Though not out front, Lesa France Kennedy leads the way

By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
(photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY )
(Lesa France Kennedy leads International Speedway Corp., which owns 12 NASCAR tracks, including Daytona International Speedway)
Fittingly for someone who has spent the majority of her life trying to fill grandstands, Lesa France Kennedy has a view any NASCAR fan would relish.

On the top floor of the gleaming eight-story headquarters of NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., her office features a panoramic vista of Daytona International Speedway. The building, which replaced a drab hodgepodge of low-rises last fall, has a glass-dominated exterior. A porch with clear sightlines of turns 3 and 4 offers a fine spot to watch NASCAR’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500.

“Being able to see the track keeps a reminder of why you’re here,” she says.

Not that France Kennedy, 48, needs a refresher. She is nearing her one-year anniversary as International Speedway’s CEO (replacing her uncle, Jim) and serves as vice chairwoman of NASCAR. In October, Forbes named her sports’ most powerful woman because analysts said she played a big role in most of the company’s acquisitions and improvement projects dating to the 1990s.

But France Kennedy doesn’t wield that clout publicly. During a rare 30-minute interview with USA TODAY, she is reticent to discuss her personal success. Of the Forbes honor, she says with an embarrassed smile, “It was a terrific honor and pleasant surprise, but I think it has a lot to do with where the sport has come.”

Coca-Cola marketing VP Bea Perez, a business partner who also has shared family vacations in Colorado with France Kennedy, says her close friend is a selfless workaholic who prefers “leading from the back.” That often means heaping praise on her management team while embracing a lower profile than that of her brother, NASCAR chairman Brian France.

“She has the ability to marshal people and resources in a very effective way,” France says of his only sibling. “But she’s not an in-your-face, rah-rah person.”

Yet her brother (younger by 14 months) has hinted he might not hold the job as long as their grandfather (who founded NASCAR in 1948 and built Daytona, its most famous venue, in 1959) or father (who guided the sport from regional to mainstream from 1972 to 2003).

Meanwhile, there’s been a groundswell of support in the industry for France Kennedy taking a bigger role as the sport has cooled during the economic downturn. Team sponsorship has shrunk, TV ratings are flat and attendance is down roughly 10% this season after falling the last two years. A sellout isn’t expected for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, a marquee oval whose 131,866-seat capacity is second to Daytona’s among ISC’s 12 tracks.

Zak Brown talks with France Kennedy weekly as the CEO of Just Marketing, a firm that represents several NASCAR and ISC sponsors. He says he encourages her to be as public as she wants.

“The more comfortable she is with it, the better for the sport, because people gravitate to her,” Brown says. “I think there’s a lot more stuff she should get credit for, but I just don’t think she’s seeking that. The people in the inside know how clever she is.”

In 2007, she disappeared from the public eye for months after a five-week period in which her father died and her husband, a doctor well-known in the NASCAR community, was killed in a plane crash. But even before that, France Kennedy never embodied the archetype of the bombastic promoters who have pounded drums incessantly to build NASCAR and sell tickets.

Eddie Gossage, a flashy showman as the president of Texas Motor Speedway, says he has met France Kennedy once despite having a virtually parallel career of more than two decades in track operations.

“She is an enigma,” Gossage says. “She’s just a shy person.”

No slack from father

France Kennedy and her brother entered the family business on separate paths as teenagers, with Brian moving into the competition side while Lesa became immersed in the speedway.

Under the tutelage of her grandmother, Annie, France Kennedy helped lead an overhaul of Daytona’s ticketing from a cumbersome system of paper orders stored in cigar boxes to computer automation.

Though Bill France Jr. quickly recognized his daughter had a boundless work ethic and an energetic aptitude for customer service, France Kennedy received few accolades from her father.

“He didn’t cut her any slack,” NASCAR vice president of communications Jim Hunter says. “There was a standard for the guys and then a standard for Lesa. His thinking was he had to toughen her up.”

France Kennedy considered other careers while studying at Duke University. But after graduating in 1983 with degrees in economics and psychology, she joined the family business. “I haven’t looked back,” she says.

Within a year she was named to ISC’s board of directors. She was elevated to executive vice president in 1996 — the same year one of her first pet projects, a 60,000-square-foot Epcot-esque interactive museum called Daytona USA, opened adjacent to the superspeedway.

“That was her vision, and it was so far out of the box,” says Tim Frost, a Chicago-based motor sports consultant to racetracks across the country.

The crown jewel of France Kennedy’s career is Kansas Speedway. Through a public-private partnership that included sticky issues of eminent domain, the 1.5-mile oval was built on an undeveloped tract of land in 2001 that has grown into a bustling retail corridor filled with hotels, restaurants, stores and a minor league baseball park. A Major League Soccer stadium is scheduled to open there next year.

“It was a typical accomplishment of hers,” Brian France says. “She got to know the community leaders all the way up to the governor and build relationships to solve some difficult problems.”

Tough time for business

France Kennedy took the helm of ISC at a difficult time. Annual revenue fell by $94.1 million last year, and profit dropped 95% to $6.8 million. That was mostly because of write-downs from Motorsports Authentics, a company that sells the bulk of NASCAR merchandise and is owned jointly by ISC and fellow track operator Speedway Motorsports Inc.; the company lost more than $20 million in 2009 and has considered bankruptcy.

Rick Hendrick, owner of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team, says France Kennedy is well suited to lead a planned restructuring of NASCAR’s licensing and merchandising.

“She’s had some really good ideas and sees where the market is going,” he says. “She’s as sharp as any CEO I’ve seen. If you’re in a room with a lot of people, she doesn’t have to prove she’s the alpha dog.

“I feel like I can talk to her. She listens.”

During a recent conference call to announce ISC’s first-quarter results, France Kennedy didn’t speak after an opening statement, letting other executives handle questions for an hour.

Brown, who has traded texts with France Kennedy from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., says when Subway re-signed a multiyear title sponsorship recently with Phoenix International Raceway, the company was barely aware France Kennedy was a major player in the negotiations.

“Don’t underestimate her influence within NASCAR,” Brown says. “ISC is the business card she carries, but she certainly has sway in NASCAR.”

Brian France says he’s grown closer to his sister since the deaths of their father and her husband. “Professionally, we have to be close together, because it’s one industry,” he says.

France Kennedy, though, says she’s mostly leaving the NASCAR stewardship to her brother — and has plenty to keep her busy. She’ll be at a groundbreaking of a casino at Kansas Speedway next week, and her only child, Ben, has started racing Late Models at 18.

Still, she finds the suggestion she could lead NASCAR flattering.

“I hope and think (people) know I’m available when needed,” she says. “I love this sport. I grew up here and enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a family business.”


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