The most powerful woman in sports is feeling powerless.
Lesa France Kennedy is CEO and vice chairperson of International Speedway Corporation, America's most powerful racetrack ownership organization. She is also a vice chairperson of NASCAR, the sanctioning body founded by her family. When it comes to the direction of motorsports around the world, Kennedy is either directly involved in the decision-making process or at the very least in the backs of the minds of others charged with the task. The soft-spoken 51-year-old (she turns 52 on Friday) has been called a quiet visionary, deceptively calculating, and as said by her brother, NASCAR chairman Brian France, "She has the ability to marshal people and resources in a very effective way." These are the traits that led Forbes to bestow her with that Most Powerful Woman title in 2009.
But sitting in the rust-coated grandstand of a crusty old southern short track, she's a wad of nerves. The green flag is about to drop on a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race (think Double-A baseball). Behind the wheel of the No. 96 Chevy, about to open up the throttle of his 650-horsepower machine and trade paint with 25 other race cars, is her son, 21-year-old Ben Kennedy.
"Leading up to one of Ben's races, I usually am pretty nervous," she admits, comparing the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of races she's attended in her life to the more recent experience of attending races to watch flesh and blood. "But then, after the race starts," she adds, laughing, "I get a little more competitive. I just want to him to do well. Everyone likes to enjoy success."
The France family has enjoyed more success than most. It was Kennedy's grandfather, Bill France Sr., who herded racers from around the nation into a Daytona Beach hotel to organize the every-man-for-himself world of stock car racing. Her father, Bill Jr., worked as Big Bill's apprentice, tasked with doing every job that can be found at the racetrack, from tearing tickets to scrubbing toilets. Together, they built both NASCAR and ISC, which started building or buying a collection of speedways that now numbers 11. Eventually, the son was handed the reins. From 1948 through 2000, NASCAR was led by the two Bill Frances. In 2010, they were both members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural five-man class.
Behind the curtain, more accurately, behind a desk, the France wives were also steering the stock car racing ship. Kennedy's mother, Betty Jane France, convinced her sometimes curmudgeonly husband of the importance of embracing the social scene and community outreach. Today she still serves as chairwoman of the NASCAR Foundation.
"She was very instrumental in women becoming more involved in the sport," Kennedy explained, pointing to the fact women weren't allowed in the garage or pit areas for the better part of three-plus decades. "My mother is the one who pointed out to my dad that that was pretty ridiculous. So, that changed pretty quick. It was pretty much overnight after she pointed that out."
As a teenager, Kennedy and little brother Brian (younger by 14 months) were assigned the same blue-collar training regimen their father had endured. Summer vacations and school holidays were spent selling tickets, answering fan questions during races, sorting through the mailroom, filing paperwork … whatever needed to be done.
But Kennedy eventually gravitated toward her grandmother, NASCAR and ISC's de facto chief financial officer Anne B. France, or as her loved ones called her "Annie B." It was Annie B. who kept the books, controlled the purse strings and dollar-by-dollar built the foundation of the France family fortune that has swelled into the billions. For the past two years, she has been among the 25 nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the first woman to make the list.
"My grandfather had a great vision. But my grandmother kept a pretty tight rein on the checkbook," Kennedy said, harking back to tales of Annie B. keeping two ledgers: the one she showed her husband and the one with the actual numbers. "I think that was extremely helpful to the overall success of the business. She had a very conservative upbringing. And I think there are some of those philosophies that are still very prevalent within the organization. A lot of the discipline that was put into place back then, you can still see signs of today."
Kennedy learned those philosophies and that discipline firsthand. After graduating from Duke in 1983, she returned home to Daytona Beach and shared an office with her grandmother for a full year. They worked together to modernize many of the office operations, particularly how tickets were sold and money was handled. In short, they went from stacking bills on desks and stashing cash in cigar boxes to tracking sales via computer.
The following year Kennedy was named to ISC's board of directors, initially serving as secretary, then treasurer, executive vice president and ascending to her current role as CEO in '09. The ride has not been smooth, particularly after losing her husband, Dr. Bruce Kennedy, in a private plane crash on July 10, 2007. And just as she took over ISC from uncle Jim France, NASCAR was entering a financial slide, as attendance and television ratings began to dip. Now it's her job to get fans to come back to ISC tracks at the levels they were a decade ago.
Ticket prices have been reduced. Fan access to the garage and pits has increased from nearly zero to what now amounts to having teams working on stage in front of a live audience, even during practice sessions. And just this year the crown jewel of the ISC racetrack portfolio, the 54-year-old Daytona International Speedway, announced a multiyear, multimillion up-fit that will include open-air club levels and modernized entrances.
"Live attendance is becoming a huge challenge as we move forward. And not just in motorsports. A lot of it has to do with all the options that people have available to them today. We have to make events more exciting and more available. For everybody."
In the meantime, she will continue to split her duties as a racing CEO and a racing mom. Ben isn't home much anymore. He's either in Gainesville, Fla., where he's a junior sports marketing major, or he's off racing somewhere. Kennedy makes it to as many races as she can. "We sit down with our calendars and figure out where we're going to cross paths next," she said. "It's a priority for me."
Some are already envisioning a future where Ben takes the NASCAR chairman's baton carried by his great grandfather, grandfather and uncle. He's already been run through the traditional France family grunt job gauntlet. Others would like to see his mother have a turn, speculation fueled by brother Brian's indications that he would like his time at the top to be limited. But most feel that where Kennedy is now, comfortably maintaining her low but powerful profile, is exactly where she should be.
That group seems to include her. The billionaire who can vanish into the grandstand to watch her little boy race.
"What Ben is doing now is the perfect fit for him," she said. "Will he look at something different down the road? I don't know. I just want to him to have fun. To be happy in life. And to be challenged."
Even if that makes her a nervous wreck.