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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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson among athletes raising COVID-19 funds

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Seven-time Cup champion and NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the athletes who have donated signed items as part of a fundraiser for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy states it is the only full-time national resource dedicated to helping donors maximize their impact by making more intentional disaster-related giving decisions.

Johnson is offering signed race worn shoes for COVID-19 relief. Anyone who donates at least $25 will be entered to win the shoes. A winner will be selected at random at end of the fundraising period, which is May 1.

Earnhardt is offering signed skeleton racing gloves for COVID-19 relief. Anyone who donates at least $25 will be entered to win the gloves. A winner will be selected at random at end of the fundraising period, which is May 1.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund supports preparedness, containment, response and recovery activities for those affected and for the responders.

Other athletes who have donated items include Jack Nicklaus, Stephen Curry, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles.

 

 

Where Are They Now: Lake Speed still racing and ‘still bad to the bone’

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He may not have been born a Petty or Earnhardt, but there is one former NASCAR driver whose surname practically predestined his career path.

That person with the colorful moniker is Lake Speed.

“God’s got a sense of humor, that’s the first thing,” Speed laughed when asked about his unique surname in a recent call with NBC Sports. “Every time I make a new acquaintance, I have to explain that the name is real and that God gave it to me.

Lake Speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997. Credit: Darrell Ingham /Allsport

“My dad was one of seven Speed boys. There’s a lot of Speeds back from where we’re from. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse. Sometimes you get ridiculed if you’re not running good because you’ve got the last name of Speed, but on the other side it’s looked at as unique, and I think it’s kind of helped make me stand out a little bit in a crowd.”

While the last of his 402 career NASCAR Cup starts came in 1998 at the age of 50, the 72-year-old Speed is still chasing checkered flags and living up to his last name.

When asked if he’ll ever retire, Speed chuckled, “I haven’t been able to find that in the Bible anywhere. I enjoy what I do, I like people and helping people, the interaction and all that is perfect for me. I just don’t see stopping.”

Speed began racing go-karts in his native Mississippi at the age of 12 before eventually finding his way into NASCAR Cup.

“Some people know I was a big-time go-karter for years, had a career, business and raced all over the world with karts before I ever came to NASCAR,” Speed told NBC Sports.

Since leaving NASCAR, Speed has come full circle, returning to his karting roots in 2001 and has become one of the more successful and prolific karting racers in the country.

Future NASCAR Cup driver Lake Speed poses with one of his racing karts when he was 15 years old. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“After I left NASCAR, a former NASCAR safety official, Steve Peterson, was a go-karter for years and years,” Speed said. “He kept calling me and kept saying, ‘Lake, you’ve got to come out here to the kart track. I have a few cars and you can come out and play with us some.’

“I finally went out one day and I forgot how much fun this was. I told myself I’ve got to get me one of these. So I got a kart and started fooling around with one and eventually started racing again. I went big-time, messed around and won the national championship in karting road-racing in 2007. Between the karting, the real estate business and trying to raise a bunch of kids and grandkids, that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”

Speed’s day job is as a commercial real estate broker, a career path he began back in his college days.

But racing has always been his first true love, particularly karting. Speed won the International Karting Federation national championship six times before he came to NASCAR in 1980, and was the first American to win the World Karting Championship at LeMans, France in 1978, defeating a number of other aspiring racers including future three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna.

He remained the only American to win the world karting title in any class until 14-year-old Florida native Logan Sargeant did so in 2015.

Speed could have gone in any number of directions as a racer, but former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler convinced him to try NASCAR, finishing as runner-up to Jody Ridley as Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980.

Speed would go on to record 16 top-five and 75 top-10 finishes in his Cup career, with a career-best points finish of 10th in 1985.

Lake Speed, winner of the 1988 TranSouth 500. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

March 27 marked the 32nd anniversary of Speed’s only win of his Cup career, the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway. He took the checkered flag by nearly 19 seconds over Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.

“It was more of a relief than anything,” said of winning. “I had really been close to winning a lot of races in my career up to that point and particularly that season, we had led (nearly) every race that season before that race.

“We had the whole field a lap down at one time (in another race) and still didn’t win the darn thing. So when I finally won at Darlington, it was like, ‘Gosh darn, finally, now we can finally get on with it.’

“That was great, but there were other highlight moments. I had cars that were more than capable of winning a race and had a mechanical failure, an accident or whatever that knocked you out.

“There were also the times we passed the heroes and we were always an underfunded and under-budgeted team. When you outran the big dogs, it didn’t matter whether we won the race or not, we took home a moral victory. We had a lot of moral victories. Only one was in the record books, but there was a whole lot more of them where we went home to the shop with our heads held high, knowing we had put the hurtin’ on ‘em.”

Speed still keeps up with NASCAR – and the fans still keep up with him.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I am, this far out, that I still get multiple cards, letters, model cars every week,” he said. “I’m autographing stuff and sending it out every week. It makes me feel good and gives me the opportunity to share my faith with people. I got saved in 1983 and it made a giant change in my life. I feel God gave me this platform to use, so I try to use it to honor him.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss it?’ Yeah, I miss it. I miss probably the most working in the shop with the guys, trying to build a better race car to outrun everyone else. I really love that challenge.

“I never went to work. It was always a pleasure and joy to work with guys and build strong relationships. People that have never been on a team that was working seven days a week for a goal, it’s just a different scenario than a ho-hum job that you’re going to just to make a check.

“I lived that life most of my life and when I got retired from NASCAR, all of a sudden I was in an office by myself. It was a shock. It took me several years to get over it. It was a tough, tough change. Karting really was a salvation for me, to get me going again to have something to do and the interaction with people.”

Lake Speed darts around a kart track April 5, 2006. Photo by Getty Images for NASCAR.

Speed didn’t mind being an underdog during much of his Cup career. But the real heroes to him were those who helped him throughout that nearly two full decades of NASCAR racing.

“I can’t really emphasize enough how important the crew guys are and were,” he said. “The relationships we built, we worked hours and hours together doing things and trying to accomplish stuff.

“In our case, being underfunded, when we got out ahead a lick, it was amazing to see these guys light up and the pride. When you see guys work real hard and they accomplish something together, it’s amazing. I still bump into one of those guys at least once a month and it’s like seeing a brother or sister that you haven’t seen in a while.”

Speed faced a number of tough competitors in his career but also became close friends with several, including Bobby Hillin Jr. and Darrell Waltrip.

Speed still lives and works out of the same compound he bought in 1985 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His real estate office occupies part of his original race shop, while his karts have replaced the Cup cars that used to be worked on there as well.

Karting has helped keep Speed young. He enjoys mixing it up with drivers half or even two-thirds his age.

“Look at it this way: I started all this when I was about 12 years old and raced until I retired from NASCAR,” Speed said. “I sat around for two or three years until I got into karting and went right back to racing regularly again.

“It’s just something that’s been in my blood all along. I love working on ‘em, love the people, the camaraderie and the challenge. I always said that if I knew last year what I knew this year, I would have won all the races last year.”

Speed is also a big part of what has become somewhat of a seniors tour: vintage karting, which is composed mainly of drivers in their 50s and on up into their 80s.

“It’s like going to a high school reunion, but where everybody shows up with a go-kart, races, has a good time, tells a lot of stories and relives their childhood,” he said with a laugh. “It really is cool, it’s the greatest thing in the world. You go to a high school reunion and it’s kind of boring. This is not.”

When asked how successful he is in karts today, Speed laughed: “With the modern stuff, not so much. You’re racing against a bunch of guys whose average age is 22, there I’m kinda mid-pack.

“But with the vintage stuff, I’m still bad to the bone.”

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Virginia stay-at-home order puts Martinsville race in question

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for residents of Virginia that begins Monday and extends through June 10 “unless amended or rescinded by further executive order.”

Such an order would impact the May 9 NASCAR Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. That race is scheduled to be the track’s first Cup night race.

The Virginia order prohibits “all public and private in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals. … This includes parties, celebrations, religious and other social events, whether they occur indoor or outdoor.”

NASCAR issued a statement Monday:

“NASCAR is aware of the stay-at-home order issued for Virginia. We will continue discussions with public health officials and medical experts as we assess rescheduling options.”

NASCAR announced March 16 that it was postponing all events through May 3. Those races postponed are Bristol, Texas, Richmond, Talladega and Dover. Previously, the Atlanta and Miami weekends had been postponed.

Previously, Gov. Northam had issued a stay-at-home order from March 24 – April 23.

North Carolina will be under a stay at home directive beginning at 5 p.m. ET Monday. It is scheduled to last 30 days. The order impacts the NASCAR industry with most race teams being based in the state.

 

Report: Debut of Next Gen car to be delayed

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The Next Gen’s car debut will be delayed, according to a report by The Athletic.

The car is scheduled to run its first race in the 2021 Daytona 500, but the The Athletic stated that the date would be pushed back in the 2021 season. The Athletic reported that a decision is expected to be announced this week.

NASCAR did not issue a statement Monday. Series officials are having discussions with teams and suppliers to determine the impact associated with postponements and adjustments of NASCAR’s goals for the new car.

The Next Gen car is viewed as a long-term cost-savings measure for teams and will include common parts from vendors. The Athletic reported that the delay in bulk manufacturing of the chassis and other parts will lead to the delay in the debut of the Next Gen car in 2021.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said last November that teams would take delivery of the car around this July. The COVID-19 pandemic has put that schedule in jeopardy. NASCAR has postponed Next Gen tests at Atlanta, Bristol and Dover. No makeup dates have been announced.

There remain two NASCAR Next Gen tests scheduled: June 2-3 at Charlotte and July 14-15 at Las Vegas. There are eight open tests and four organizational tests scheduled for between August and December. Phelps stated March 17 that NASCAR’s goal was to reschedule its postponed races before the playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington Raceway. Doing so could mean doubleheader weekends and/or midweek races, which would further tax teams as they also look to build Next Gen cars for next season.

“Even working ahead and being prepared, I see a lot of sleepless nights in the near future,” Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie at Go Fas Racing, told NBC Sports earlier this month.

Also, at 5 p.m. ET today, North Carolina’s 30-day stay-at-home order goes into effect and will impact many businesses, including NASCAR teams and vendors in the state.