AVONDALE, AZ — 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.”
More Schedule Changes Coming
NASCAR has done a complete makeover on the scheduling front. 2021 was radically different from 2020. 2022 isn’t a far out there as 2021 was, but there’s still some changes. Phelps says that changes aren’t done yet. In fact, they’re far from it. He anticipates even more changes coming in 2023 too.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
We saw COTA, Bristol Dirt, Road America, Indy road course and Nashville on the 2021 schedule. Next year we get World Wide Technology Raceway was well as the LA Coliseum hosting the Clash. As the sport evolves, so will the schedule.
As far as what would lead to more changes? Look no further than attendance. Phelps singled out Texas for their lack of people in seats and gave an explanation on why Kansas appeared to have less attendance too.
“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.”
Less Horsepower, More Downforce The Direction They’re Still Heading
I’ve seen a lot of drawback against this racing package that NASCAR has had the last couple of years. Fans, drivers and media have all been clamoring for more horsepower and less downforce back. It’s been a large subject of discussions since the debut of this 550 package.
Everyone is wondering why NASCAR continues to keep taking more and more horsepower away when they seem to be asking for it to go in the other direction. They felt like with a new car coming for 2022 and a fresh slate, why not give the drivers more power back?
Well, after Friday’s news conference, I sense that the reason NASCAR is going this direction is that they feel like this is what fans want. They’re basically saying those of you saying you don’t like the 550 package are in the minority here.
“I think, again, I would look at it two ways. 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.”
He doubled down earlier as well.
“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.”
Future TV Deals
NASCAR is still operating on that TV contract that was around $8.6-billion over 10 years. But, that will soon come to an end. Does Phelps foresee NASCAR getting more money still on this next deal?
“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.”
One way to do so is streaming. Would he be interested in having a few races behind a paywall on Peacock or something similar?
“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.”
A 4th OEM
“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.”
Daytona 500 Looking For Attendance Bump Again
Prior to this past February’s pandemic ridden Daytona 500 that ran in front of a limited capacity, the Great American Race was a sell out with a growing crowd and atmosphere like it used to be in the 90s and prior. Well, Phelps expects the 2022 race to pick up where 2020 left off.
“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.”