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The most powerful woman in sports

Auto racing, and NASCAR in particular, used to be a "man's domain." A sport for those brave and fearless men who loved speed and didn't flinch at danger. Women? Most circuits didn't even allow them in the pits until the 1970s. But these days, Teresa and Kelley Earnhardt are major figures in NASCAR, Danica Patrick is one of the most recognizable drivers in the U.S., and come Feb. 14, the Daytona 500 will be run with the most powerful woman in sports in her new role, that of CEO of International Speedway Corporation (ISC), promoter of The Great American Race and approximately 100 others.

Lesa France Kennedy, the 48-year-old granddaughter of NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr. and the sister of NASCAR chairman Brian France, rose from president of ISC to CEO in June 2009. Four months later, the October issue of Forbes recognized her acension, labeling her the most powerful woman in sports while citing her company's $750 million in annual revenues and the influence she wields.

As CEO, France Kennedy oversees 12 of the biggest speedways in the U.S. and some of the largest sporting venues in the world. The centerpiece, of course, is Daytona International Speedway, which will host the Rolex 24 on Jan. 30-31, followed by the 52nd Daytona 500 one week after the Super Bowl. Other ISC tracks include Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.; Chicagoland Speedway, Darlington, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Martinsville, Michigan, Phoenix, Talladega and Watkins Glen. ISC tracks also play a major role on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.

In a wide-ranging interview with SI.com as the 2010 season approaches, France Kennedy talked recently about changes for this year's Daytona 500, the challenges the economy and California's race date have presented for ISC, the lessons she learned from her parents and grandparents, and the impact of Danica-mania.

"We've always had women [in my family] who have always been involved in sports, and it goes back to my grandmother [Anne], who I felt was a pioneer," she said. "She provided a very stabilizing factor and a great balance to what my grandfather was doing. Pop was a visionary and my grandmother was very detailed and very methodical. It was that combination that was needed to light the sport and get it off the ground.

"With my father [Bill France, Jr.] and my mother [BettyJane], my mother was an absolute perfect complement to what my father was doing. She has a grace and elegance about her that extended to all of our events. She put a lot of final touches on our events. When people came to town, the entertaining and the overall image of the sport was elevated with some of the things she was able to do. She was also a philanthropist and both left their impact on this sport."

None of those lessons were lost on France Kennedy, who says she would put NASCAR fans up against fans of any other sport in terms of their loyalty. "Both my brother and I started working in the business at an early age and did a variety of jobs, which my parents believed in. Our family vacations were to go to Talladega for the races for the summer. We worked out at the track. You would always have the one-on-one contact with the fans, and those were some of the best days that I've had. I really, really enjoyed those years."

When France attended Duke University [B.A. in Economics and B.A. in Psychology, 1983], the plan wasn't to go to work in the sport, but to prepare her for the next step in life. But that path brought her back to the family business.

"I didn't have a specific plan at that time but it was a good experience to go away to school and meet new people," she said. "Since I've come back to the 'Family Business,' I've never looked back."

Growing up France was a unique experience for Lesa and Brian because during their father's helm (1972-2000), NASCAR went from a sport deeply rooted in the Southeast to one of the most popular sports in the U.S. These days it has been affected, just like other companies, by the economic downturn, but France is optimistic.

"Yes, it is more challenging, but it has also given us an opportunity to take a look at the way we do business," she said, pointing out that ISC tracks averaged nearly 100,000 per NASCAR event in 2009. "For the Daytona 500, we have some seats that are available at $55 per ticket. That is bringing new fans into the sport -- ones who may not have had a chance to try the sport out. We all know if we can get people here the first time, they get hooked pretty easily.

"We also have opportunities for a younger audience. Children under 12 will be admitted free into the FanZone and have a chance to get up close to the drivers and the competitors. It gives us a chance to show them what our sport is all about.

"By adjusting our starting time for the Daytona 500 to 1 p.m., that has been huge. We have more of our day fans coming back to the event because they can get here, see the event and get back home at a reasonable time. It may be more affordable or a night less that they are in a hotel."

While Daytona is the flagship facility, ISC also has some iconic NASCAR tracks in Darlington and Talladega, and some of the initiatives being used at Daytona will be used at other tracks too. Then, of course, there's California.

Auto Club Speedway has been a particular challenge for ISC because it is located in one of the most populous areas of the U.S., with the massive Southern California marketplace, but in recent years it has not come close to selling out. In 2004, ISC even took the traditional Labor Day Weekend date away from Darlington, which had hosted the Southern 500 since 1950, and moved it to Fontana, but it was plagued with brutally hot weather and did not draw the "holiday crowd" it had hoped for.

Last year, interestingly enough, a date change with Atlanta Motor Speedway (owned by rival Speedway Motorsports, Inc.) moved the NASCAR race at Fontana to mid-October with Atlanta getting the Labor Day Weekend date, which generated a sellout crowd for the Hampton, Ga., track.

France Kennedy sees Fontana as being a unique circumstance. "It is a large market area and it is very important to NASCAR and to ISC to be in the second-largest market area in the country," she said. "The population is huge, but there are also a number of things to do and a number of choices to make. The Labor Day event was a good event, but over time they will enjoy a cooler event in October. It is just going to take some time for the word to continue to get out in that area."

Beginning this season, the Chase race at Fontana will be 400 miles instead of 500, something fans in the area had requested. "That will give our races fans a different experience in the fall than in the spring race, which is 500 miles," France Kennedy said. "It will be more competitive, I feel like, and it will re-invent that Chase event."

One other thing that could help Fontana this year is that Danica Patrick is scheduled to make her Nationwide debut there on Feb. 20. Patrick will be driving for a team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sister, Kelley, and France Kennedy is very bullish on both women.

"I'm very excited to see Kelley Earnhardt step out and be out front. I think that is terrific for our sport. She has a lot to add to our sport from the business perspective. As for Danica, she will provide more excitement coming into these events for SpeedWeeks [at Daytona]. The ARCA race will be one of the most watched ARCA races we've ever had. Danica is so important to our sport with the TV viewership she will bring as far as attracting new fans to our sport. But we had 10 women out here testing for our ARCA race, so it is widespread and growing over time."

The word growth is music to France Kennedy's ears. She's been involved with a lot of it over the years, which is why she's the most powerful woman in sports.

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