Lesa France Kennedy Is 'Most Powerful Woman In Sports'
But that's exactly how Lesa France Kennedy, 48, got her start at International Speedway Corporation (ISC), sister company to NASCAR. Her late father, Bill France Jr., would have it no other way in the family business.
"In fact, he [France Jr.] was probably tougher on Lesa than her brother [NASCAR Chairman] Brian ... just to toughen her up and prepare her, he didn't cut her any slack,'' said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, who has known Kennedy since she was a teenager.
"And he would be proud of her [for this honor].''
This is the first time Forbes has named a racing-related person to top this prestigious list of mostly stick-and-ballers, and it says as much about the sport that Kennedy has guided as the leader she has proven to be.
"One of the really cool things about it is where we've come as a sport,'' Hunter said. "When you look 30 years ago, no women were allowed in the pits, there were no women in the garage, now look at it. This is a great honor not only for Lesa but for all the women working in the sport today.''
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip couldn't agree more.
"Our whole sport should be really proud,'' said Waltrip, a driver/owner in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
"And it shows the apples don't fall far from the tree. Her family has always been so passionate about directing this sport and she watched that and learned how to grow it even bigger. Her grandfather and father had great foresight and I love that she's grasped that.
"To be recognized by Forbes says a ton for our sport and that our sport has now evolved to the level that it's taken in a most serious manner.''
Ironically, Kennedy received official word of her honor by phone call just after arriving home in Daytona Beach, Fla., from a trip to Charlotte, N.C., where her grandfather, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and her father were announced as inaugural members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"My assistant called and said, 'I think I have some more good news ...' It was a huge surprise, really icing on the cake for the week,'' Kennedy said. "It was very uplifting to say the least and it speaks to how our sport is recognized within all top sports.''
Also included on Forbes' top-10 list of powerful women in sports are Donna Goldsmith, CEO of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE); Heidi Ueberroth, President of International Business Operations for the NBA; Virginia McCaskey, principal owner of the NFL's Chicago Bears; and Jamie McCourt, CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
At ISC, Kennedy, who has an economics degree from Duke University, oversees a massive $750 million in annual revenue generated from the promotion of more than 100 races -- including stock car's biggest event, the Daytona 500.
She also oversees the operation of 15 major motor sports tracks all over the country in some of the largest markets including Daytona International Speedway, California Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
She was the force behind building the ultra-modern $250 million facility outside Kansas City from shovel to its 2001 green flag and considers that her biggest accomplishment.
"It absolutely wouldn't have happened if not for her,'' Hunter said. "She shepherded the project through at times when I think even her father would have given up.''
In selecting Kennedy, Forbes said, "No female sports executive oversees a bigger operation.''
Yet Kennedy, who has worked at ISC for 26 years as traffic cop, ticket taker, secretary, treasurer and vice president of the board, couldn't be more humble or reserved. She is the ultimate example of substance over flash in a business where flash is easier to come by. And it would be hard to argue the strategy.
At the Hall of Fame announcement last week, she stood smiling alongside her younger brother, NASCAR Chairman Brian, but politely deferred most of the reporters' questions to him.
Even though she clearly prefers working behind the scenes to being in front of the cameras, she is becoming more comfortable of her role as the face of the company.
"She would rather be totally in the background, but she has a really good way with people and when she's out front, it shows,'' Hunter said.
So it wasn't too surprising that her formal ascension from president to CEO this June was as low-key as she is. It came only two years after enduring painful personal losses.
Her father, France Jr., died of cancer in June, 2007 then her husband, Dr. Bruce Kennedy, was killed in a plane crash one month later.
But those that know her best say Kennedy has always embraced her opportunity, no matter the difficult circumstances. Now she joins the ranks of single, working-parent, juggling the demands of her fast-paced career overseeing billion-dollar company with that of being mom to 17-year old Ben, who has also taken up the family business -- albeit pursuing a slightly different course -- as a race car driver.
"I find it ironic that I'm spending my weekends at a race track watching him race after spending my entire week working in racing,'' said Kennedy with a laugh, adding that's she feels fortunate to have both a good family life and a strong career.
"In this day and age, life overall is a huge balancing act and the dynamics are changing. It's easier in a sense, because employers are more understanding of [working parents].
"But like anything, it's just a matter of finding the right balance."