Dale Jr. Download: Steve Phelps on NASCAR’s mistakes, future, and more

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On Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on Twitter that NASCAR President Steve Phelps would be his next guest on The Dale Jr. Download and asked fans for questions.

They responded in kind, and Phelps said he had roughly 800 Twitter notifications as a result.

What did fans what to ask Phelps about?

There’s a lot going on in NASCAR, from new schedules, to qualifying frustrations, to the influence of CEO and Chairman Jim France and the possibility of new manufacturers and on and on.

April 1 marked the start of Phelps’ seventh month in the job and he addressed those topics and more, including past mistakes NASCAR is working to fix.

Here’s a condensed version of his interview:

THOUGHTS ON CONTROVERSIAL QUALIFYING SESSION AT TEXAS

“Do I think we’ll make some changes moving forward to that? We’re going to have to. That was unacceptable if I’m a race fan and unacceptable if I was at the race track. Do I have some influence there? Yeah, I have some influence there. But I want to make sure the guys that are responsible for that particular area are doing that. Not too dissimilar to what I would do for Jill Gregory on the marketing side or Daryl Wolfe on kind of the sponsor side and business development side. You want your people to do their jobs and they’re talented people and they can do that. To the degree I can help them, I want to do that.”

MOST IMPORTANT VOICE TO LISTEN TO IN THE SPORT/THOUGHTS ON 2020 SCHEDULE

“The most important one is the fan. What does the fan want to see? What’s the product they want to see? What kind of racing do they want to see? So some of the questions last night (On Twitter) is … I think (Autoweek reporter Matt) Weaver said, ‘Hey, remind Steve that a short track is .75 miles and below.’ I am aware of that. … Fans have said that they want to see more short tracks and more road courses. I get that. And fewer intermediate tracks. We totally understand that. We tried to mix up the schedule as much as we could with the limitations that we had. Cause we had five-year agreements, 2020 is the fifth year of the agreement.

“So we had to go to all the same race tracks, but the way we kind of configured them kind of puts some emphasis on short tracks or an emphasis on road courses, or the Roval in that case. I think the Indy-Daytona switch is to provide more drama. I know we’ve been accused of manufacturing drama. I’m OK as long as there’s drama. If I’m a race team or I’m a driver, the likelihood of me winning Indy if I’m already outside of the playoffs is pretty slim. The likelihood of me winning at Daytona at the final regular-season even, at least I got something there.”

(Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

IS BEN KENNEDY BEING GROOMED TO BECOME THE FACE OF THE FRANCE FAMILY AT NASCAR?

“I’ve never had this conversation with Ben, so I’ll put myself out there. Ben has done a tremendous job in the short time he’s been here (first as Truck Series general manager and now managing director of racing operations and international development).

“He is working on kind of the competition side of where things are. He worked with Steve O’Donnell extensively on the schedule. So they were really the force of the schedule … They did a great job I think getting tracks aligned on the changes that we made.

“If that’s what Ben wants to do, run his family’s business. I think that’s fantastic. He’s smart. He’s passionate about the sport. He did drive and was a winner in Trucks and (raced in) Xfinity. … I think it would be a great natural step to have him in there. How soon he comes in and runs the place, that’s really between (CEO and Chairman) Jim (France) and Lesa (France Kennedy), his mom, and Ben.

“I wouldn’t bet against him.”

WILL NASCAR LOOK AT TRACK AGREEMENTS DIFFERENTLY SO IT’S NOT BOXED IN?

“That’s the plan. We think that having race tracks kind of be in it together with us in making changes and having a certain standard for what it looks like to run a race track, run a race at the highest level of NASCAR, I think that’s important. Could we see different tracks? Yeah, we absolutely could. What they are, where they are, there’s a ton of speculation of what would be a good race track for us to go to. We’ve heard, ‘Hey, don’t run two races on mile-and-a halfs.’ I saw that on Twitter last night. I’m not suggesting we’re not going to do that.

“I just think, listen, we have to do some things differently. Fans want us to do things differently and I think we need to do it as quickly as we can within reason, understanding that there are three legs to that stool and one of those legs are the tracks.

WHAT IS NASCAR GOING TO DO DIFFERENTLY OR WHAT IS IT GOING BACK TO?

“I think that there was, this was in an interview I did around Daytona, (where I said) ‘Hey, we made some mistakes.’ Listen, we’re not the only business that’s made a mistake. I think we chased a new fan at the expense of an existing fan. We’ll never do that again. It doesn’t mean we can’t have new fans in the sport, of course we can. But we want our new fans and our existing fans, avid, longtime, loyal fans, we want them to kind of nurture and grow these young fans or these new fans, young or old, I don’t care what they are. As long as there’s more people that are coming into the sport. We have a great sport. We want to share it.

“Other things that we can change, again I think it goes back, first and foremost, it goes back to the racing. Where are we racing? What does the racing look like? Is the car going to look more, quote ‘Stock’? I think our auto manufacturers, OEMs, would like to see body styles that are more reflective of what happens in a showroom. I think they would want to see some different types of engine packages that we could put together that would be more relevant to what would be good for them and as part of that I think we could hopefully take the three existing OEMs we have and add a couple of more. I think the winner frankly is the race fan. I believe that because it’s just more and more excitement, more and more rivalries. It would be great, for example, to have Dodge back in the sport. We’ve had discussions with Dodge, and we’d love to see them come back. So come on back.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

ARE MORE ROVALS IN THE FUTURE?

“You take a look at the Roval, right? Ratings were up, attendance was up. So the first, immediate reaction is, ‘Oh, we’ve got other Roval opportunities at other mile-and-half-tracks.’ I don’t think that is the answer. It doesn’t mean we won’t do that in the future at a small number. Could we support another, quote ‘Roval.’ We could. But it’s kind of like Eldora. There’s something special about Eldora. It doesn’t mean you’re going to run eight dirt races for Trucks, four for Xfinity and two for Cup. There’s a specialness that exists, and I think we have to try to get at opportunities to go to places that are different and unique from each other.

“You can go to a mile-and-half-track that looks the exact same layout as another mile-and-a-half track, but the surface is different, the weather is different and you’re going to get different results. With that said, this kind of lumping in of intermediate tracks, ‘We just have too many.’ OK. So is there an opportunity to potentially go elsewhere and shorten a number of intermediate tracks? Yeah, that’s something we can look at and we’re going to.”

DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO RACE IN NASHVILLE WITH THE AWARDS BANQUET NOW THERE AND WHAT’S NASCAR’S INVOLVEMENT IN DISCUSSIONS ABOUT FAIRGROUNDS NASHVILLE SPEEDWAY?

“Listen, Nashville is a great town for us, right? So we have two different tracks, the fairgrounds and the one outside of town. Would we like to run at Nashville again? We would. I think it’s a great town for us. I think having our banquet there is a great place to go. There was a time, a kind of thinking of NASCAR at the time, don’t embrace country music because that’s kind of the core, that’s our roots. Well, that’s a mistake. We want to embrace country music. Not only is country music incredibly popular, but it’s part of a natural tie for our sport.

“So going to Nashville I think is a great idea. What’s going to happen moving forward into 2021? Are we going to be racing in Nashville or not? I don’t know. I know that at least I’ve been told, (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus (Smith) has had discussions with the folks in Nashville at the fairgrounds. How likely is that going to happen? Right now he has no sanctioning agreement for 2021, so he can’t bring anything there. If he wants to bring something there, obviously NASCAR has to have an involvement. They are our dates. We will absolutely (get involved) when it’s time.”

IS THE GEN 7 CAR ON SCHEDULE?

“As of right now, our Gen 7 car is on schedule. I think we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do with our OEM partners, and we have a lot of work to do ourselves and a lot of work to do with the race teams. I think that a 2021 Gen 7 car, body style, chassis, as well as a 2022 potential revamped engine is a distinct possibility. That’s what we’re working hard to get. We’ve got folks working on that every day as hard as we can, cause I think it would just be better, frankly. It seems a bit, you’re going to take an engine and put a tapered spacer to essentially create, quote, ‘better racing,’ right? I think that would it make sense to just build the engine to whatever the specifications are going to be? I would say the answer to that is yes.”

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

WHAT IS (CEO AND CHAIRMAN) JIM FRANCE DOING? HOW MUCH OF A TURN HAS HE MADE TO BE HELPING NASCAR AS A WHOLE?

“How involved? He’s involved every day. He’s maybe not out in front, in your face on the microphone granting 50 interviews. Not kind of his style. But he knows exactly what’s going on. It has his kind of guiding hand on it. Talked about Gen 7. Jim France knows all about Gen 7 and how to get there. It’s important to him.

“Jim France also knows about, ‘Hey, we need to grow our database and know who our fans are.’ Jim France is involved with something we call ‘Project Horsepower’ to try and increase ratings and attendance. That has been at the heart of our marketing efforts that Jill and her team are doing. Jim France asking all the time, ‘Hey, what’s Jill doing? How are they doing? How did we do in the ratings?’ We’re up for the year. We were up 36% yesterday (at Texas). We were on big Fox instead of FS1, but even so, our numbers and our share numbers continue to increase.

“Those are exciting things. Every single Monday, I send a note to Jim and Lesa, ‘Here’s where we are.’ That portion has certainly been a success story. He wants to know how’s the racing going. He’s been at every single event but one and that was some circumstances that he and I needed to be in Daytona so we couldn’t be at Auto Club. It’s been fantastic.”

ON REVAMPED DRIVERS COUNCIL

So the driver council right now is in a little bit of a state of flux. In a good way. … You’re talking to 10 guys, right? Most of that time the way it was made up, you had veteran drivers and then you had younger drivers because we want to have some representation across the different OEMs, future Hall of Famers plus these young kids who are coming into the sport.

“The problem is then you had 30 drivers that were not represented. The difficulty is it’s not that the information we got was flawed information you got from the 10, the other 30 didn’t know what we were talking about so they felt out of the loop. Then they’re out trying to figure out what’s going on, the lobbying. So what we’re doing now, we started this last fall, is we’re going to meet with all the drivers and you’re going to do it with smaller groups. So we’ll do in groups of three or four around Richmond.

“Three or four groups around Richmond where you’re going to lump your champions and kind of veteran drivers together so they can talk and listen to where we’re going and we can listen to where they want to be. Then we’ll separate into two or three other groups of various teams. Teams will stay together for the most part. We think that’s a better way of doing it. That’s why I say the driver council is kind of in a state of flux. It’s just changing. So I would call it a new driver council, just not with a formality of what we had previously.”

Listen below for the full interview with Steve Phelps.