This past Friday, prior to the Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski tweeted that he had been called into a meeting with NASCAR Chairman Brian France, and International Speedway Corp. President, Leesa France-Kennedy.
Said meeting, which Keselowski did not detail, was reportedly called in response to Keselowski's recent comments to the USA Today. In the interview, Keselowski spoke out on a number of topics, from Daytona 500 pole sitter Danica Patrick, saying "I don't think, 'Oh, there's that girl.' I think, 'Oh, there's that 30th place driver.'" to saying that "this sport isn't living up to its potential" when it comes to attracting a younger audience. He also added "I might not be that guy, but that doesn't mean I can't step up to the plate and try to swing the bat."
Keselowski went on in the article to talk about a range of topics, from how all tracks should have Wi-Fi, praising the Gen 6 as "a big step forward" to improving competition, and how NASCAR should make the sport more affordable for the fans. The same comments that fans on social media have been making for a while now.
These comments, among others, are apparently what got the 2012 title winner into hot water with the sanctioning body.
This isn't the first time Keselowski has been punished by NASCAR for speaking his mind. He was fined $25,000 in 2011 for making critical comments on the sport moving toward fuel injection, calling it a "media circus" that gave NASCAR "something to promote." Last season, Keselowski was fined after tweeting during the AdvoCare 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway, despite having tweeted twice before: infamously during the Daytona 500 and again from Victory Lane after winning in Bristol earlier in the year.
NASCAR would have every right to be upset with Keselowski if drivers and fans had faith that the sanctioning body were working to fix these problems, which they don't. They'd also have the right to be upset if the sanctioning body were actively creating an atmosphere where drivers could come to the Frances and express their thoughts on the sport.
But Brian France isn't doing that. Since taking over for his father, Bill France, Jr. in 2003, the younger France has created a stuffy, uninviting, suffocating environment for the sports' drivers. With secret fines, punishments for drivers speaking their mind, and a lack of openness with the media, France's action are those of someone sucking energy and life from this sport, not finding ways to re-energizing it.
Keselowski mentioned in the interview with the USA Today that he wished more drivers would be more outspoken. That "it's everybody's responsibility to carry the sport, whether they're a champion or not."
Maybe if more drivers were to speak their minds about the sport to the media or via Twitter, it would make Brian France realize that he is the one in the wrong. That he is the one who needs to change- that the system needs to change- to make this sport better. That the atmosphere he has created the past decade that he's been at the helm is what is holding this sport back.
There will always be outspoken drivers. Nothing will ever be so perfect that drivers, owners, officials or fans will not complain. But NASCAR is at a crossroads. Races are too expensive. Drivers and fans alike aren't happy overall with the product. New fans aren't being created like they need to be for the sport to survive.
Not all of this is entirely NASCAR or Brian France's fault. Keselowski even said so in the interview. The economy, the sponsors, the TV commitments, the personnel involved all contribute to the functioning of the sport.
This does not, however, give France an excuse to stand by and do nothing to fix whatever he possibly can; to do whatever he conceivably can to improve the sport. Almost just as important is that we the fans see that France is making an effort. No more sporadic and unemotional press conferences. Make yourself more visible and accessible to the sport you run. Then turn around and start doing more to make said sport more visible and accessible to potential new fans. Do more. Show your fans that you are doing more.
Keselowski praised the new Gen 6 car and mentioned that NASCAR was doing a good job with cross promotion, though added that he felt more could be done. This interview wasn't an all out attack on the sport- it was a critique done by the reigning champion, something Brian France would do well to listen to.
Thanks to the USA Today, ESPN and NASCAR.com for the information, statistics and quotes used in this piece.