Arrest should signal the beginning of the end for NASCAR chairman Brian France

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested Sunday night for driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance, and then announced Monday he was taking an indefinite leave from his position.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested Sunday night for driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance, and then announced Monday he was taking an indefinite leave from his position. AP

There was so much joy. Warranted, long-awaited, desperately-needed joy.

And then, too soon, it was gone. Or rather, stripped.

Sunday night, NASCAR superstar-in-the-making Chase Elliott won his first career Cup Series race. It took him 99 tries and eight arduous runner-up finishes before finally taking a checkered flag of his own. And with his Hall of Fame father, Bill, the sport’s only 16-time Most Popular Driver, in the wings, the NASCAR community collectively celebrated the passing of the torch.

Hours later, it lamented a different passing.

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Not half a day later, NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France ran a stop sign in the Hamptons. Cops pulled him over. Then — and this is all according to the police report — he was found slurring his words, with a blood alcohol content above .18 and oxycodone pills on his person.

Charges followed: driving while intoxicated, and possession of a controlled substance. So too did a night in jail, before he was released Monday morning.

And then after half a day of “information-collecting,” as sports leagues and teams have become so adept at doing, NASCAR and France jointly announced that he would take an indefinite leave from his duties. His uncle Jim will assume those responsibilities in the interim.

Those are the facts as we know them. The trick is what to make of them.

Many on social media, both fans and journalists alike, have called for France’s permanent dismissal. They’re angry, and why shouldn’t they be? On one of the few times that NASCAR was getting positive attention — the most positive publicity this season — France undermined it. He mucked it up. And now rather than young Elliott’s ascension to NASCAR stardom, this week’s TV shows will instead discuss France’s blunder.

As NASCAR navigates this turbulent, sometimes-depressing era in its history, these are the sorts of mistakes the sport cannot afford. Tracks cannot tear down stands fast enough to compensate for the waves of fans leaving, and now industry executives also have to worry about their own “leader” being arrested?

That word — leader — is a loose one to use for France, too, whose communications are as infrequent as they are perplexing. Like when he stumbled down the stairs at NASCAR’s end-of-year awards, or strangely threw Martin Truex Jr. his championship ring. Instead of, you know, handing it to him like a normal person?

There were dust-ups and rumors that France may have been under the influence then. Addiction is nothing to be laughed at. If France is struggling with such dependency issues, then the best thing for him and his family is to do exactly what he has: Step away, and figure out his personal life. For any fan, driver, executive or person, that is the most important thing there is.

But while France seeks help in his personal life, his peers must do the same professionally. France has long been a liability as NASCAR’s head honcho — he has made cars safer than ever before and instituted a playoff format, yes, but he’s also watched as his sport crumbles and disappears from the public consciousness.

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Don’t mince words: NASCAR has been a wreck under France. Now, if there’s any hope of saving the spare parts, it must be with someone else behind the wheel.

Calling for France’s firing, or for his indefinite leave to become definite, is futile. According to the most recent public documents available, France’s uncle Jim and sister, Lesa France Kennedy, are NASCAR’s owners. Pleading to them to dispatch his nephew, her only brother, will fall on deaf ears.

But it will not fall on stupid ones. Both Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy, two savvy industry executives, know Brian’s shortcomings well. They know the optics of this arrest.

They know, if he returns as chairman and CEO, what people will say.

Perhaps Brian France returns to NASCAR as a ceremonial face, but one without substantial power. Perhaps he does not return at all. Saying I know one way or the other would be a lie, and it would be unfair.

But I do know this, unequivocally: If NASCAR is going to survive its most difficult era yet, it will not be with Brian France at the helm.

Taking an indefinite leave to deal with his personal issues was France making the right call. Now his family must do the same, and think of the aftermath of his arrest as an opportunity:

For Brian, personally, to seek help. For the family, to assist him. And for NASCAR as a whole, to move on.