A Post-Race Interview with:
- Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive VP and chief racing development officer
- Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of strategic innovation
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell and NASCAR senior vice president of strategic innovation, Ben Kennedy.
Ben, this has been your vision. How does it feel?
BEN KENNEDY: I think an incredible day for the sport. Really proud of NASCAR, the industry, everyone coming together. Patrick Rogers, the entire team did an incredible job, Derek Muldowney and the rest of the folks, building a track. Really proud of the group.
Teams and drivers coming together, rallying around this. FOX has just been tremendous with us, six hours on FOX today. I think this will be great as we look to kick off our season in two weeks for the Daytona 500.
Really good day, proud of the sport today.
THE MODERATOR: Steve, you had many members of your team living out here for the last month or two. What are your thoughts after seeing the racing product and the grand scheme from a high level, how you feel right now?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I would just echo what Ben said. Taking a chance, Patrick and the team, for putting this together. We looked at a number of different venues. Ben and I went on a few road trips. I think Ben’s work getting here with USC, who was a terrific host for us, just seeing the industry not only come together but have fun.
When you look at this Next Gen car, all the pressure that was on, really the entire industry, all the long hours coming into this, I think a lot of us in the industry forgot that we’re in a pretty cool sport. It is fun to be a part of.
This event delivered. I think it delivered on that. You saw it in the drivers, the industry, saw it with a lot of folks in the media. I think a lot of folks had fun. We’re going to learn.
The Next Gen car really wasn’t a story, and I’m happy for that. This is probably the toughest test we could have on the track that we set up in terms of durability, beating and banging, driveline, different things. We’ll learn from that.
All in all really successful debut for the car, as well.
THE MODERATOR: Questions, please.
Q: I just saw Kyle and Austin high five you guys. What does that mean for you to know that the drivers obviously seem to think this was a success?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I think it goes back to what I said, people having fun, getting back to going out there and racing.
Today was what we’re all about. Really the whole weekend. If you look at what the drivers have done for the sport over the off-season, really getting out there and help promoting us, this is a big market for us. It was important for us to come out here and look like we’re having fun, even if we weren’t. That wasn’t the case. I think everybody was really enthusiastic, ready to go, they wanted to win this race. I think that showed.
High-fiving us is more we’re doing the same because they delivered, put on a great race for us.
Q: Ben, you said there’s the option to return here. You didn’t say that, sorry, somebody else said it. My question is, did you see anything that made you want to do this again specifically here and/or did you see anything that made you say we need to do this somewhere else because things that you potentially could do in other places?
BEN KENNEDY: That’s a good question.
I think coming out of today we’re going to go back, do a pretty in-depth postmortem on this event. Certainly there are a lot of new things that came along with this event, from Pitbull, Ice Cube, DJ Skee. Everything along with the format, the entire event really.
I think we’ll go back to that, then really think about what the future might look like both for being here at the L.A. Coliseum and the type of venue in general, too. I think there were a lot of questions coming in as to what the racing product might look like on track. I think between the format that we had with the heat races, last chance race, all the way through the main, at least from a fan perspective, a lot of energy in the bowl, hopefully those tuning in on TV enjoyed it as well.
Q: (No microphone.)
BEN KENNEDY: No, I don’t think so (smiling).
Q: Kyle just suggested the potential success of today could factor into what happens at California Speedway. What do you think of that suggestion? Is that possibly true?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I think that’s fair. I think that’s one of the things we’re looking at you look at the long-term schedule. As you look at the Clash, the role it’s played for us historically, always been a part of Speedweeks. Really it was to promote the Daytona 500. It did that maybe up till a time when it ran its course. I couldn’t think of a better promotion for the 500 than what we just saw really.
Leading into, the enthusiasm, the talk, from FOX did for us was tremendous, promoting the Daytona 500. For us, looking at different venues, I think also part of it is how do we continue that march to launch our season? What’s the right way to do that?
California as a racetrack, we’re looking forward to getting back there in three weeks, I guess, pretty quick. Looking forward to the racetrack they have now. We’ve historically put on some pretty good races there. First time for Next Gen, so we’ll see how that plays out.
Q: Ben, you talk about trying to look at the data. Obviously eye test, you had a large crowd, a race that was not as bad as what some people thought, the entertainment. What do you need to look at to figure out what you want to do next? Eye test seemed like a lot of things probably measured in what you were looking for.
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, for sure. Again, I think the energy behind the crowd here was amazing. I was walking back to the media center right after the event, ton of people smiling, laughing. The energy was really just contagious.
It was great to see the fan reaction. Looking forward to watching it back on TV again.
I think we’ll have a lot of data coming out of this. I think there is certainly potentially a future here. We’ll probably try to make a decision on that sooner than later.
Q: How realistic is it, it comes back? Did this event show it should move around?
BEN KENNEDY: It’s something that I think we’ll certainly look at. Los Angeles, as we’ve mentioned from the start, is really an important market for us. It’s important for us to get here in a big way, too. It’s been two years since we’ve competed in Southern California. To be able to get back here to downtown Los Angeles at the L.A. Coliseum, come back a few weeks later at Fontana, I think it was really important to us.
The Coliseum, USC, have been tremendous partners. That will be certainly an important part as we think about this. But to your point, too, if we can prove this out, a proof of concept, it does open the door to other locations in the future.
Q: Ben, putting the question a little differently. Obviously you said you’re going to analyze this event. What is on your wish list? Kevin Harvick mentioned Wembley; Austin Dillon said Cowboy Stadium. If you could go someplace, where would you like NASCAR to go? You’re too young to remember under your grandfather’s era racing in Japan. There were a bunch of people in Australia.
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I don’t remember Japan. I remember watching videos of it. That was pretty neat.
I think as far as venues go, I talked to Kevin in the elevator yesterday, he was talking about that. I think it does open the opportunity and door to do that. I think it’s going to be really important as we think about those venues, the size of it. I think the Coliseum was a perfect footprint as you think about the size of the field itself.
I don’t know that we’d want to make the radiuses of the corners that much tighter. I think you probably play with the straightaway length a little bit. I think it will be an important factor. If we are going to take this to other locations, I want to make sure that the racing product is good for our fans.
Q: If you could pick one place that you would like to go?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I’ll help out with this one (smiling).
I think everything is open. To Ben’s point, you look at the footprint, one of the unique things about this stadium is the Olympics and the track that they had around a football field doesn’t really exist anymore in the purpose-built football stadiums. It’s a lot tougher to look at that footprint of what might have the room for us.
Certainly if you looked, and I’m not advocating that we’re taking the Clash overseas, I don’t want anyone to take that away, but it does open up the opportunity for us if we wanted to showcase NASCAR, we’ve always talked about, Ben and I, you have to go to a road course, they have to build a track somewhere if you’re in Europe. Not anymore. We’ve proven out you can go to a cool stadium with a track around it, we know what to do, we can go in and out, some opportunities there.
Ben, if he hasn’t already, is already studying the footprints of a lot of different stadiums in the U.S., what works, what may not work, but also pretty happy here.
Q: On Twitter you guys are trending over the NFL with the Pro Bowl. Did you expect that? Was that a goal? Is that a shock?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Ben will have to answer that. I got kicked off Twitter (laughter).
BEN KENNEDY: No, I don’t think anyone expected that. I’ve actually been following on Twitter throughout the day, the different trends.
It’s great to see the reaction around it, the engagement with our fans certainly here but worldwide as well. I had a friend that actually texted me the other day, sent me a picture of a news channel covering us from Australia, which is neat.
We had fans from 50 states here. Also people all around the world watching us today. Really neat that they were able to get that, cool that we’re still in that spot.
Q: Used to be that you would do simulations for stuff when you tried new stuff. New you have iRacing, computer simulations. Used to be hours upon hours of playing what-if scenarios. Was that true with this?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think with iRacing in particular, they have been tremendous with us. I was talking to Steve Myers during the race. They were really happy about it. They’ve been great partners with us. As we think about testing out these new venues, to be able to develop it virtually before we actually come here and build a track has been really helpful.
I think as we think about kind of other concepts in the future, having them as partners is really neat both from a competition perspective as well as for the fans in the stands. We did a bunch of sight-line studies with different variables of banking, too. It was really good feedback.
Q: Steve, can you envision a situation where you would have a points race at a track like this but with an abbreviated field?
STEVE O’DONNELL: That’s a really great question.
I would say right now no, but I think there are a lot of things we want to take away from this to learn. Historically, right, everyone who grew up on short tracks, this is what you do. We have a charter system, 36 teams. I was really proud of the industry coming together to work together on this format, knowing some folks would go home from a big event.
There’s a lot we’d really have to think about to do that. A lot of it was how much time we would have on a broadcast window to allow someone, if they were coming out, that it was worth it for a sponsor. A lot of factors would have to come in.
You never totally rule it out, but a lot of work. Seems to work on an exhibition race, but we’ll see on a points race.
Q: It was refreshing to see the drivers have fun. Not something we’ve seen that often. Do you have any idea of how you can keep unlocking that attitude when the season starts going, it gets into the regular routine of the points races? How do you maintain this new attitude they have?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I think part of it started actually during the off-season. You look at the rules package we had that I know was unpopular to some. But to a lot of our fans, it was popular. That was a difference kind of between NASCAR and the drivers.
It was tough at times. I think the process we went through with the drivers and the industry on this new rules package, working together, landing where we did, there was a real trust factor built in even prior to we’re going to the Coliseum, hopefully you guys have a good time, they were all in. They understand the importance of the Next Gen car, and feel like they’re a part of it for the first time, which I think is unique.
I’m not going to promise as we get through some races, but really do feel like we’ve got a much better relationship in terms of listening but also having an understanding when we make a certain decision, there is some reason behind it. Because we went left, you wanted to go right, doesn’t mean we didn’t listen, there’s some reasons we did it.
They’re a big part of this event, too. A lot of them worked with Ben in terms of the format, how we should do it.
I don’t know if you want to talk about who you talked with, Kurt Busch and other folks.
BEN KENNEDY: I think the collaboration across the entire industry was phenomenal. Working with the industry and FOX, creating the format itself. We played with a handful of different formats. Really a true partnership and collaboration across the board.
Talked to a handful of drivers, have had them reach out just with feedback about the course. A few of them jumped on iRacing, got their perspective on it. Even down to the rumble strips we had in the corners, too. The rumble strips, the painting we had on the apron, a lot of that came from the drivers. Super helpful to have that feedback. I think the collaboration there is probably better than it has been in a long time.
Q: Steve, there were some mechanical issues, not a ton by any means. We saw driveline issues with the 14 and the 8. Do you think those are more isolated incidents, vendor issues? Something to figure out and debrief after this event?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I think still a lot of debrief that needs to go on. If you listen to the 8, he said he caused that. I’m not trying to deflect, but that’s something that’s going to happen.
We’re still looking into the 14. We’ll kind of look through each and every car, not only those but the incidents we had, impacts on the wall, what broke. You saw a lot of cars that historically, if we ran this race last year with the old car, would have been out with tire rub, tire damage. That’s a positive. Any part or piece we see an issue, we’ll have a big debrief, get on it, fix it. Still a little bit early on that one.
Q: Your reaction to the quality of the racing? Seemed like the feature itself was clean, everyone was able to be aggressive. Was it surprise? Relief? What was it?
STEVE O’DONNELL: A little bit of both. I think all in all, though, it was probably some pride also in our team and the work the industry did because you didn’t hear drivers getting out saying, or even prior to the race, I can’t drive this car. Knowing going in this would be a really difficult race to have drivers be able to put cars in certain positions. We didn’t hear any of that.
Certainly there were challenges. We saw a lot of teams who in practice were junk and were able to make some adjustments and compete and almost compete for a win today.
I think a lot of things we’ll learn. All in all really proud of how we performed. Up until the feature wasn’t even a storyline, my wife actually, think we don’t talk, But is this the new car race?
Really, are we having this conversation (laughter)?
Then I stopped myself, this is good. If this is not in the broadcast as the lead storyline, that’s the way it should be. All in all, really pleased with the results.
Q: Very poetic Pitbull shouted out NASCAR a couple times during his performance. To quote him, He said that’s what life is about, taking challenges, taking risks. Looking back at all the people who might have doubted this, final thoughts on coming out of this with a positive outlook?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think it was a risk. We knew that from the start. As we’ve talked about the schedule over the past couple years, we talked about being bold, we talked about being innovative. That’s part of it.
Went to some new tracks in 2021. We’re going to go to World Wide Technology Raceway this year. This was something new, something different. We challenged ourselves, the team challenged themselves to think about this event differently.
Having Pitbull as a pre-race concert, Ice Cube as a mid race, DJ Skee, everything around the marketing and promotion of it, it’s a total team effort. It was also wiping the slate clean and thinking about it differently.
We’re really proud of the outcome today. I think it was successful.
STEVE O’DONNELL: I would echo one thing, too, on the France family obviously has been around a long time. Steve Phelps coming in, enabling us to do this.
Because Ben is a pretty humble guy, also didn’t waver. There were naysayers even internally. When you look at having Ben say, No, this is going to work, this is going to be cool, his background carries a lot of weight internally. It was cool. There’s some ideas some of us may have had in the past, we needed that extra push.
Ben did a lot of that, led from the front, which was really cool to see.
Q: Some of the drivers said they might actually like to see something like this event happen to the All-Star Race. Is that something you are internally considering now, maybe move the All-Star Race to different venues?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it’s something that we’ll certainly evaluate as we evaluate our entire schedule from start to finish.
This was one of those events that we felt like it was an opportunity for us to reinvigorate. We’ve had the Clash for a number of years at Daytona. Wanted to shift it to a new market, do something different that we’ve been talking about for a while, to Steve’s point on the international side.
I think we’re going to continue to look at all our races, whether it’s the points races, exhibition races. I think we’ve had a little bit of change with the All-Star Race, which has been positive for us, moving it from Charlotte, had it at Bristol, and then moving to Texas. Creating that newness for it, which I think fans look forward to.
Q: Ben, in a couple weeks you guys are going to be going to Auto Club Speedway. In saying that, you had a lot of first-time NASCAR fans that came to this event. A lot of them came out of the curiosity standpoint. Also it was the entertainment factor. How are you going to continue to ride this high and keep the momentum going? Any changes you have with Auto Club, bringing more or different entertainment on short notice?
BEN KENNEDY: I’m not sure. I think as we talked about this event initially, it was important that we not only had a successful event but then we have a successful event when we come back for Fontana, too.
To your point, this event was a little bit different than we’ve traditionally had, especially with an exhibition race. That said, I think we’re going to have some learnings out of this. There might be a few things we may take and apply to other races, there might be a few things we don’t take and apply to other races.
I think that’s what this entire event was about, is about learning, creating a proof of concept, then seeing if there are some things we want to take to some of our other events.
Q: I asked the drivers this. You talk about the importance of this market for the sport. What about bringing it to this building with such a rich sports history? What do you think that does for the sport as a whole?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Personally, I know Ben is too, I’m a huge sportsfan outside of NASCAR. I get tired of hearing the big four, the big four. I look at our ratings and attendance and say, Why aren’t we in this discussion?
To be able to come here, put on a great event, showcase our talent, how much fun our sport is, was really important. That’s a big deal. This venue is iconic. It’s a place where if you’re a football fan, who doesn’t want to come out and watch a USC game once. Even if you’re not a USC fan, Olympics. Baseball. I think it was cool to be able to say we were able to race here, and I know the drivers said that, it’s certainly a place they wanted to win.
Q: I wanted to ask Ben, but I know he’s not going to answer, he is too humble. So Ben is a racer, started off racing, he’s 30 years old, had this vision. What does this say to you and the sport of NASCAR for the future of the sport with him coming up with ideas like this?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I think it says we’ve got a really bright future. I never had a doubt with Ben. Ben worked his first assignment, came out and worked with me on the trucks. We said, All right, we got to go talk to all the truck owners, figure out what we’re going to do. I think it was around a new engine program.
The next day Ben came back and had talked to every single truck owner, had notes and everything, that it took previous people a couple weeks. I knew then this guy wanted to work, see the sport grow. Was really impressive.
I think always on top of things, great communicator, well liked, which is cool. He won’t say it, but deserves a ton of credit for seeing this through from the beginning, then staying on top of it even when there were challenges to say, This is where we’re going.
Q: I know the talk ahead of time was a potential crowd of 50,000 to 60,000. Did you top 60,000 today?
BEN KENNEDY: I’m not sure, to be honest. I think we’ll probably know in the next few days or so. I can tell you the bowl looked really good. I think people filtering in over the heat races, last chance race, Pitbull concert, we were pushing that 3 p.m. window for fans to show up.
I think you saw that over the course of the day. I think optically it looked fantastic. We’ll go back and come through the numbers of the next few days or so.
Q: (No microphone.)
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think it was fantastic. Everything about the day, ton of energy with the crowd. I watched a handful of interviews. A lot of new fans were out here having a great time, too.
The energy and buzz I think was really positive from a fan perspective, then everything that we’ve heard at least from the teams and drivers before the race has been really positive. The few that we’ve seen since, it’s been good, too.
Q: The pandemic restrictions in Los Angeles a little more elevated than other cities. How did that factor in? The turnout, I’m still going to assume you’re pretty satisfied with?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I would say logistically we were pretty well schooled in different states, counties, what you had to do due to COVID, no fans, partial fans. Part of this was making sure we were in lockstep with what the rules were going to be. Tom Bryant and the whole crew did a tremendous job working hand-in-hand with all the local authorities to make sure we were there.
Back to the crowd question. The crowd met every expectation we had going in. When you look at the naysayers prior to, when you look at where we were with the Clash in Daytona, it’s a home run. I think the enthusiasm, the demographic, a lot of young people out there having fun, is exactly what we wanted.
THE MODERATOR: Steve, Ben, thank you so much for your time.
STEVE O’DONNELL: Thanks for being out here.
BEN KENNEDY: Thanks for coming. Appreciate it.