- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

CONCORD, N.C. | NASCAR chairman Brian France held two town hall meetings Tuesday with the sport’s “stakeholders” to discuss everything from its toughened drug policy to the economy, competition and fan interest.

“I learned a long time ago if you get everybody involved, they can’t complain,” team owner Rick Hendrick said after exiting the morning session. “That’s what happens in our sport. People don’t feel like they get a voice.”

So NASCAR gave everyone a chance to be heard, presiding over two open meetings at the research and development center located a few miles away from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Drivers, team owners and crew chiefs were assigned to one of two sessions, and the morning group of 53 participants needed a little more than two hours to discuss the issues facing NASCAR.

The second group, which included three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, two-time series champion Tony Stewart and a large contingent from Roush Fenway Racing, met for two hours in the afternoon.

“Even though we’ve always had a pretty good open door policy and good approach, we just know we can do better,” France said. “We can all gain more when we are sharing ideas and having an exchange on the issues that matter most to them.”

France and NASCAR president Mike Helton opened the first session by encouraging candid discussion of any subject, spokesman Jim Hunter said. NASCAR had 10 top officials in attendance, including France’s sister, Lesa, an executive vice president of NASCAR. The two have presided over NASCAR, a family run business started by their grandfather, since their father’s death two years ago.

The late Bill France Jr. ran NASCAR for almost three decades as a benevolent dictatorship in which his word decided most issues. Brian France said times have changed and there needs to be more input from the competitors.

“Things are more complicated. Things are more complex,” he said.

Hendrick lauded NASCAR for holding an open forum.

“I think today was a really great step, Brian, Lesa and all those folks answering questions and taking some criticism and explaining why some things are like they are and giving everybody a chance to speak up,” Hendrick said.

Drug testing was a main topic of the first session, which included Mark Martin and Ryan Newman, two drivers vocal with their concerns about the policy since Jeremy Mayfield’s failed test. He received an indefinite suspension May 9, and despite calls from drivers, NASCAR has not revealed the substance found in his sample.

The secrecy and lack of an official list of banned substances led many drivers to worry their careers could be put in jeopardy by a failed test for a simple prescription.

“If you’re taking something as prescribed, I don’t think you’re going to lose your career,” Martin said. “I feel much better now than I did before the meeting.”

The slumping economy has taken a toll on NASCAR, which this season is suffering through drops in both attendance and TV ratings. Smaller teams are struggling to find sponsorship opportunities, and there’s been differing opinions on the competition since last season’s switch to full-time use of the “Car of Tomorrow.”

Although NASCAR has been steadfast in its stance that no changes were forthcoming to the car, France said series leaders will take some of Tuesday’s suggestions under consideration.

“Clearly, if there are some adjustments that we learned today that can be incorporated without changing the financial model for the team owners, we want to be open to that,” France said. “We heard some ideas today that we’re going to consider and weigh. And they heard some reasoning why our thinking was staying the course on the new car the way we have.”

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