Lesa France Kennedy sees the result of her influence, grand vision and hard work every single day through the floor-to-ceiling windows lining her office across the street from one of the sport’s most iconic venues, Daytona International Speedway.
The newly renovated gem among all sports stadiums features new-age amenities with a nod to technology present and future, fan comfort, and corporate sponsorship opportunities that have attracted the world’s most prominent brands. It’s one of the most innovative, forward-thinking projects ever carried out in NASCAR or any other major sport, for that matter. It would undoubtedly have made her grandfather, NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr. and father, former NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr., very, very proud.
In the days before the 2019 NASCAR season-opening Daytona 500 across the street, Kennedy - the CEO of International Speedway Corporation and Vice Chairperson of the NASCAR Board of Directors - hosted a breakfast downstairs from her office for women involved in NASCAR. As with all sports, there was a time in the not–so–distant decades ago when that event could be held simply at one banquet table.
But with Kennedy’s leadership in the sport, this February morning's event included more than 100 women holding important positions throughout the industry. The world recognizes International Women’s Day this Friday, and NASCAR has reason to celebrate the influence and impact of women in the sport on any day.
Executives such as NASCAR's Jill Gregory along with Julie Giese, president of this week’s race venue, ISM Raceway in Phoenix, were there. The sport’s finance leaders, executives from racing operations, at-track supervisors, communications representatives, human resources officers, administrative assistants and journalists had the opportunity to look around and see-feel-hear a robust change in opportunity for women involved in this sport.
“That was a great day," Kennedy reflected with a wide smile. “I made a joke about expanding the room for next year, but I meant it. I went, ‘Wow’ this really continues to grow and I have to applaud Jill Gregory for getting it started and continuing to have it expand.
“Walking around the room you heard a whole lot about women involved in different aspects of the sport. Even about 20 years back there were areas where women were involved in the sport, but it was pretty narrow.
“I think it’s been amazing to watch the transformation and to see it all in one place. You witness it at different events, but when it all comes together in one room, it’s so real."
As with Kennedy, Gregory, NASCAR’s executive vice president & chief marketing officer, has been a beacon of inspiration for years in the sport. The oldest of three girls in her California family, she explained that sports have always been a fundamental part of her life from playing tennis and soccer as a youth to pursuing a job in the field later as an adult.
“We were very active and had parents that were really supportive, so I think early on we were encouraged to lean in, participate and put ourselves out there – to not be afraid to do that," Gregory said. “I think how I was able to do that later in life, was kind of having that ability to try new things.
“I think that we didn’t have as many role models as we’d like to have or see as many women in these [leadership] positions then, but I didn’t really think of that. I wanted to work in sports so I figured out a way to make some opportunities there. It was something I was interested in and I went for it."
Now the first woman ever to hold this high-ranking executive position in NASCAR leadership, Gregory is inspiring others in both subtle and more visible ways. She has worked in many similarly powerful positions throughout the business world from Bank of America to former Cup Series sponsor Sprint before taking her position in NASCAR.
Her perspective in rising through the corporate ranks and achieving specific goals is both interesting and educational – for all, men and women.
“I think when you’re early in your career you’re trying to learn as much as you can, you’re trying to work as hard as you can and I think that’s true for anybody starting out," Gregory said.
“You learn how to present yourself as a leader. You naturally take on more and you lead by example and your or co-workers kind of naturally follow. I don’t know if there was a time where it was a conscious decision to be more of a leader. As I grew in my career, I took on as much as it took to get the job done, and through that I was put in more demanding leadership positions and that became a kind of natural transition.”
And doing so in traditionally male dominated roles?
“You know people ask me, what’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated [sports] world," Gregory said. “But I don’t think any of us approached it like that. We had a goal we were trying to achieve, a job we were trying to do and did it with good experience and relationship-building and you kind of look around and didn’t even notice you were one of the sole females in the room.
“I think it comes down to the kind of basics, the simple idea of do the job the right way, keep your word, treat people the right way and deliver results. And success will come to you. I don’t think that’s unique to being a female.
“We have a made a ton of progress and I think you can see this when you look around the garage or look around the sport. There are more women that young girls can look up to and say, ‘I can do that. I can be on the pit crew, I can be an engineer on the pit box.’ That didn’t exist for a while, so there is progress being made. Here at NASCAR, when you see young females getting started, we encourage them to knock down the door, to determine what they want to be and not be afraid to go after it."
Giese is certainly one of those examples. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Giese knew early on she wanted to work in NASCAR. She came by the love of the sport honestly, from her family – NASCAR fans who own and run the family’s dairy farm in Colby, Wisconsin.
Giese jokes that she left Wisconsin and took off for warmer weather. And after time working at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International soon after college, she got another job with International Speedway Corporation – this time based in the Daytona Beach, Florida corporate offices working at the Speedway.
She has worked in marketing and communications for Daytona International Speedway for more than a decade, learning and excelling in a broad responsibility base that included marketing, advertising, and public relations among many things. She was given a prime opportunity in 2013 when she held a major leadership position in the DAYTONA Rising project that resulted in the complete renovation of the speedway, and she took on a similar role in Phoenix during the complete renovation of ISM Raceway.
Like Kennedy and Gregory, Giese says there was never a second thought about taking on new responsibilities and handling major expectations – even with the weight of the sport on her shoulders in some of the positions she maintained.
After earning high marks for her work and leadership with the Daytona and Phoenix projects, Giese was named president at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway just before last November’s Playoff races at the totally redesigned property there. She is currently the only female president of a track on NASCAR’s schedule.
“The last two years with the design and development team really helped me see what it means to be a track president because I had the opportunity for the first time to really work with all of our race tracks and all the different teams, and I saw how each track president managed their team, how they led their team," Giese said.
“Everybody has their own individual style and ways to motivate people, mentor people. For me seeing what that was like, I think I could do this, given the right time and right place.
“I’m very deliberate, not a big risk taker, so for me it was important to have the right position and having worked on the project at ISM Raceway the last two years, I knew the property, I knew what we had done to the facility. I knew the team. I knew the area to an extent. So I really felt like there’s probably not a more perfect set-up to go into a position where I already have a fairly good amount of experience with the team and the property."
Giese, who was just named to Forbes Magazine’s “Women in Sports to Watch in 2019,” counts Kennedy and former Auto Club Speedway track president Gillian Zucker among those strong women role models that essentially served as mentors for her.
“At the time, I didn’t think, oh this is a woman to learn from,” Giese said. “It was someone who had worked really hard and was trying to accomplish all her goals. So for me it’s more about putting my head down and working hard. I challenge anyone to work harder than me. And I want to be that person where people say, ‘She worked hard’ and that’s what got her there."
It’s a familiar refrain among these three inspiring women executives. And for Kennedy it was something she learned from her family’s matriarchs.
“I think you have to roll back a little further to my grandmother and my mother," Kennedy said. “They were the real pioneers I feel like. They focused on different areas in the sport but they set the tone early on.
“I was very lucky to have some great mentors. You find someone you want to follow and attach yourself to them. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but if you see someone’s really figured it out, you emulate them. You have to be authentic with your own personality too, but I continue to think we are improving all the way around from a diversity standpoint.
“There are no barriers."