NASCAR President Steve Phelps shares vision of sport moving forward

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR President Steve Phelps lauded the direction the sport is headed, hinted at a behind-the-scenes TV show, and noted the need to improve the weekend experience for fans at the track.

Those were among topics Phelps addressed in 60-minute session with reporters Friday at Phoenix Raceway.

He also talked about how the 2023 schedule won’t look like the 2022 schedule, along with the potential of moving the championship weekend to other venues.

One of the biggest issues in recent weeks has been attendance at tracks. Texas and Kansas had many empty seats, while Martinsville had a large crowd and Sunday’s Cup finale at Phoenix Raceway is sold out.

Phelps called the crowd size at Texas Motor Speedway “an unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace.” He said NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports officials are working how to improve attendance there.

As for Kansas Speedway, which is owned by NASCAR, Phelps said 80% of the tickets were sold but only 60% of those tickets were scanned at the gates on the day of the race.

Phelps said for tracks owned by NASCAR, attendance is up for every race vs. 2019 with the exception of Darlington Raceway. That track went from one Cup race in 2019 to two this season.

As for the issue of making more races events, Phelps noted: “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.”

Some people have noted how the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” has helped boost Formula One interest in the U.S. and wondered why NASCAR can’t have something similar.

“We are in discussions with NBC Entertainment,” Phelps said. “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 (for the Feb. 6 NASCAR Clash).

“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.”

As for future schedules, Phelps said: “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.”

Some drivers have said they would like to rotate the championship weekend. Phelps noted all the Phoenix community has done for this event, but he also acknowledged that the season finale could change at some point.

“I think the move from Miami to here was an important one after 20 years,” Phelps said. “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.”

Phelps also noted how the sport has seen growth.

“Our digital and social numbers are the highest they’ve been since 2015,” he said. “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.”

Additional comments from Steve Phelps

Q. 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.

Q. 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. (designated market area), it’s important. We have more fans in L.A., in that L.A. (designated market area), than any other (designated market area) 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.