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NASCAR: A Quick Study

Ben Kennedy is on a fast learning curve in the family business

BY ADAM STERN

The France family used to have a rule that once they sat down at the dinner table, it was time to stop talking about business.

The rule — designed to create some down time for NASCAR’s ruling family — quickly went out the window after the pandemic hit, according to Ben Kennedy, the scion of the Frances, who have owned NASCAR since its founding in 1948.

Kennedy’s great uncle, Jim France, runs NASCAR as chairman and CEO after taking over for Kennedy’s uncle, Brian France, in 2019. His mother, Lesa France Kennedy, is NASCAR’s executive vice chair.

NASCAR

So it was no surprise that during a recent lunch with his mother, Kennedy talked about scheduling concepts for the 2022 season, laying out analysis on some of the recent moves they had made to be sure she was on board with them.

It’s all part of a high-profile, multiyear crash course for Kennedy as he learns the family business ahead of a future where he could be the person who runs it one day. Kennedy’s now in his fifth role since joining the sanctioning body as an executive in 2018. That came after moving on from an initial foray into possibly becoming a full-time driver.

At 29, and serving as senior vice president of strategic development, Kennedy is one of the youngest senior vice presidents in the history of NASCAR. He has the eyes of the industry on him and the pressure that goes with it.

The pandemic has accelerated his learning curve markedly, as Kennedy was one of the key people in a cross-department group that helped remake NASCAR’s schedule on the fly last year. He is now working on long-term initiatives, including reimagining the future of where the sport will race.

“It’s almost like I wear a couple of different hats that I feel like I have to: One is the family side of it and the other is being a good teammate to everyone I’m around because at the end of day, that’s who I want to be,” said Kennedy. “My personal philosophy has been to take the right amount of time to learn everything and earn my stripes as I go through it. Yes, I am a family member and that comes with a great deal of responsibility, but I really want to be a team player to everyone I’m around and earn their respect.”

Kennedy is part of NASCAR’s strategy group, which works on big-picture items like the charter system and NASCAR’s key financial initiatives, such as when it explored a sale or when it bought track operator International Speedway Corp. in 2019. He is getting close tutelage from the likes of NASCAR President Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer. Kennedy is based in Daytona Beach but travels routinely to Charlotte, the other major hub for the sport.

The Florida native graduated from the University of Florida in 2014 with a degree in sports management and a minor in business administration. He has raced in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series, and now owns a grassroots team that competes in the Late Model division, but he lets someone else handle the driving duties so he can concentrate on NASCAR’s business.

Inside the halls of NASCAR, Kennedy has quickly won over staff with his high level of engagement and strong work ethic. There has been little that he hasn’t rolled up his sleeves to learn. He attended in-person Team Owner Council meetings before they were suspended by the pandemic, often sitting in the back of the room and listening intently to veterans of the sport. He has been involved in meetings on NASCAR’s plan to introduce a Next Generation car model starting next year.

He’s learned various parts of the business in recent years as the family gave him a chance to move up the NASCAR ranks. He has served as general manager of the Camping World Truck Series and been involved in NASCAR’s international expansion efforts.

He was promoted to his current role in April. NASCAR has also started to integrate other younger executives in senior leadership positions, such as Daytona president Chip Wile recently being promoted to NASCAR’s chief track properties officer role. Sources regard these moves as signs that it is preparing for a new generation of leadership.

These days, NASCAR’s schedule-making takes up a significant amount of Kennedy’s time. Ahead of crucial media rights negotiations that will start in the coming years, the sport is rethinking the approach to its nearly 10-month schedule to attract interest from more TV networks, adding new disciplines such as dirt track racing and more events on road courses.

Kennedy said NASCAR has started putting together preliminary drafts of the 2022 schedule. Amid a renaissance for street courses in the U.S., with IndyCar and Formula One adding new events in 2021 and ’22, NASCAR is keen on adding a street race of its own as it works to race closer to urban centers. It’s currently looking at staging a street race in Chicago. Kennedy also sees opportunities to expand NASCAR’s presence in areas such as the Pacific Northwest, where it has no races, as well as the Midwest.

As he learns new parts of the business, Kennedy is increasingly taking a more visible role, speaking in public more often than the reclusive Jim France does. For example, Kennedy last month gave the opening remarks at a private industry meeting where people across the sport caught up on topics such as NASCAR’s plan to reopen infield hospitality in May and its work in diversity, equity and inclusion.

The 29-year-old Kennedy has taken on a more public role and is part of a group working on long-term initiatives for the sport.GETTY IMAGES

Chris Blair, executive vice president and general manager of World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill., said he will routinely trade texts with Kennedy during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race that his venue hosts annually. Blair said he’s been impressed with Kennedy’s earnestness and said he is open to new ideas and tries to keep everyone working together. He said Kennedy can look at a situation through multiple lenses given that he’s also a team owner and a former driver.

Sources say Kennedy’s role will continue to evolve to give him more responsibilities on the competition and business side, including having him become a key liaison between the sanctioning body and team principals.

Every now and then, Kennedy said, he allows himself to think about possibly running NASCAR one day. But he also noted that it’s been perhaps the busiest half year of his life, so he doesn’t think about it too much.

Business is constantly on the mind of Kennedy and his family, especially during the challenges of the past year.

Kennedy acknowledges the family rule during meals has shifted a bit. When he and his mother are out with friends, they try to be more balanced and talk about various aspects of their lives, but during the private family meals the conversations have focused on business, such as the recent lunch when they discussed the 2022 schedule.

For the young Kennedy, it all goes back to learning and absorbing as much as he can on the family business and drawing on his mother’s leadership and management advice from her years in motorsports, which included serving as CEO of ISC.

“She has a ton of experience working on the track side of the business over the years, so it’s good to have her as a resource and sounding board when contemplating some of our potential changes,” Kennedy said. “We also spend a good amount of time talking about One Daytona and real estate opportunities. That is a common interest that we have in land development and, in particular, how we can continue to help grow the Daytona area.”

Such is life for America’s first family of racing.

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