NASCAR is in the entertainment business.
And in the pursuit of entertainment, NASCAR appears to be willing to sacrifice traditional motorsporting integrity while also working to diversify the schedule and limit the costs of participation at the highest level of stock car racing.
Thatâs the highly-abridged version of a wide-ranging small group roundtable interview with NASCAR president Steve Phelps on Friday in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The 2019 season has been viewed by all accounts as a bridge to the next-generation version of NASCAR, and one that very well could look drastically different than any over the past three decades of professional stock car racing.
That means a new car that could debut in 2021, a new engine in 2022 and a new schedule for those cars to race on over the next decade.
The leagueâs top executive fielded questions ranging from the polarizing high downforce – low horsepower competition package, schedule change and the upcoming multi-tiered sponsorship model that will replace the entitlement sponsorship model that has been used throughout the Modern Era.
An abridged for clarity version of the one-hour long conversation can be viewed below.
“I think weâve had an extraordinary year. I think the racing product has been exceptional. The good news is that itâs not just me. The interaction we have with our fans, whether youâre talking about our fan council, radio shows that I listen to frequentlyâby and large the fans are incredibly excited by what theyâre seeing. I would suggest that the dataâgreen-flag passes, green-flag passes for the leadâ are up significantly year-over-year. Thatâs exactly what we were hoping was going to happen. From that perspective, very pleased with what this 2019 racing looks like and I think that has translated to increases in fan engagement and fan consumption.
“I think fans go to ratings pretty quickly. But we go to, in good times and bad, we look at ratings, digital and social consumption. It’s important to look at them holistically, so to have numbers up in all three areas is fantastic. The ratings on the FOX app were up plus-three, and our share at plus-six shows that when someone turns on the television, they are watching NASCAR. To me, the share is as important as the ratings because there are less people watching television when our races were on so that share at plus-six shows they were watching more NASCAR than what they were watching at that time. So, I’m excited about that and our digital-social numbers being up.
THE 2019 PACKAGE SEEMS TO HAVE AN EQUAL NUMBER OF CRITICS AS PROPONENTS âŠ
“I would say that’s not a true statement. Our research show significantly more fans who love this package than those who do not like it. Are we going to make every fan happy? We are not. I wish we could. People like different things and different styles of racing … I don’t know how the majority of races we’ve had this year are not passing the eye ball test. They pass it for me. They pass it for the majority of fans we are talking to.
“Are you going to have fans on Twitter attack anything? We’re going to have that. As for the drivers, there have been well documented comments from drivers like Kyle Busch. We’re not going to muzzle our drivers. We want our drivers to be authentic. I think Kyle Busch is an authentic driver and he speaks from the heart. I would suggest that when drivers say ‘it’s hard to pass,’ the data shows they are passing more than they were and they always say it’s hard to pass. Is it hard to pass? In some places it is.
“With that said, I think the racing is better. It’s the path we are on and it’s the path for us. This 550-horsepower package is one we are going to retain until the time we believe we can have something that produces better racing. I don’t see that happening anytime in the near term. We’re committed to the way this package is put together for 2019. If there are things we can tweak, such as tires, that’s something we will do.
IS FULL THROTTLE RACING BECOMING OF THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF A MOTORSPORT?
“What we are looking for is, ‘what is the most entertaining racing that we can put out there?’ That is what we are trying to do. And if that means full throttle racing, that’s the package we are going to put out there.
“We are going to have full throttle racing this weekend at Daytona and that’s going to be compelling. There was some thought that this package would create pack racing on intermediates and that hasn’t been the case. It was never intended to create pack racing. It was intended to produce closer cars that can pass each other, feature incredible restarts, opportunities to go three, four and five-wide, which the best racers in the world are doing and I think we saw that last weekend in Chicago and I think we will see that in Kentucky.”
HOW MUCH CHANGE CAN WE EXPECT ON THE 2021 CUP SCHEDULE AND BEYOND?
Phelps did an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this week where he said fans should not expect âmassive wholesale changesâ to the schedule in 2021. Fans largely reacted negatively, but Phelps said he didnât quite illustrate his point as well as he should. He clarified on Friday.
“We are continuing discussions with our stakeholders for where we are going to race in 2021. Our broadcast partners have a voice. Our teams have a voice. I was in a meeting today about the 2021 schedule. I would suggest that the two largest voices, frankly, outside of the tracks themselves are the fans and our broadcast partners… I wouldn’t characterize my comments as saying we’re taking a more conservative approach per se. I know what was in my head and what I was trying to say and others took it the wrong way and that’s on me. I don’t want to give any appearance that we’re not going to be aggressive with the 2021 scheduleâŠ
WHAT DOES NASCAR BELIEVE THE FANS WANT?
“Not to default to the fans, but the fans are a good place to default to. Our fans have made it clear where they want us to race in many cases and we’re trying figure out if that’s a doable thing. We think about what would create the best racing and what would create sellouts. Which race markets do we want to go to and which ones do we want to stay in?
“But we have to watch this, right? When I first came into the sport, fans didn’t like road course racing and they like it now. Fans haven’t liked the intermediates and the racing this year has been extraordinary. Are the fans speaking loudly in their interest to see more short tracks and road courses? I would say they are.”
WILL NASCAR GO BACK TO ONE YEAR SANCTIONING AGREEMENTS?
Currently, NASCAR is in the fourth year of a five-year sanctioning agreement with tracks that runs through the 2020 season. It used to go year-to-year with tracks, but tracks angled for long-term extensions to sell date equity years in advance. With the talks of NASCAR working to reduce the schedule and go to more short tracks and road courses over time, that would appear to make a multi-year sanctioning agreement unlikely.
“That’s on the table. Whether we go there or not, I’m not sure.”
WHATâS THE LATEST ON FAIRGROUNDS SPEEDWAY NASHVILLE?
“We haven’t been involved. Our fans have said they want to go back to the Fairgrounds. Marcus (Smith, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO) and Jerry (Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway track president) have been the ones spearheading those conversations with Nashville. If they decide to move forward, we are going to be involved with Speedway Motorsports to facilitate that. The facility is going to need considerable capital expenditure to get it to where it can gain a Cup date.”
WILL THERE BE FEWER RACES IN 2021?
“The current thinking as I see it: We will not reduce the number of races in 2021. Again, I would say it’s on the table but much of that has to do with our broadcast partners. They would like to have more NASCAR content, more NASCAR races because it drives television ratings. Do I think we would have a shortening of the number of races? I would say that is unlikely.”
WHAT ABOUT SHORTER RACES?
“We have taken down the length of some races. Is it something we are looking at? Yes, it’s something we are looking at. We balance the length of the races for fans who want shorter races versus fans who like the length of the races. But yes, it’s something we are looking at.”
WILL THE GEN-7 CAR MAKE IT EASIER TO HAVE INDIVIDUAL PACKAGES FOR DIFFERENT TRACK TYPES?
“I would suggest that a Gen-7 car would have the opportunity to have different, I wouldn’t call it different aero packages, but different versions of the car you would bring to the track. We will continue to work with Goodyear to decide what the best tire is for each track. We had a meeting with drivers and Goodyear to decide what direction to go and we got a lot of feedback.
“This isn’t my area of expertise but what I’ve been told is that we have the opportunity to create changes to the Gen-7 car that will adapt to intermediate tracks and short tracks and road courses.”
WHEN WILL THE NEW CHASSIS AND ENGINE DEBUT?
“We are on track for a new chassis and body style in 2021. When that engine follows is a question. There are those in the industry that have proposed waiting and just debut a full new car… We have a lot of stakeholders in this garage that are feeling as good about this car as we are and when we should introduce it. If I had to guess, 2021 would be my guess. When the engine will come will depend upon if our three existing OEMs are interested in doing it in 2022 or 2023. There are just a lot of discussions that are going on. We do have time. The current OEMs and the potential for new OEMs with a new engine are all dependent on finding some type of electrification to that engine. And what that looks like.”
WHY ARE SOME TEAMS HESITANT ON A GEN-7 DEBUT IN 2021?
Everyone has their own interests on the timing for certain things. We’ll continue to work with teams and OEMs to align when is the right date to do this. We’re not just going to plow through with this unless we get everyone on board. The majority of the garage is on board with the 2021 start. Are there some that â22 might work better for? There might be. We have to figure out how we get full alignment on what thatâs going to be, and thatâs what weâre working on âŠ
“Everyone has their own modeling on what the (Gen-7) is going to cost and how much it will allow them to save. From our standpoint and modeling weâve done, the year the invest in the new car, they will have a savings. That will be a net positive for the teams âŠ In my opinion, the importance of this car canât be overstated. It will allow teams to be profitable. Thatâs what it comes down to. I think itâs as simple as that. The great news is that the fan will be the beneficiary as well, because I think the car will have better body styling that the fans I think will really enjoy. If weâre going to do this thing the right wayâwhich we areâthe racing, which is already fantastic, should get even better. So I think the entire industry wins.”
WILL NASCAR MAKE THE CAR CHEAPER THROUGH A SPEC CHASSIS AND SPEC PARTS?
“We’re trying to determine ‘what are common parts.’ I’m not going to call them spec parts. What are common parts and what are not. Those are things we are working with the teams and the OEMs as well. It’s a work in progress for sure. But I do feel like we’re on time.”
HOW FAR IS NASCAR GOING WITH HYBRID AND ELECTRIC ENGINE COMPONENTS?
“I would suggest that most racing series around the world are going to electrification, if they are not there already. It will be an engine that isn’t hybrid but will have some electrification to it. It will be an engine that will almost certainly produce 550 horsepower and energy storing electrification, that in some cases, when you’re under braking, will provide more horsepower, which will help the short tracks and road courses.”
WHAT IS THE LATEST ON NASCARâS NEW ENTITLEMENT SPONSOR MODEL?
Monster Energy will depart as the sole entitlement sponsor at the end of the year, closing the chapter on an era which saw the premier series have just one title sponsor at a time — Winston, Sprint-Nextel and Monster. In its place will see a multi-tiered sponsorship model that will see dozens of brands sponsor numerous facets of the entire industry. NASCAR is not ready to reveal which brands will participate and the model will be implemented over the course of several seasons. NASCAR has not yet signed a single sponsor for the model but Phelps said they were close to doing so on Friday.
“The 2020 sponsorship model is one that bundles assets: sanctioning body assets, track assets, media assets, team assets into one piece. It doesn’t mean there will not be track sponsorships that are not official sponsors, track sponsors that will not be official sponsors because there will be. In fact, most sponsorships will live outside of this sponsorship model. So, there will be 15-18 sponsors that will exist under the first two tiers.
“So, of the thousands of sponsorships we have, most will exist outside of this âŠ The model is meant to do two things: Make it easier for the sponsors who want to buy across the sport. The second component is to get those particular sponsors who have invested to promote it because they are one of the few sponsors that are within these two tiers.”
IS THE DISQUALIFICATION SYSTEM WORKING?
“The disqualifications that we’ve had, I think it is working the way we wanted it to work. It’s a deterrence model that seems to be working. It appears to be working on the Cup Series side as well since we haven’t had one yet. We don’t want to disqualify anyone. It’s not the business we want to be in. There are rules in place and we are trying to officiate the sport as fairly as we can. Thus far, it has worked well. Do we always look to tweak if we see something that was outside the intended scope, yes it is something we would look at. We are pleased with it. And if you ask the teams, the drivers and the fans, I think they would say it’s working and it fair.”