NASCAR Chairman Brian France talks virtual reality, digital fan experience
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The following interview is part of our ongoing Expert Series that asks C-level professionals, team presidents, league executives, athletic directors and other sports influencers about their latest thoughts and insights on new technologies impacting the sports industry.
Name: Brian France
Brian France assumed his position as Chairman and CEO of NASCAR in 2003 from his father, William C. France. The grandson of NASCAR’s founder, William H.G. France, he has continued the family legacy and positioned NASCAR among the most successful sports and entertainment properties in the world. France’s accomplishments have led to dramatic geographic expansion, financial growth and the safest and most competitive era of racing in NASCAR’s history.
Among his achievements, France implemented the Chase format – the first elimination style playoff format in motorsports; negotiated 10-year deals with FOX and NBC – the largest in NASCAR history; secured more FORTUNE 500 partnerships for NASCAR than at any time in history; spearheaded NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and most recently announced a historic Charter agreement to provide NASCAR owners with financial stability and the ability to build long-term enterprise value for the first time.
1) What utilization of technology in sports has recently blown you away and why?
Technology is changing all aspects of sports including competition, officiating and fan consumption. I am impressed with live games on Twitter. I like what teams are doing with data to analyze every player movement and am paying close attention to wearable technology which can help prevent injury and improve performance.
In our case, we can be a great validator of technology because of all the telemetry used to make up a NASCAR event. I’m really impressed with the new NASCAR race management app, which was developed for us by Microsoft. Our Series Directors — NASCAR’s officials — have extremely tough jobs: Managing our races from Race Control with 40 cars on track is complex, with tons of moving parts. We’re now taking multiple data streams and bringing them together on a single screen. It helps us analyze data more efficiently and make informed, in-race decisions which benefits everyone.
2) If you had to invest in one technology that would change NASCAR for the better, what would it be and why?
Virtual reality is extremely exciting. We have the biggest opportunity in sports when you talk about the possibility of bringing fans inside a car going nearly 200 miles-per-hour. Harnessing the power of VR or augmented reality to introduce young people to the sport is a huge opportunity. We’ve seen that in the past, as well as the present, with gaming. Not everyone has the means to race stock cars — we know that — but VR technology can recreate the experience right at home. We think that’s really cool.
Just look at William Byron, 18 years old, who was a top driver this year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He just signed an agreement to move up next year to compete in the XFINITY Series, our series for drivers on the cusp of competing at our highest level, Sprint Cup. William got his start and had great success with iRacing, a racing simulator, before ever even stepping foot in a race car! We are beginning to see other iRacing champs get a look at other rides.
3) If money were no object, what technology would you build or buy to help you do your job better?
We would connect with fans in ways that we can’t even imagine or visualize yet. I really like the idea of fans being able to curate their entire digital experience at live events. Venues are becoming much more sophisticated and fan-friendly from a digital standpoint. Imagine being able to show your ticket, map your way around the track or stadium, order food to your seats, listen to the broadcast, share content socially and order a ride home – all from one place.
We already built another piece of technology that helps us with mother nature. Rain has been a huge thorn in our side over the past several years in particular, and so we developed the Air Titan which dries wet tracks much faster. I challenged our R&D team to improve our efficiency by 80 percent. We’re not there yet, but we’re pretty close. The Air Titan has shortened rain delays, kept fans in our venues, and allowed fans to stay tuned into our broadcasts. All in all, the Air Titan has saved our industry tens of millions of dollars.
4) As a sports fan, what sports-related service, app, product, etc., could you not live without and why?
NASCAR RaceView, definitely. We’ve invested a great deal in elevating the digital experience for our fans, and on race days it starts with RaceView. It’s all there: 3-D representations of all our tracks, GPS transmitters monitoring the positions of the cars, driver audio, real-time stats. It’s an awesome complement to the race broadcast.
5) If you had to project 20 years into the future, how will most fans watch NASCAR and/or their favorite sports teams?
Certainly the live experience will always be important for us, no question about it. There’s nothing quite like being part of a NASCAR race weekend, and that always will hold true. That said, as we look to the future, I think the viewing options for fans are only going to increase. Digital, social, television, virtual reality… we are laser focused on incorporating all of them into the NASCAR fan experience. By far, we are the most interactive sport given all of the telemetry used at our events. We will continue to harness that data and deliver it to our fans in a way that will generate an even richer and more immersive experience.
Broadcast partners have done a nice job evolving sports broadcasts to cater to today’s fan. Fans want fast-paced action and as a society we have shorter attention spans. I expect we might see shorter or abbreviated versions on TV to keep up with changing consumption habits.
6) Give us your bold prediction about a form of technology that will be integral to NASCAR or sports in general over the next 12 months and why?
The ability to enhance the fan experience with real-time data will be absolutely critical to success over the next year. We feel really good about our ability to make good on this given all of the telemetry used at our races. Cutting-edge technology will take us to new heights inside the race cars, in our officiating and in fan engagement. At live sporting events, fans will be on multiple devices to consume stats and data, and they will be connecting with their friends on social media. Some of our competitors wish that fans would get off their phones and focus on the live experience. We are not purists on this and will be looking for new and cool ways to engage our fans that complements live races.