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President Mike Helton Talks About Current State of NASCAR on Wind Tunnel
Mike Helton
NASCAR President Mike Helton joined Wind Tunnel host Dave Despain to talk about the states of the sport. Topics included concussions, quality of racing, rivalries and a changing fan base.

The following are excerpted quotes Mike Helton’s interview on the show.

Dave Despain: What’s the most important thing Bill France, Jr. taught you?

Mike Helton: Patience, and being pragmatic. I think he sorted through challenging situations by putting everything in perspective. That didn’t mean you had to like the person you were dealing with, didn’t mean you didn’t dislike the person, it was the issue and the bigger picture, and being patient with yourself, but more importantly, being patient with your surroundings, that he made the best possible decisions.

Despain: Several of the pundits on this network have predicted that NASCAR is going to make a change sooner, rather than later, in its concussion policy. Are those guys right? Are there changes coming?

Helton: I think we’ve made a lot of changes over time. We stand behind our concussion policy, and I think we have one of the best in sports. The fact of the matter is, as it relates to concussions, we’re all a lot smarter today than we’ve ever been. Not just in motor sports and sports in general, but in everything, just walking down the street. We’ve been made more aware of concussions. The awareness about concussions is at an all-time high, and it should be. Not just in this sport. Over the past decade we have developed a concussion policy that we think is best in class in sport. Now, technology, the science around it, even the incident Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., presented us, we can learn from. We think we’ve got a class act concussion policy now.

Despain: What we don’t see, we see in football, is NASCAR making the call. You’re going to sit out because of a concussion. NASCAR hasn’t gone that step in taking the initiative in saying, ‘looked like that might have hurt his head, we’re going to test him, we’re going to sit him out.’ Why not?

Helton: We rely on the experts to do that. We rely on the medical profession that understands the neurological science around an individual to make that call for us. So if somebody is concussed, somebody goes to the care center and the doctor says that you have the traits of concussion, they have to go get okayed. It’s not me or Steve O’Donnell or Robin Pemberton that says okay, it’s the doctors that tell us if he is concussed, then we say you can’t participate. We do that, we feel like.

Despain: Kyle Petty was the most recent to make the argument on this show that the racing is not as good as it should be, that the current car is to blame and there are too many rules that tie up crews, so therefore, they can’t make that better. From your viewpoint, from the sanctioning body’s viewpoint, what constitutes good racing?

Helton: The natural answer is the reaction of the fan. The acceptance by the fan that likes what they see. You and I, David Hobbs and others, can sit here and debate what we think is a good race, and spend a lot of time doing it, and ending up just agreeing to disagree on things. We may even be convinced by each other’s opinions. But I do think we can point to the evidence that the quality of the NASCA R racing today is as good as it’s ever been. The components that make up the events; the talent of the teams, the talent of the drivers, the quality of the race cars, all of that today is at an all-time high. Fans also attach the level of excitement of the race, to their own particular driver for success in an event. I still think our quality is good, and we’ll continue to work on the product, and react to what the fans expectations are because that’s the driving force behind our sport. I think we have to be relevant to that. I think in the 65 years, and what the fans expect may have even changed. Their taste may have changed, and we have to adapt to that. I disagree with Kyle, and he knows that I do, but I think the ingenuity, the creativity, the mechanics and the crew chiefs is at an all-time high and we give them a lot of latitude. (NASCAR has) given back more latitude in the last few years, knowing that we were probably over-regulating the sport. I think this car was a stepping block for us, as we would like to make this sport safer. Since its introduction, we have been able to make the car race-able to the driver’s tastes, and their talents. Currently, and more relevantly, I think the quality of the NASCAR component is at an all-time high. The facilities that we race on, but I think the subjectivity of what you think a good race is, is probably unique.

Despain: I want to go at a specific example of it, and the fan reaction. Talladega, I remember very well in 1986, my MRN position was up above when Bobby Allison hit that catch fence. Is it possible we’re misreading what the fans want, and I include myself in that? How do you determine what the fans want?

Helton: In today’s world, you get a lot of input from a lot of different directions, via social media; we have our own fan council that we address every Monday after a race. We ask them specifically what they thought about it, which is a sampling of the community. We try every possible means in keeping our ear to the ground, so to speak. Specifically around Talladega – Talladega and Daytona both – are cyclical. We had pack racing in ’86. We had tandem racing in the ‘60s. The cyclical part of how a track changes, or car changes, or rule changes make the racing in Daytona and Talladega is something that we chase. I think the fans, after the tandem racing, they said, ‘we don’t like that.’ So we went to alter that. If we corrected that, we could very possibly get back into the big pack racing, which fans will tell you they like, if you can avoid the wreck. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do. We were three-quarters of a mile from doing it in Talladega, but there’s another factor that’s lingering out there, and I think across all the sports, and all of business everywhere, is simply the economy. We’re still not back on our feet, and when I say we, I’m not just talking about NASCAR. I’m talking about the public in general. Between the cost of fuel, the unemployment, different economic situations, and think we’re market-specific sensitive to those. After we come through the cycle of starting to rebuild, and Talladega maybe one of those areas that’s challenged from the economic scale, which is something we need to consider in the debate of what fans want at Talladega.

Despain: We’ve been talking about the Truck Series racing on dirt in Eldora (Ohio) Speedway. What are the chances of that actually happening?

Helton: I’d say stay tuned.

Despain: It’s a huge change from a regional, country-western sport, to a national rock n’ roll sport, its attracted huge crowds, built new tracks, we added all of these seats. Massive expansion… but by the nature of modern society, those fans seem to be more fickle than the ones that used to cheer for King Richard (Petty) and Mary Robbins. Their attention span is shorter. There’s more competition for that attention, and they tend to be NASCAR fans this year, and maybe go on to the next big thing the following year. Meanwhile, a lot of the old-line fans were turned off by all the changes, and they lost interest. You talk about empty seats, what you end up with is sport that’s vastly bigger than it was 30 years ago, but it’s not as big as it was in its peak of the boom. Is there any validity to my theory?

Helton: We’ve heard a lot of different theories, including one very close to yours. We don’t disagree with any of them; we just try to adjust them and try to understand what to do next. When you and I first met, it was at Atlanta, and we would sell 18,000 seats on the day of race, to put 25,000 people into a packed house. So we have come a long way in that regards, but we’re very proud of our past, our roots, and we want to maintain, and sustain enough of the product that got us where we are, as you refer to some of the folks that liked it the way it used to be. But we also have to be very conscious of today – even mine and your attitude has changed about things we liked or disliked over the course of our life – se we have to stay on that edge. If you redecorate or repaint your room, it’s the same room, but it looks different, so it feels new. So we have to do those types of things, that’s why we invested in an R&D Center here in Concord, N.C., to stay ahead of things. We tried different things out, in order to be relative, and to stay on that edge, and maintain the connection to our past, then to the loyalty of the followers we have established over the decades. But also offer up something that can offer a new taste in talent for somebody else. A sport comes down to rivalries. If you’ve got a good rivalry going on, you’re going to be followed. Last year, between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, we could see the same thing developing this year between Jimmie (Johnson) and…

Despain: But doesn’t it have to last more than a year to be a rivalry? That’s great competition, but a rivalry is (David) Pearson and (Richard) Petty, or (Bobby & Donnie) Allison and Petty…

Helton: …or (Rusty) Wallace and (Dale) Earnhardt.

Despain: Well, sure.

Helton: If they last, then that’s great. But if they don’t, you have to figure out where the next one is, and keeps it entertaining, I think. I think that’s a challenge for all sports. It’s why you’ve seen rules changes over time, with double-file restarts in our sport, or a timed-down in football. We’ve all learned over time that we have to make adjustments, move the game along so to speak, to keep it entertaining.

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