Sabates thinks France unfairly blamed for NASCAR’s downturn


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — One of NASCAR’s longtime team owners believes Brian France has been unfairly blamed for the downturn in the series.

France has taken a leave absence as chairman and CEO of NASCAR following his Sunday night arrest on charges of driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of oxycodone. He’s held the position since 2003 and made radical changes to the racing product that have coincided with a steep decline in NASCAR’s attendance and television ratings.

Felix Sabates has had at least partial ownership of a top-level NASCAR team since 1989. He defended France to The Associated Press on Tuesday as “the most loyal friend anyone can have” and said the entire industry shoulders blame for NASCAR’s slide .

“I think NASCAR, owners and drivers need to get on the same page to reverse the trend, and everyone has to share in the responsibility,” Sabates said, citing operating costs that have skyrocketed in the last two decades.

Sabates said France deserves to be welcomed back into NASCAR whenever he’s ready. Sabates was a close friend of the late Bill France Jr. and has known his son, Brian, for more than three decades.

“We need to find it in our hearts to forgive Brian for his mistakes,” Sabates said. “Whenever he finishes what he needs to do, we all at NASCAR need to welcome him back with open arms. There is a side of Brian most people don’t see. He is fun to be with, he knows as many funny jokes as his Daddy, he’s very charitable. He is a very simple person.”

Jim France, Brian’s uncle and the vice chairman and executive vice president of NASCAR, is now the interim chairman and CEO. NASCAR is privately owned and was founded by Bill France Sr. in 1948. Brian France replaced his father, Bill France Jr., who ran NASCAR for 31 years before turning leadership over to his son.

France was arrested Sunday night in the Hamptons section of New York’s Long Island, some 350 miles away from the Cup race in Watkins Glen. Chase Elliott, a future star of the series, won his first career Cup race in a dramatic finish on the road course, and NASCAR finally had some buzz to celebrate this week.

Not long after Elliott crossed the finish line, France was spotted blowing through a stop sign in Sag Harbor, according to police.

France, 56, spent the night in jail, was released Monday morning and announced his leave from NASCAR eight hours later. Police said that at the time he was pulled over, France struggled to keep his balance during field sobriety tests, and his eyes were red and glassy.

Tests showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.18, police said. The legal limit for driving in New York is 0.08. Officers found five oxycodone pills during a subsequent search, police said.

The impact the arrest had on NASCAR, which has been in desperate need of positive news, was immediate. Elliott’s feel-good win — his plane was greeted by several hundred supporters Sunday night when he returned home to Georgia — was pushed to the back burner as NASCAR executives huddled for a plan.

NASCAR has said nothing as of Tuesday beyond confirming that Brian France has taken a leave and Jim France has assumed his duties. A request by The Associated Press to speak to Jim France was not immediately answered.

Because NASCAR is privately owned and run in large part by Brian France, Jim France and Brian’s sister, Lesa France Kennedy, there is no clear indication of how hands-on Brian France was or what kind of void his absence will create. But many believe Jim France, the second son of NASCAR’s founder, can be a steadying hand in trying times for the series.

The sport was booming in popularity when Brian France replaced his father in 2003, and although many of his initiatives were progressive and needed in some form, staunch fans have vehemently rejected his vision. Brian France introduced a playoff system, overhauled the design of the series’ cars and pushed for diversity within the circuit’s predominantly white, male ranks.

But as viewership has declined, sponsors have pulled out of NASCAR and Brian France has not made himself available to the public. He has yet to address a May report that NASCAR is either for sale or the France family is looking to take on investors, but he called SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on July 25 and called talk of a sale “rumors.”

“The France family is locked and loaded in its dedication to NASCAR,” France said on the radio program. “We’re focused on ruling and managing NASCAR. There’s nothing to report on that. Rumors are always interesting, but they’re seldom right.”

In the same call, Brian France praised his uncle several times in lauding sports car series IMSA and NASCAR’s recent acquisition of ARCA, a low-level stock car series. Jim France runs IMSA and was the top supporter in the purchase of ARCA.

“My uncle has done an incredible job,” Brian France said. “He’s put his heart and soul into this thing and it pays off.”

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