting their at-track presence, he quickly corrected his oversight by cracking down.

Then he worked the garage at Saturday night's Pepsi 400, first joining Sprint chairman Tim Kelly at a news conference to announce a name change to NASCAR's top series, then introducing Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani to the industry.

France was firmly out front, finally free from the shadow of his late father.

France Jr. was tough to please, and every decision his son made was most certainly scrutinized. It made for awkward moments _ from his seat in the crowd, Bill grabbed a microphone to interrupt Brian's presentation during a 2003 news conference _ and probably hindered Brian's transition into the top job.

Now able to rule without restraint, France is clear to continue his quest to make NASCAR more corporate than country. Simply put, he wants the sport on the same playing field with the other major league sports.

This makeover requires France to trample on tradition, and that comes with the risk of alienating NASCAR's longtime fans. But in taking off the restrictor plate and shaking things up, France has the opportunity to raise his status and put himself in the same league as some of the top leaders in professional sports.

After all, his emphasis on cleaning up the sport by stomping out its culture of cheating is no different from what's going on in every other professional league.

David Stern put his stamp on the NBA by trying to clean up its thug image through a dress code and rules aimed at curbing fighting. Bud Selig is cracking down on cheating in baseball with a stringent steroid policy, and Roger Goodell has clamped down on the NFL with a discipline edict that has made character nearly as important as talent.

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