NASCAR president Steve Phelps stuck to his guns.
In his first state-of-the-sport press conference after taking office in 2018, Phelps acknowledged that NASCAR racing faced significant headwinds but proclaimed, “I do believe as we head into 2019 that our best days are ahead.”
The 2021 season has given Phelps no reason to retract that statement, and the promise of 2022, with the introduction of the Next Gen car for the NASCAR Cup Series, only serves to enhance the optimism.
“The first time I had the opportunity to do this was in 2018 in Miami,” Phelps said Friday at Phoenix Raceway during his fourth end-of-season session with reporters. At that particular point, the sport was going through some challenges, some headwinds, right? Those were real. I think we felt that.
“I remember using the phrase that our best days are ahead. I’m not sure everyone in this room or folks around the country, (or the) world, believed that to be true. I did. I think the results that we have seen are more than encouraging. I’m very proud of them, right?
“It really took an industry coming together in order to make that happen. It took race teams, our broadcast partners, our sponsors, tracks that we own or tracks that we don’t own, that all came together to create an opportunity for our sport to grow, which is exactly what’s happening.”
Emblematic of that growth is the continuity of NASCAR’s presence on television, a reflection of the sanctioning body’s agility in completing a full 36-race 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule despite the complications of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are the most stable sport on television since 2018,” Phelps asserted. “No other sport—none—can match what NASCAR has done from a stability standpoint with our ratings. If you consider our share numbers since 2019 in our Cup Series, it’s up 18 percent, which is hard to do at this point. It’s just hard.
“Then you look at our ratings for Xfinity and our Camping World Truck Series, they’re up double-digits. The share in both of those series is up 25 percent to 30 percent. We are having a moment as a sport. It’s important that we keep it going, which is exactly what we’re going to do.”
Growth in attendance, fueled by imaginative scheduling, has paralleled the increase in television share. Phelps said every NASCAR-owned track, with the exception of Darlington, showed an increase in per-event attendance over 2019—and Darlington added a race in 2021.
Notable, too, were road course additions to the schedule at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, and Road America in Elkhart Lake Wis.
“I think the schedule variation is critical for the success of this sport,” Phelps said. “I think you saw really strong results from schedule variation, whether you’re talking about COTA, you’re talking about Road America, you’re talking about even format changes like Bristol Dirt, which might as well have been a new venue.
“Ben Kennedy (senior vice president of strategy and innovation) and the team put together the most aggressive schedule we’ve had in 50 years. I think it worked. Attendance was fantastic at all the new venues. The racing was good at all the new venues.
“As we look to the schedule in 2022, going to the L.A. Coliseum to kick off our debut with our Next Gen car as a proof point, frankly, to we’re going to be bold in what we’re doing, whether it’s the schedule or the car—all of it—we’re going to take calculated risks.”
Though NASCAR is still addressing steering and heating issues with the Next Gen car in advance of its debut in the Feb. 6 Clash at the Coliseum, the car is on course for its inaugural race. Currently, there are no problems with the supply chain for the components.
“What I would say is that this car has been tested, run, (with) more collaboration than any other new car in the history of this sport,” Phelps said. “Not even close. The Gen-6 car that came out, we ran a test in January before we raced it at Bristol for the first time.
“I am confident, and we check all the time on supply chain issues. As of now, there are no issues. We’ll continue to monitor that because it’s important. If you’ve got 30 major components to the car, (and) you only have 29 of them, you have a problem. Until the car is on the race track, we’ll continue to give it all the attention that it deserves, which is a lot.
“With respect to issues with the car that we’re working through, right now it’s really down to two things that we see, which is steering, which you guys have talked about, and getting that right. The other is the heat in the car. We’ve got some solves for that that the drivers I believe are feeling more satisfied with.”
Phelps also indicated that NASCAR is having conversations with new manufacturers about entering the sport. One prevalent rumor has Dodge returning to competition.
“There are some discussions that are going on with other OEMs, new OEMs, that would come into the sport,” Phelps acknowledged. “Our three existing OEMs are happy about that. Our race teams are happy about that. We’re happy about that. It’s been widely rumored that Dodge is one of those or closest. I won’t confirm or deny that.
“It is important. We’ve made no bones about the fact that we want to have a new OEM in our sport. I think we got delayed with the pandemic. With that said, we are an attractive place, I believe, for OEMs to come into the sport. Now is an important opportunity for them to do that because of the Next Gen car.
“I also believe the fact that the sport is growing and has a relevance that it hasn’t had in decades is causing some real interest from other OEMs.”
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to Phoenix Raceway here on our championship weekend. It’s great to see so many familiar faces and be back to a sense of normalcy here. Last year it was a very different operation, we were limited in media and fans. It’s good to be back to this, to kick off what’s going to be a great weekend for us.
This weekend we have a sellout crowd, a full media center, full press box. We’re excited to be here to kick off what stands to be a great weekend for our sport here. We’re going to do it with our annual pre-championship weekend press conference with NASCAR president Steve Phelps.
Steve is going to answer as many questions as we can get to. We have practice starting at 1:00.
With that said, thank you, Steve, for making the time. Thank you for all the media in attendance live. We’ll start off with Steve kicking off with some opening thoughts.
STEVE PHELPS: I’m going to speak for about 55 minutes since we have an hour. Plenty of time for questions at the end (smiling).
Let me start by thanking you guys. This is my fourth time addressing our media corps for a state of the sport at season end. I always start by thanking you. I’m going to do that again today because you all, whatever outlet that you represent, whatever medium that we’re using or that you are representing, you are the ones that bring the storylines to life, you are the ones that bring the characters in our sport out and bring them to life, right? You are a very, very important part of our sport. So I want to thank you for all you do.
We have a long season. I love the length of our season, but it’s not easy, right? You guys represent yourselves and your outlet and this sport for many of you 12 months a year as you’re following the circuit. So I want to thank you.
Second, I want to add my congratulations to our drivers in our four national series as well as the ARCA West Series that will race this weekend. I think we’ve got some very deserving drivers in all four series, but certainly as we talk, we’ll mostly talk about our national series here. I think we’ve seen some incredible racing. The drivers for the Camping World Truck Series, the Xfinity Series and NASCAR Cup Series are very deserving to be here and I wish them well.
I hope whether you’re from Phoenix or from around the country, around the world, that you see just a tremendous energy level here at the raceway, and more broadly Avondale, downtown Phoenix. When you flew in, you saw signage, things that represent that we are here in Phoenix, that this is our championship weekend.
I think we didn’t have the opportunity to do a lot of that last year because of COVID. But this year I think Julie Giese and her team have done a terrific job. A sellout on Sunday, we are trending well ahead for Friday and Saturday. That’s exciting. The fans are excited to be here, whether they’re camping one day, in and out, just a tremendous energy level that is part of this championship weekend. Excited about that.
Moving on to what I’ll call kind of the state of the sport portion of this, and then I’m happy to answer any questions we can in the allotted time.
I was reflecting, I talked to a couple folks here earlier, the first time I had the opportunity to do this was in 2018 in Miami. At that particular point the sport was going through some challenges, some headwinds, right? Those were real. I think we felt that.
I remember using the phrase that our best days are ahead. I’m not sure everyone in this room or folks around the country, world, believed that to be true. I did. I think the results that we have seen are more than encouraging. I’m very proud of them, right? It really took an industry coming together in order to make that happen. It took race teams, our broadcast partners, our sponsors, tracks that we own or tracks that we don’t own, that all came together to create an opportunity for our sport to grow, which is exactly what’s happening.
If you think about the racing product itself, I like to start with the racing product because that’s our business, we race. I think the racing that we have is absolutely terrific. If you do it from either an I test or emotional test or actually the data, it would suggest that we’ve had one of the best if not the best racing competition levels in the history of this sport.
You look at green flag passes for the lead, I think it’s the second since 2007. The most passing throughout the field that we’ve had ever. You can feel it, right? Great storylines that are coming out of it as well.
I would say the drivers right now are up on the wheel more than any other time in our history throughout the field and it’s exciting.
How does that translate to engagement? Our digital and social numbers are the highest they’ve been since 2015. We continue to add on the social side. We feel that energy level, that excitement level throughout the digital and social channels.
Television, which gets a lot of focus, we are the most stable sport on television since 2018. No other sport, none, can match what NASCAR has done from a stability standpoint with our ratings. If you consider our share numbers since 2019 in our Cup Series, it’s up 18%, which is hard to do at this point. It’s just hard.
Then you look at our ratings for Xfinity and our Camping World Truck Series, they’re up double-digits. The share in both of those series is up 25% to 30%. We are having a moment as a sport, it’s important that we keep it going, which is exactly what we’re going to do.
We’re going to continue to invest, we’re going to continue to collaborate with the rest of the industry to continue the growth this sport is on.
One thing I did want to touch on, I think is really is kind of reflective of our sport and why this award is so important. We’re a sponsor-centered sport. A lot of folks really kind of just consider the reporting out to be the sport portion of any sport. Given the importance of sponsorship to our community and to NASCAR overall, the race teams, the racetracks, for NASCAR in 2020 to be honored as Sports Business Journal League of the Year I think speaks volumes to how far this sport has come.
Every single person who is part of this industry, including the folks in this room, were part of that. Last year wasn’t an easy year. But we persevered. Frankly we are a stronger sport today than we were pre-pandemic. I would argue with anyone who would say otherwise.
As we look forward into 2022, obviously we’ve got a significant change that’s happening in the sport, which is the car that we’re going to drive. The Next Gen car is an important part of the future of where NASCAR is going to go. It really hits on a lot of different important things for this sport, whether you’re talking about relevance, you’re talking about styling, you’re talking about bringing this car to a place that, frankly, the existing car can’t bring us to. The technology in the car, the data that’s going to spin off that car, all designed to enhance the fan experience. That’s what I think is going to happen here.
It will create some opportunities for race teams to be competitive for a long time. The racing itself is going to be one that is going to continue the momentum we’ve had from a racing standpoint and a competition standpoint.
Is it going to be exactly like it is today, significant number of passes for the lead throughout the field? I don’t know. But I do know that our race teams, our drivers, our OEMs, our own competition people, will make sure that this is going to be the best racing we’ve ever had in this race car.
With that, I will open it up for questions.
Your recent comments about the sport being stronger since pre-pandemic, the beginning of the season also featured a vast restructuring of the Cup schedule that had been planned for a long time and the continued development of the Next Gen car. One of the networks even used the slogan ‘best season ever’. Looking back at the season so far, how much do you feel the schedule actually transformed the Cup Series?
STEVE PHELPS: Yeah, it’s a good question. I should have addressed that in the opening. I appreciate you bringing it to the group here.
I think the schedule variation is critical for the success of this sport. I think you saw really strong results from schedule variation, whether you’re talking about COTA, you’re talking about Road America, you’re talking about even format changes like Bristol dirt, right, which might as well have been a new venue.
Ben Kennedy and the team put together the most aggressive schedule we’ve had in 50 years. I think it worked. Attendance was fantastic at all the new venues, the racing was good at all the new venues.
As we look to the schedule in 2022, going to the L.A. Coliseum to kick off our debut with our Next Gen car as a proof point frankly to we’re going to be bold in what we’re doing, whether it’s the schedule or the car, all of it, we’re going to take calculated risks.
To answer your question, I think the schedule variation was very important. The reason why we’re able to do schedule variation frankly is the two public companies that dominated the Cup schedule, they had responsibilities to their shareholders. Those shareholders wanted to see a return on the investment they were making in those public companies.
NASCAR merging with International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports going private were things that people don’t think about what that were very, very important to the success of this sport and will be for decades to come.
I don’t know what the ’23 schedule is going to look like, but I know it’s not going to look like the ’22 schedule.
Over the last several weeks especially there’s been comments from drivers talking about things related to policing, NASCAR policing on the track, things related to the Next Gen car. There seems to be sort of a perceived disconnect between the relationship between drivers and NASCAR itself. Obviously there are things like the drivers council before. How do you view the current relationship between the drivers and the NASCAR executives?
STEVE PHELPS: So I would say we went through a stretch in the summer where the drivers felt that they didn’t know enough about the safety of the Next Gen car and were vocal about it.
What I can say is we had repeatedly met with the drivers to try to alleviate their concerns about safety. With that said, they weren’t in a good spot. We just kept meeting with them, making different opinions and experts available to them, specifically around the test that we did down in Daytona.
I think the drivers are satisfied with the answers that they heard. I would say as we looked at kind of June, July, early August, that’s probably a fair statement that the drivers and the sanctioning body were not on the same page. But I think right now I believe the drivers feel good about the direction of the Next Gen car both from a drivability standpoint, since most of them had the opportunity to drive it now, and from a safety perspective.
I would say that we endeavor to make sure that our drivers understand where we’re going, what’s the vision of the sport, what’s the direction we’re going in, what role they play. I think although there isn’t a driver council, per se, we’ve had I think three all-driver meetings, we speak with drivers all the time. I speak with drivers myself if they have concerns. I want to address them. I know the entire NASCAR team feels the same way.
Do I think that the communication between our drivers and the sanctioning body can improve? Yeah, it can. It’s going to. I think there’s some different things that we’ve spoken to some veteran drivers about that will address some of those. May not be a driver council, per se, but we’ll continue to have all-driver meetings, probably have some smaller meetings with a handful of drivers, then we’ll have individual driver meetings.
To answer your question, Steve O’Donnell and I met individually with, I don’t know, 12 or 15 drivers to make sure they were comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.
You alluded to the crowd sizes this weekend. You’re sold out Sunday. You had a really good crowd at Martinsville last week. Prior to that the two Playoff races at Kansas and Texas you had lackluster attendance and it prompted some criticism from drivers, discussion in the industry about holding tracks more accountable, auditing ticket sales. There’s a provision in NASCAR sanctioning agreements where you can mandate minimum attendance. Can you address all of that? Would you take steps of holding tracks accountable by holding them to minimum attendance standards with some sort of penalty if they don’t?
STEVE PHELPS: I think we can all agree that Texas, it wasn’t our best foot forward for the year, which is unfortunate, but it happened. Specifically around Texas, we’re going to work with Speedway Motorsports to determine what’s happening in that marketplace, then what can we do collectively that will help ticket sales in that marketplace. We’ve got a group that we’ve put together that includes Speedway Motorsports folks, it includes people at NASCAR, to address what I would suggest would be an unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace.
Obviously the facility is massive. It is a huge facility. So I think it exacerbated an issue that existed there, which they did not sell enough tickets.
As it relates to Kansas, Kansas is a track that NASCAR owns. I thought we were going to see an incredible crowd at Kansas based on the number of tickets that we sold. We sold a lot of tickets. It was above 80% of the capacity, which at this particular point I’d take 80 plus at most of the facilities that we have, at least right now. We are trending towards increases.
Unfortunately we only scanned 60% of the tickets going through the turnstiles. Weather was a challenge that day, or supposed to be. I’m frankly surprised we got the race in based on where the forecast was. Obviously the nice folks in Kansas, Missouri, other parts of the Midwest, decided they were not going to attend even though they bought a ticket.
For us, you look at attendance, for our NASCAR tracks, we are up every single race versus 2019 with the exception of one race. That race went from one race to two races, which was Darlington.
We aspire to be sold out everywhere. The fact that we are trending positively versus 2019, that’s a good thing. Are we satisfied with it? We’re not. But I think, again, the number of races that across our Cup portfolio that were down, it may have been three, I don’t know the exact number. I believe Texas was, Darlington was. I don’t know if there was another race that was.
Went through a great stretch in the summer where we had sold-out racetracks or racetracks that looked fantastic. That’s what we want to do. We need to do that by doing a number of different things. We need to make sure that the marketing and promotion is as strong as it can be. We need to make sure we are driving storylines. We need to make sure the event experience is better than it’s ever been.
Are we satisfied with where that is? We’re not. We’re going to constantly get better. I think you’ll see that this weekend. I think this is going to be the single best championship weekend we’ve ever had, not just here, but ever. I think you’re going to feel that from an energy level. I think the drivers are going to put on a hell of a show for us.
We haven’t heard a lot on Fontana recently, converting it to a short track. Given supply chain issues, pandemic disruptions, are you still anticipating it will be a short track in 2023?
STEVE PHELPS: I don’t know. I think the difficulty to your point, there are a lot of uphill battles we have from a timing perspective. We are hopeful, right? Part of it has to do with there’s going to be a conversion of the two mile, right? What we know as the two-mile racetrack where we’re going to race next year, we’re selling some land around that. There are entitlements to it that no one really cares about, but we’ve got to make sure those things get done so we then can take the next steps to build that short track.
I think there’s a lot of excitement from the race fans. Talked to a number of people in the garage this morning. Look at Martinsville. Short-track racing at Bristol and Martinsville were incredibly exciting. Us adding another half-mile racetrack in a very important marketplace for us, I’ll call it the L.A. DMA, it’s important. We have more fans in L.A., in that L.A. DMA, than any other DMA in the country. It’s fertile ground.
My expectation is we’re going to see an unbelievable crowd at the Coliseum. Many of those race fans, I would say 40% to 50%, probably will never have been to a NASCAR race before. Right now the ticket sales are trending really well. 50% of the people have never been to a NASCAR race. We want them there. We are going to expand the fan base. We’re doing it by meeting people where they are, whether that’s physically at a racetrack or through our mediums, whether it’s direct to consumer, over the air, radio, digital, social. We need to meet them where it is. Gaming. All of those things are important to the success of this sport. That’s why I think there’s such great opportunity for us.
You were talking about event experience pre-pandemic. Cup cars were on the track three days a weekend with multiple practice sessions. Now it’s two-day weekends for Cup. What are you going to do to make sure the fans want to come to the track for the full weekend and what are the drivers’ roles in that?
STEVE PHELPS: I think it’s everyone’s role. Not just the drivers. Do the drivers have a role in it? Of course they do. They’re the stars of the show. We need to make sure our drivers understand the role they play.
It will be good to get back, nothing has been kind of announced firmly, to get back to practice and qualifying on the weekends. Whether that’s two days or three days, all of that is being sorted out. That will be an important part of the race weekend experience.
We’re unlike stick and ball sports where, hey, you may go and tailgate for the day on a Sunday if you’re the NFL. For us, (indiscernible) loading and camping here on Monday. That’s an important part of who we are as a sport.
But we must do better on what that race weekend experience is going to be. We can always improve. Whether that’s through technology, wi-fi, whether it’s through opportunities for kids to do things that are exciting and fresh and new, opportunities for us to have 20-somethings come.
What I would say, even in a limited scope that we have in terms of what the race weekend experience looks like, if you walk around the garage, you walk around the grandstands, walk around the midway, we are seeing more young people come to the racetrack, more families come to the racetrack, more people of color that are coming to the racetrack, and that’s exactly what you want.
If you’re a brand, you want to make sure you’re refreshing your brand with new people coming into your franchise. That’s what we are seeing.
I want to check on Jay Fabian. What is his current status? Do you expect to have a new Cup Series director next year?
STEVE PHELPS: I don’t know what’s status of Jay is at this particular point. I can’t comment on what the future’s going to hold for Jay.
Brandon Brown won his first race this year. It’s quickly been overshadowed by what’s become clearly a political chant. How does NASCAR feel about being associated with that? Now it’s popping over on shirts that look like NASCAR logo. Is that something that NASCAR is pursuing stopping?
STEVE PHELPS: So it’s an unfortunate situation. I feel for Brandon. I feel for Kelli. I think unfortunately it speaks to the state of where we are as a country.
We do not want to associate ourselves with politics, the left or the right. We obviously have and we’ve always had as a sport tremendous respect for the office of the president no matter who is sitting.
I think it’s an unfortunate situation. Do we like the fact that it kind of started with NASCAR and then is gaining ground elsewhere? No, we’re not happy about that. But we will continue to make sure that we have respect for the office of the president.
With respect to the trademarks used on that statement, to the degree they’re using a NASCAR logo, we will pursue whoever that is and get that stopped. That’s not okay. It’s not okay that you’re using our trademarks illegally, regardless of whether we agree with what the position is or not.
When you talk about steering the NASCAR ship through the heavy winds into bold new territory, which is the Next Gen car, can you speak to the fans about what things you would like, communicate to them as we head towards Daytona, et cetera, and maybe some unknowns, challenges? What do you ask of the them? It should be very exciting. You know what I mean?
STEVE PHELPS: I think part of it has to do with communication. We need to get through our championship, then all guns pointed towards making sure the fans understand what this car’s about.
You look back in May when we did the full unveil. One of the best days on social and digital that we’ve had all year. There was tremendous interest from the fans for this race car.
I think the car frankly is for them. That’s why it was developed. There are other by-products of that that are going to be positive for this sport. It really is bringing NASCAR to a new era.
As I see it, this car looks so good and it looks like the duplicate of a souped-up showroom car, I believe the statement putting the stock back in stockcar is a good phrase for us, frankly. It’s what the fans have been asking for.
You don’t need to be a manufacturer to produce this car. You need to assemble the car smartly, right, then have enough leeway in what that’s going to be to put on great racing. I think that’s what we’re going to see.
STEVE PHELPS: I think, listen, there’s a couple of things from a technology standpoint that will evolve over time. What we don’t know, I think the maximum number of cars we’ve had on the racetrack at one point is 21 or 22, so we don’t know what it’s going to be like to race.
To me, that’s exciting. You’re going to do that at two incredibly iconic facilities: the L.A. Coliseum, then Daytona for the 500, that 500 week.
I think if I’m a fan, this is a good time to be a fan of NASCAR, in my opinion.
I know television contract negotiations haven’t begun yet. Looking ahead, the NFL is going to have a game exclusively on Amazon. INDYCAR is going to have one race a year exclusively on a streaming service. Are you comfortable with the Cup Series having one race or whatever number of races a year on a streaming service, not available on network television?
STEVE PHELPS: Listen, I don’t know where we’re going to go. Direct to consumer is an important thing for our media partners. I know it’s important to NBC. They’ve made a big bet on Peacock.
What I do know is that next year, ’22, ’23, our Cup Series, our Xfinity Series, our Camping World Truck Series, are going to be on linear television.
Do I think there’s a role for streaming or direct to consumer for our fans? I do. I think it’s a really important one as we look to create better content that we would put through that streaming service, right?
If you think about, something that’s not ours, Dale Jr.’s Lost Speedways on Peacock, it performs incredibly well. Our fans will find things of interest to them.
What we need to do is make sure we are serving the fan where they want to be. If that fan wants to be served on linear television, great. If they want to be served on linear television and steaming services, great. If they want to be on linear television or not, maybe it’s just streaming, maybe it’s just digital and social. Wherever it is, we need to meet that fan where they are.
I think that we’ve got opportunities there. I can’t speak to other sports, but I know for us at least over the next three years linear television is going to be important, an important place for us.
You see what other sports leagues are getting for their rights, do you anticipate NASCAR is going to get more than received for its last television contract?
STEVE PHELPS: I would say that we are positioned well to have a good media rights discussion with FOX and NBC. If I started off talking about us being the most stable major sports property, it’s just a fact, the numbers are what they are.
Could I have said that in 2018 and been completely honest with you? Probably not. What I do know about 2022, based on the way the schedule is going, we’re going to have our most successful year on television than we’ve had in a long, long time. It’s going to happen, assuming that weather is our friend.
We have a tremendous schedule that we’ve put together. I think it’s going to yield significant results for us. If you consider that next year is the last full year before we start our discussions with our media partners, that’s a good thing.
Your two predecessors, they seemed to be pretty high on the fact that a new manufacturer would be coming in. There’s more than a buzz going around in the garage about Dodge. If they were to sign on the dotted line, clearly I don’t know the answer, but how long before we could expect to see another manufacturer on the racetrack?
STEVE PHELPS: You know what, there are some discussions that are going on with other OEMs, new OEMs, that would come into the sport.
Our three existing OEMs are happy about that. Our race teams are happy about that. We’re happy about that. It’s been widely rumored that Dodge is one of those or closest. I won’t confirm or deny that.
It is important. We’ve made no bones about the fact that we want to have a new OEM in our sport. I think we got delayed with the pandemic.
With that said, we are an attractive place I believe for OEMs to come into the sport. Now is an important opportunity for them to do that because of the Next Gen car.
I also believe the fact that the sport is growing and has a relevance that it hasn’t had in decades is causing some real interest from other OEMs.
Nothing to report at this particular point. It is important. I would suggest things are progressing or I would say that things are progressing. When we have something to announce, we will.
After navigating the pandemic so masterfully, if things stay the course with COVID over the next however many months, do you anticipate Speedweeks looking like probably the most normal Speedweeks we’ve seen in the last two years?
STEVE PHELPS: I certainly hope so. I think if we continue to trend the way we’re trending now, I think we absolutely will have that.
I won’t get into the exact numbers that we have from a Daytona 500 Speedweeks standpoint, but we haven’t seen advanced ticket sales like this in decades.
People are feeling like we’re going to have some normalcy, but I also think it speaks volumes to where the sport is. People want to come out for big events. We’re going to see it this weekend. We’re going to see it around the 500. We’re going to see it around the Coliseum, and it’s exciting.
There’s a Barstool ad outside that window, there’s often a Liberty University sponsored car on the track. How do you think NASCAR, its teams and tracks, should respond when its sponsors are involved in sexual assault allegations and scandals?
STEVE PHELPS: The Barstool reference, the sign out here, we have a very large relationship with Penn National Gaming, which bought Barstool. We actually had a partnership with Barstool several years ago which we ended a couple years ago. The Barstool relationship, sports betting specifically, is an important part of where I think all sports are going, including ours.
But, again, I think where Penn is in the relationship with Barstool, because they own them, that will be their decision about what they do.
With respect to Liberty, I don’t know a lot about that situation. I know that Rick Hendrick had addressed it. Where that goes in the future, what happens because of the allegations, think that would probably determine where that actually ends up versus where things are from an allegation standpoint.
What about just in general, something that’s not specific to Barstool or Liberty? How do you think in general that teams and tracks should respond if something like that happens with their sponsors?
STEVE PHELPS: We’re not alone in this. For us, we need to be very thoughtful about what we do. We want to represent what’s best of this sport. If there are things that drag it down or that negatively associate with our sport, it’s not something we’d be interested in.
In 2019 we got away from the entitlement sponsorship of the sport, went to the four partners and tiered ABC format. How has the format worked so far? What is the role of the B and the C? Have you been able to fulfill those officially?
STEVE PHELPS: I would say for our Cup Series to take a brand off – no disrespect meant to Winston, no disrespect meant to NEXTEL, Sprint, then Monster – but having our own brand back was very important for us.
The relationship we have with those four primaries are important. I think first and foremost the opportunity for them to promote the sport, which is what they’ve done, I think it’s a great first step. To me it really is the opportunities for others to promote the sport without promoting a single brand, which is what you needed to do if you were going to talk about the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series or NEXTEL or Sprint or Winston.
If I’m a brand, I want to associate with what I’m paying for, which is the relationship with NASCAR, not with another brand that I don’t frankly want to promote.
I would say that after now two years we are very pleased with the primary sponsorships that we have with those four brands. Whether we expand to another brand to join them or not is something that we would certainly keep open. If we were going to do that, it would need to be the right brand.
You talked in the spring about the importance of trying to bump up the vaccination rate in the industry. What is that rate now? How do you feel about those numbers?
STEVE PHELPS: It’s not high enough. We have seen a significant increase from where we were in the spring. I’ll just call it the garage. I think to me there’s a responsibility that individuals have to each other. That’s my opinion.
Do I think the vaccination rate is going to climb significantly from here? I don’t know. But I do think it’s important. As I said, I think there’s a responsibility that we each have to each other to make sure we’re staying safe. If you are someone who doesn’t believe in vaccinations, then making sure that you’re masked and socially distanced, making sure you’re taking the precautions necessary in order to have people stay safe is our responsibility.
You mentioned you don’t know how much that number is going to change. Do you foresee NASCAR changing protocols or requirements going forward?
STEVE PHELPS: That’s a good question.
To date I think it’s worked. We as an industry I think are very different based on how we interact with each other, particularly race car drivers and crews, whatnot, with their built-in PP. It’s different than the NBA.
Could we or should we change our policy? That’s something we’ll think about in the off-season. The answer may be no, but we are always trying to make sure that we are putting on safe racing and making sure we’re not in a situation where we have drivers or crews that are not coming to the racetrack.
Earlier this year it was announced there was going to be some sort of series, almost like Drive to Survive on USA Network. What is the status on that? Is that something NASCAR wants to do?
STEVE PHELPS: The short answer is yes. We are in discussions with NBC Entertainment. Things look very positive. I think actually if we’re able to get a few contracts signed in the next couple weeks, they will begin production in December. They will be at the L.A. Coliseum. There’s a decent possibility that they will not just look at us as a segmented period of time like they were going to do in the Playoffs, but they’ll extend it to potentially the entire season.
Again, nothing to report there. If it looks like I’ve just reported something, I haven’t. But we are encouraged. I think it’s an important opportunity for us to showcase our sport in a different way to a different audience.
We are moving to USA next year. It’s a higher distributed cable network than NBCSN. We will work with our partners at NBC to have our fans understand this is where it is.
Typical USA Network viewer tends to be younger, so I think there’s a double positive that will happen by migrating from NBCSN over to USA Network.
Anecdotally there’s a vocal segment of the fan base that doesn’t like the philosophy of what the 550 package represented. Even though it’s going to be a different rules package, the same philosophy is there, the lower horsepower. What do you see in terms of evidence from the fans that encouraged you to sort of double down with the Next Gen car?
STEVE PHELPS: I think, again, I would look at it two ways. As I said in my opening, optically what do you see? Do you think the racing is good or not? Our fan council data would suggest the answer is yes. Is there a vocal minority that says that they don’t like a 550 horsepower package, they want to see 750 plus? Absolutely.
I would go back past kind of the optics test or the I test, I would go to the data. The data suggests we have better racing right now than we’ve had arguably ever.
When you are at a 550 track, you have a restart, I mean, it is wild. These drivers are up on the wheel and they’re making moves that are incredible. I frankly don’t know how they do it. Certainly not something I would do. They’re incredible. I think they’re putting on some unbelievable racing.
So I’ve said it before, and I know that it seems convenient, but we are not going to make every race fan happy. I wish we could, I really do. But what one person likes, another person doesn’t. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to look at the number of people who are saying, the maximum number of people who are saying, I really like that, give them more of what they’re getting.
I think we’ve responded frankly to what the fans have had to say. Fans said they want more road courses. We have more road courses. Fans say they want more short tracks. I think people who bang that drum, we’ll do our best to find short tracks that will satisfy them that can host Cup races, like we may see in the future in southern California.
On-track etiquette, drivers policing each other is an issue again in all three series. What are your expectations for how you see each three of the championship races being run in regards to that topic? Yesterday Denny said NASCAR doesn’t get involved, they have to police themselves, but it seems like you got involved with Chase and Kevin. What is your role in what’s happening on the track?
STEVE PHELPS: Yeah, I’ll address the Chase and Kevin thing.
We did meet with both drivers initially together. Been widely reported that there was a Zoom deal that O’Donnell had addressed the folks with.
What we wanted to just remind them is that we are not going to put up with behavior that is not good, hard racing, right? If you want to take it to a different place, there are going to be significant penalties that will come with that. It was just a reminder.
I think Kevin and Chase certainly understand where we are. I think they agree with the fact that we went ahead and did that, talked to them both about that.
With respect to Denny’s other comments about drivers policing themselves, I think that’s right. He addressed something yesterday when he said, Hey, there’s a lack of respect out there. I think there are drivers that disagree with him. And that’s okay.
I will say this. I think the racing right now, drivers that are racing hard with each other, it’s good for the sport. I think coming out of Martinsville, Denny and Alex, the fact that it didn’t escalate any further than it did, to me I think it got to a line but didn’t cross a line.
I think that Alex has had some fun with it. It’s a great opportunity for the sport to have guys that are racing hard each and every single week. If Denny disagrees that guys that are sailing it in there, are not being respectful of each other, it’s not just good, hard passing, I would suggest that a portion of that certainly is in our DNA. Did anyone ever say to Dale Earnhardt that he’s disrespectful when he’s taking guys out, which he did a lot. That’s good, hard racing. At least it was.
Does it change over time? Maybe it does in kind of people’s perception or drivers’ perception of what is okay and not.
I think the drivers have traditionally figured it out, I think they’re going to continue to figure it out as well. But I think the drivers are going to continue to be up on the wheel, continue to race each other incredibly hard.
Again, what that looks like is over the line for one driver, it’s not for another.
Do you have any concerns in each of the championship races that it might?
STEVE PHELPS: I don’t think so at all. Martinsville, half-mile racetrack, you have some leeway to do some things. On this racetrack do you have an opportunity potentially to drive someone hard and drive them up the racetrack to go for a win? Yeah.
I find Denny’s comments interesting, right? On the one hand he said I wouldn’t do that. When he was pressed, Would you do that in a last lap? Well, I think you should just race the guy hard. He kind of left the door open, a little bit, right?
He doesn’t know until he’s in that moment. He hasn’t been in that moment before. The question is, What would Kyle Larson do? What would Chase Elliott do? What would Martin Truex do? What are the guys going to do tonight and tomorrow? But that’s why we watch.
You sit here and talk about Next Gen, all that that’s going to bring. We look at the finale, that means drivers are on the move, charters changing hands, teams going away. In talking about the state of the sport, how comfortable are you with the makeup of the Cup Series garage right now?
STEVE PHELPS: It’s a good question.
Probably Next Gen is a phrase we use some people think too much, Next Gen car, Next Gen owner, Next Gen fan, those are important things for our sport. I want to publicly thank Chip Ganassi in his 20 years of ownership in NASCAR.
That’s what this sport has always been about, right? You have drivers come and go, owners come and go. I’m excited about where we’re going. I had a conversation with Justin Marks the other day who as of Monday or Tuesday will take over Chip Ganassi Racing. He has an energy and excitement level for the sport that I think is important. He’s going to look at things differently. He’s going to promote the sport. He talked about being a steward of the sport. That’s incredibly encouraging for us at the league level to have an owner like that saying, Hey, I want to do what’s in the best interest of this sport. That’s what we’re trying to do.
The makeup is going to continue to change. You look at the Cup Series, you’ve got Kaulig that’s coming up, you’ve got Justin with two charters that he has bought. It’s going to continue. Lots of other things that are rumored to be happening with additional changes.
I think it’s good for our sport, I really do. I think it’s healthy to infuse it not just with new fans but new ownership, new brands that are coming into the sport. We’re seeing all those things.
You said recently everything that’s still ailing NASCAR in terms of the Next Gen car, this is the panacea for what that is. What is your comfort with the level in terms of the economy with supply issues, certainly there seem to be some issues with the car, and right now you’re three months away from putting a product on track in front of a public audience, national television audience?
STEVE PHELPS: What I would say is that this car has been tested, run, more collaboration than any other new car in the history of this sport. Not even close. The Gen-5 car that came out, we ran a test in January before we raced it at Bristol for the first time.
I am confident, and we check all the time on supply chain issues. As of now there are no issues. We’ll continue to monitor that because it’s important. If you got 30 major components to the car, you only have 29 of them, you have a problem. Until the car is on the racetrack, we’ll continue to give it all the attention that it deserves, which is a lot.
With respect to issues with the car that we’re working through, right now it’s really down to two things that we see, which is steering, which you guys have talked about, and getting that right, the other is the heat in the car. We’ve got some solves for that that the drivers I believe are feeling more satisfied with.
Listen, until it comes out and we’re actually at the L.A. Coliseum, we’re at the 500, with race cars on the racetrack, I’ll continue to be concerned. But I would say Steve O’Donnell, Probst, Brandon Thomas, that group, working with our teams, working with our OEM partners, have done an incredible job getting us to this point.
I’m super proud of the group. I think this is a really important milestone for NASCAR. We have to get it right.
For as much as you’ve talked about what Phoenix has done in hosting this event, making this an event, some drivers have talked about the idea of rotation, moving it around. How will you determine or look at the concept of moving the championship race? How do you look at the idea of moving it around? Is it a host of three or five years, one-year thing, maybe Bristol at some point.
STEVE PHELPS: It’s a good question.
I know there’s been a lot of conversation over the years about doing that. I think the move from Miami to here was an important one after 20 years. I think thus far it’s worked out very well.
The community here has embraced us. I think you see that. The question to me is really more about the competition, right? We’ve been embraced by this community. Would we be embraced by other communities? I suggest we probably would be.
So what is the best place to host or championship? Would we be open to rotation? Yes, we’d be open to rotation.
I would say every single option out there we look at. I think you’ve seen that over the last 18 months, that we are going to not be afraid to maximize the opportunity to create the best racing that we can in the best market we can and at the best racetracks that we can.
You mentioned you’re hoping that NASCAR can get back to some sense of normalcy. Being from southern California, every day there’s a new restriction placed on us with COVID. Not being able to go into restaurants and bars in the city of L.A., L.A. County, without having a vaccination card, having as of right now a negative test. What I’ve seen in Orange County is the Anaheim Ducks have a policy where if you go and don’t have a vaccination, you can get tested at their facility. Is this something that NASCAR is thinking about doing when you go to the Coliseum and possibly Auto Club?
STEVE PHELPS: We’re going to have to figure out as we get closer to that event what all of our options are. Southern California or Los Angeles, will they get to a place where they are being less restrictive? I’m not suggesting they will, but it’s something we’re going to monitor. We’ll have to have that in place, right?
Right now if you’re going to a Lakers game, wherever it is, you have to show proof of vaccination. As of now if you’re buying a ticket, then you have to either show proof of vaccination or, to your point, a negative test.
We’ll have to abide by whatever rules that someone is placing on us, we have to abide by what those are going to be, whether we’re talking about southern California or any other market we’re going into. We have to be respectful of the states that we’re going to.
It’s no different last year with COVID when we had to get permission from governors and health officials to even come and race, whether we were racing initially without fans or then going to race in front of fans. It’s their home, right? We need to be respectful of it.
Have you thought about doing it on-site? Where the L.A. Coliseum is, it’s not as simple as I’m going to run to Walgreen’s or CVS? Have you thought about doing it on-site?
STEVE PHELPS: I’m sure my guys have thought about all that. I don’t exactly know where that stands. Again, we want to make sure that we have every opportunity to have people get into that stadium to see that amazing event. So the fewer hurdles that people need to go through, obviously the better.
But I’m sure our folks are looking at all the alternatives.
THE MODERATOR: Appreciate everyone making the time. Steve, thank you for the time. Have a great weekend and thank you all for your time on this.