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The Real NASCAR Family

The phrase 'NASCAR family' usually refers to the millions of fans obsessed with the fastest-growing sport in America but the real NASCAR family, its 'first family,' is the France family of Daytona Beach, Fla. For six decades they have literally owned the sport, and made themselves into billionaires in the process.

No matter who you are or where you live in America, the France family is determined to bring NASCAR to a racetrack near you and to turn you into a fan.

Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.

NASCAR is stock car racing, which means the cars are supposed to resemble family sedans. But in fact, they're custom-made rocket ships.

Like the NFL, NASCAR is a league, but with 43 teams – cars and drivers - all battling every weekend for prize money and TV ratings.

NASCAR is also one of the biggest businesses in the country still owned and run by the family that founded it.

Third generation Brian France is the CEO and he says that annual revenues for the industry are currently "north of $3 billion" and going up. "We're trying to make sure it goes up. Expand NASCAR, expand our fan base."

Most of that money comes from America's largest companies. A NASCAR race is a constant blur of corporate logos, hawking everything from beer, booze, soldiers and sex.

And the drivers look like the cars, donning sponsor logos on their race suits, including DuPont, Chevrolet, Dominos and Coca Cola.

And Brian France is unabashed in the hucksterism category. Asked if there is any company he would turn down, France says NASCAR does have limits. "Well, I mean things that are, would be distasteful."

NASCAR's own brand is on everything from lottery tickets, to broccoli, to cell phones that let fans read drivers' instrument panels, and use their voices for ring tones.

Thirty-eight weekends a year, 100,000 fans or so pay an average of $80 a ticket to watch the ads fly round and round.

Why do so many big companies want their logos on the cars? "They get to own something. They're on the playing field. Their brand is part of the event," says France.

In an age where so many TV viewers 'zap' commercials, that is a huge concept. For NASCAR, the race is the commercial.

They'll even rename a race for a sponsor: Warner Brothers got the "Batman Begins 400" this summer.

NASCAR doesn't own racecars, but it helps the private individuals who do to find sponsors willing to pay the $10 to $20 million a year it costs to race a car.

Richard Petty, one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, is now the owner of the 'Cheerios Dodge.'

Cheerios and maker General Mills have the most prominent displays on the car. "They're your major sponsor. But then you come back with these guys here and they're minor sponsors," Petty says, showing smaller decals on the racecar. "These are probably a million dollars apiece."

Lesa France Kennedy is Brian France's sister. While he runs NASCAR, she runs racetracks. She is the president of ISC, International Speedway Corporation, which owns 11 tracks, including Daytona, NASCAR's Yankee Stadium.

As the governing body of the sport, NASCAR is supposed to be even-handed in deciding where races are run. So it's an issue that it gives half the races to Lesa's tracks.

Richard Petty says it's like a benevolent dictatorship, "if you look at the whole different program."

Some of Lesa's competitors, owners of other tracks, call it a monopoly and think that the France family has a stranglehold on the racetracks.

Brian France rejects the criticism, pointing out that "most of the dates were awarded 25, 30 years ago."

Petty says, "from the outside looking in," it does appear that the Frances have the best of everything and that ISC is getting the best races.

But Petty's no outsider; his family has been part of NASCAR forever. His father Lee drove in the very first race organized by Brian and Lesa's grandfather, the founder of NASCAR, "Big Bill" France.

"Big Bill started this out of the back of a car, ok? Basically," says Petty. "They took nothing, kept working, and over 55 or 60 years, this is what you see, Ok? That's capitalism."

NASCAR was born in Daytona Beach, where Big Bill ran a gas station and raced cars in the sand. In 1947, he organized his weekend hobby into a league, and took it to racetracks throughout the south.

Spectacular crashes were common, and Big Bill knew that was what fans came to see.

It's something his son Bill France Jr., who took over NASCAR in 1972, also got. "Hemingway said it best. He said 'There are only three sports: mountain climbing, auto races, and bullfighting. The rest are all games.' That describes us pretty good, I think," he says.

NASCAR really took off in 1979, when CBS aired the Daytona 500 flag-to-flag and live for the first time, and the race turned out to be an all-time classic.

"Cale Yarborough and Davie Allison got into a big deal, the last lap," recalls Petty. "And as they're crashing, we get by the wreck. And we wound up winning the race."

And as if that wasn't enough, a fight erupted between Yarborough and Allison.

Tempers still overflow. Recently, Brian France fined a helmet-tossing driver $25,000.

Brian's been in charge since his father turned NASCAR over to him in 2003. At the time, lots of people thought he wasn't up to the job.

"There's people in my generation who say 'No way that Brian's going to be able to handle this situation,'" says Petty.

What advice did Brian France, Jr. give to his son when he turned over the business? "Well, it's not broke, so let's don't fix it."

"Yeah, I didn't listen to that," says Brian. Instead, he made radical changes. First, he dropped big tobacco; the Winston Cup became the Nextel Cup in a ten year deal worth $750 million dollars.

And then Brian decided to drop a longstanding ban and allow hard liquor companies to sponsor cars.

Despite the fact the sport is promoted as family values, some of the sponsored products might not be considered wholesome, including liquor.

"The reality of it is, we have to have an enormous amount of corporate support to fund 43 race teams and all the things that go on. So there are always going to be brands that may not be ones that you would choose, but that are willing to make a significant investment," says France.

Even more controversial was Brian's decision to scrap NASCAR's 25 year-old championship system and replace it with a playoff. In the last ten races of the season, the top ten drivers would start from scratch and compete for the cup.

Stars like Jeff Gordon hated the change. "I had won four championships under the old system, so I was like, 'Ooh, I don't know about this.'"

Very few people thought it was a good idea, including France's father.

"As a sister, you know, I was going 'Are we sure? Are we sure about that?' And he said 'Lesa, I've never been so confident about a decision in my life,'" recalls Lesa France Kennedy.

And he was vindicated. Last year's TV ratings shot up, as Brian's new 'chase for the cup' came down to the last race of the year.

"And it wasn't settled until the last turn on the last lap. And that's what big-time sports is all about," says France.

He is now using that success to pursue his big goal: luring city folks to what has always been a southern, rural sport.

For 50 years, NASCAR held its Labor Day weekend race, the Southern 500, in Darlington, South Carolina. But under Brian's leadership, NASCAR now spends Labor Day racing just outside of Los Angeles.

Stahl asked if this was his future. "It's not my future, but it's NASCAR's future, to make sure that we take events to the biggest metropolitan areas of the country, regions of the country," France replied.

Lesa's job is to put racetracks in those places, especially in the biggest untapped market, New York City. She has bought a site on Staten Island for $110 million.

Building tracks in places like New York means you have to create different kinds of fans.

Brian France wants to reach out to new fans, who traditionally have not followed the sport in large numbers: minorities. "It's something I work on every day…. I work on it personally every day."

He has done everything from running a NASCAR race in Mexico to establishing training programs for female and minority drivers.

But at a race in Tennessee in August, while NBA superstar LeBron James was a featured guest inside the stadium and his likeness put on a racecar, Confederate flags could be seen flying in campgrounds near the racetrack.

"What are you doing to convince African Americans that this is not a good ole boy southern, Confederate flag sport? Because that's the image. And be honest about that," Stahl asked.

"I think it's a fading image," France said. "Well, look. I can't – these are massive facilities. And I can't tell people what flag to fly. I can tell you the flag we get behind. It's the American flag."

France would love to tell fans not to fly the Confederate flag if he could. "It's not a flag I look at with anything favorable. That's for sure."

You would expect NASCAR's old guard to fight Brian's break with the south and the past. But there's nothing like success – millions of new fans, billions of new dollars – to get them on board.

"I think the old fans look at it as a southern sport. The new fans in California, they don't know where it comes from. They don't care. They want to come see the race!" says Petty,

Is Petty ready for the Big Apple? "Well, I don't know if we'll ever get ready for New York City or not. But yeah, we'd like to try."

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