NASCAR leader shares history of family business with ABI

NASCAR Executive Vice Chair of Lesa France Kennedy. CREDIT NASCAR

Nine days before NASCAR’s first Cup Series race at the Iowa Speedway, Executive Vice Chair Lesa France Kennedy was in Davenport to share words of wisdom gleaned from a lifetime spent in a historic family business with members of the Iowa Association of Business & Industry (ABI).

Ms. Kennedy, a top-level NASCAR executive and a regular on Forbes “Most Powerful Women in Sports” list, has been around the track since she was a small child, she told attendees Wednesday, June 5, at ABI’s Taking Care of Business Conference at the RiverCenter in Davenport.

Ms. Kennedy took the stage with NASCAR’s Vice President of Communications Eric Ryan, where the pair also shared their excitement over  tripleheader racing weekend June 14-16, in Newton, Iowa. The ARCA Menards Series race on Friday, June 14, at the Iowa Speedway will kick off the weekend followed by the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Saturday, June 15. on Sunday, June 16, the Iowa Speedway will host the NASCAR Cup Series Iowa Corn 350 Powered by Ethanol. 

According to the website, tickets for those events are sold out for the race at the .875-mile, progressively banked track that opened its doors in 2006 and hosted Xfinity Series and Truck Series races from 2009 through 2019.

NASCAR’s long-anticipated return to Iowa simply would not have happened, Mr. Ryan told the crowd, without Ms. Kennedy’s knowledge “of what Iowa has to offer.” 

For Ms. Kennedy and the rest of the France family, car racing is in their blood. And Mr. Ryan credited those family members, who include Ms. Kennedy’s son, with making NASCAR the best experience in sports.

Roots go deep

“My grandparents started NASCAR back in 1948,” Ms. Kennedy told ABI members. “My grandfather had a vision; he had some big ideas. Luckily my grandmother kept the books or we would have been bankrupt a long time ago,” she laughed.

Coolest Thing Made in Iowa

They were a good match since it was her grandfather’s vision and personality that helped get NASCAR off the ground. “He never knew a stranger,” his granddaughter said. “Never in his life. He was always out there telling the story of what his beliefs were and how he thought this would be a viable sport.”

That vision continue to pay off, and Ms. Kennedy added, “You look back 76 years, and that’s pretty remarkable.”

Over the years, Frances has remained the first family of NASCAR. For example, Ms. Kennedy’s father ran the business for a time, her brother was involved and her uncle heads the operation now. Now with the addition of her son Ben Kennedy to the leadership team, “we have family members involved going on the fourth generation,” Ms. Kennedy said.

Her own entry came at a very young age. “Some of my earliest memories actually are from when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old and we grew up in the infield of the racetrack,” Ms. Kennedy said from ABI main speaker stage. “I started working when I was 11 in the ticket office.” She made $11 that day.

From that modest start, Ms. Kennedy would advance through key positions ranging from intern, to secretary to executive vice president and CEO, and now vice chair of the board.

Kennedy’s legacy project

Along the way she’s led major racetrack development projects including NASCAR’s mixed-use and entertainment destination across the street from the Daytona Speedway, which is becoming known as Ms. Kennedy’s legacy project, her bio said. The organization also has been growing in other unique ways since 2019 when her uncle merged the publicly-traded NASCAR entity and the International Speedway Corporation to take NASCAR to the next level.

Despite its growth, NASCAR still looks at itself as a local partner, its leaders say. “We pride ourselves on that. We believe in that and that’s how we operate,” Ms. Kennedy said.

It’s also still a family business, one that values the opinions and the wishes of those who run it.

Her son, for example, entered racing in the seat of a stock car, though she wasn’t initially happy about the prospect. She not only came around, but one of her proudest moments came when he won his first race at a track that was important to her family, she said. 

Her son’s experiences in the driver’s seat also proved invaluable in recent major and unexpected expansions NASCAR has made, Ms. Kennedy told ABI leaders.

NASCAR branches out

It was Ben Kennedy – NASCAR‘s senior vice president of racing development and strategy – who came up with the idea to stage a race at the Los Angeles Coliseum. “It was a hard sell, it really was,” Ms. Kennedy said.

For starters, NASCAR had always operated on established tracks, not temporary ones and it’s not hard to see why. To put the accomplishment in perspective, Mr. Ryan said, the Coliseum is where the USC Trojans play football. Staging the race there required building a temporary track on top of the grass in a very short time. Drivers also headed to a simulator to “drive” the new track to see if it could be done. 

After clearing those and other hurdles, including rainy weather on race days, NASCAR went ahead with the event and, Mr. Ryan said, “it was a phenomenal race” viewed by an impressive crowd that included 60% new fans.

The turnout was important for NASCAR’s efforts to continue growing the racing series. So was  the first street race in NASCAR’s 76-year history. It was run last year through the streets of Chicago and was so successful it was named Event of the Year by the Sports Business Journal. It also was not only the most-viewed sporting event on NBC sports that year, 80% of the fans in the stands were first-time viewers, Mr. Ryan said.

Communication is key

After years of watching NASCAR grow in new ways under new France family members, Ms. Kennedy was asked if she had any advice for others with dreams of starting and growing a family business.

“Put your team in place and get your resources today. Know that your customer is first. If you look at family businesses … it’s about communication and knowing where your family members are, and then there are no surprises,” she said. “Understand what’s important to them. If they’re not interested for some reason, respect that.”

The latter is something Ms. Kennedy learned after her son moved back to the family’s Daytona, Florida, home during COVID-19.

Her son, Ben, who appeared in a video shown at the ABI event, said “As a kid growing up I got to see my mom in a leadership position at the international speedway corporation,” he said. And  “COVID was not only one of the first opportunities but one of the most memorable I had in my business career so far.”

It was an equally impactful for Ms. Kennedy, she said, as they sat across the kitchen table and shared ideas and searched for solutions that would eventually help make NASCAR the first major sport to get back to business post-pandemic.

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