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NASCAR chief sits down with local media

March 12th, 2014 9:33 pm by Jeff Birchfield

NASCAR chief sits down with local media

BRISTOL — Mike Helton remembers the day in November 2000 when he became the first person outside the France family to be named NASCAR President.

He thought then NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. was playing a joke on him.

“I thought he was kidding,” said Helton during a dinner with local media members Wednesday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. “He like to play jokes on people, and I thought he was playing a trick on me. As it turned out, it was the Real McCoy. He and his brother, Jim France, saw the need to spread out responsibility as we have for several years now. It was a bit of shock to start with, but humbling at the same time. It’s hard not to be proud to be president of NASCAR..”

In a nearly 45-minute interview session, Helton, a Bristol native who attended John Battle High School and King College, sometimes waxed nostalgic about the area and other times addressed some of the issues facing NASCAR today.

Both as president of one of the nation’s largest sports leagues and as a hometown guy, Bristol Motor Speedway and the surrounding area have a special meaning to him.

“When I come back to Bristol, this is home to me,” said Helton, a longtime Florida resident. “When I left here, I went to Atlanta Raceway and then Talladega for a while, so I have connections to those places. But, this is different. This is home and what this facility represents, I’m proud to be president of NASCAR and I’m really proud to say how the Tri-Cities area is special to me.”

His first introduction to NASCAR was his dad taking to a Bristol race in 1965 and sitting outside turn three on part of the old Gray Dairy Farm property. He still remembers watching Ned Jarrett win that Volunteer 500. He first worked in racing professionally as sports director for WOPI-AM radio station in Bristol.

In 1980, he became public relations director at Atlanta and by the end of the decade, he was president of Talladega Superspeedway. Five years later, he became vice president of competition for NASCAR and was truly on the fast track.

Over the years, he’s overseen the sport during some of its darkest days like the death of Dale Earnhardt at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500 and through major changes to the whole series.

He likes where the sport is headed with the new knockout qualifying format and the revamping of the points system which now places a great emphasis on winning.

“The performance of the drivers for the first three events shows they’re aggressive and they want to win,” Helton said. “Winning a race now is a priority, as it always has been, but the balance we were looking for, we were able to shift some of the balance from points to winning. We’re seeing evidence of that.”

While NASCAR has been referred to as a benevolent dictatorship, Helton said the current NASCAR administration is open to ideas. It added NASCAR doesn’t have to author a good idea for it to be a good idea.

Occasionally, he and NASCAR chairman Brian France will end up at the same events of executives of other sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball and talk about some of the cross-over in the world of sports.

The newest changes to the points system is something closer to a playoff seen in other sports than the point system which most fans grew up with. Helton believes it’s a positive step for the sport, although he realizes it’s not a popular move with all fans.

Over the past decade, the fans and the sport have gone through a series of transitions. They have included the implementation of a 10-race playoff with the Chase and three vastly different styles of race cars moving from the tank-like “Car of Tomorrow” to the current Gen-6 car. 

Helton understands that some fans react adversely to change.

“NASCAR fans are generally happy, but they are very passionate about their sport,” Helton said. “They’re always going to have issues, but that’s OK. They may have questions they ask, or tell you what they like and don’t like. As long as they stay NASCAR fans, that’s the biggest thing.”

The sport has seen a recent bounce-back in attendance. Some have credited an improving economy as well as the recent success of  Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s 11-time reigning most popular driver. First, Helton addressed why the attendance fell in the first place.

“It starts with the industry working together to try to answer the question why it fell off,” Helton said. “There was the economic element which affected us significantly because of the automobile industry, the banking industry, who are so much a part of our sport. That instantly impacted us more than other forms of sport and entertainment. We had to think about a new business model with the race tracks and teams to overcome that. 

“Along the way, we know our taste changes and our mood changes. NASCAR had to work on things to be more relevant, not just to fans who had been around a while. The tweaks and the changes we’ve made like the Gen-6 cars to identify the race cars to the automotive enthusiasts, the changes with qualifying and the Chase. Those are moves to make the sport more relevant. But, we’re beginning to see the interest level pick back up.”

He was noncommittal about changes to the Food City 500 race date, but said NASCAR fully understands just how important Bristol is to the sport.

“There is nobody in motorsports, even the Formula One guys, that don’t know about Bristol, Tennessee,” Helton said. “There is a magic in this area. You can’t it explain it to anybody. You have come here and witness it for yourself. There’s something special about it that when you say Bristol, everybody lights up.”

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