The 2018 NASCAR State of the Sport, handled by President Steve Phelps will be remembered for its civility. Years of contentious press conferences were replaced by honesty and frank conversation after a difficult season.
But despite a different messenger, the theme remained clear: NASCAR still has its best days ahead of them.
“The message that is being sent from Lesa and Jim France,” Phelps said. “Is that we are going to double down on this sport because we believe in it. The best days are ahead of it. It’s going to grow.”
Phelps refused to comment on whether Lesa’s brother, Brian, would ever return as NASCAR CEO. He’s been on leave since August after getting arrested for a DUI and drug possession out in the Hamptons.
But the sport’s new President, in just his second month on the job made clear there’s a strong leadership structure. Despite Jim France’s invisibility in front of reporters, Phelps explained he’s leading talks with top stakeholders behind the scenes.
“You have seen Jim France at all the races since Michigan,” Phelps said, claiming he’s been present for weekly meetings with manufacturers, team owners and drivers. “He is involved in the business in a significant way.”
It’s a presence confirmed by many inside and outside the garage, complimenting Jim’s hands-on approach. Just don’t expect him to speaking in front of a camera.
“Talking to the media is my job,” Phelps explained. “It’s not something Jim wants to do.”
Phelps also refused to comment on the potential transaction merging NASCAR and ISC. He deferred on whether the sport is for sale, if a portion of it will be invested in or whether they’re pursuing a purchase of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) whose tracks make up a third of the schedule.
What he did emphasize, time and again, is the sport is working hard to face its “headwinds” head on. Declining attendance and TV ratings can be combatted with the strength of people working hard inside the sport.
Where do they start? Simple: with the men and women behind the wheel.
“Our drivers are the single most important ambassadors for our sport,” Phelps said. “Ryan Blaney came to me and said, ‘I’ll do anything you want me to do. I want to be an ambassador.’ We don’t have 1,600 players like the NFL. Every driver is important to drive star power.”
Phelps maintained the sport is working hard to ensure the most talented drivers have sponsorship. Explaining NASCAR has a Driver Marketing team, one whose job it is 24/7 to help, he emphasized the importance of linking successful drivers up with the right corporate backer.
“If you have a conservative brand and an edgy driver, they don’t work well together,” he explained. “I think, is there a brand filter out there? I think there is. Would I like to see a filter taken away? Yes, because I think fans want their driver to be authentic.”
But Phelps stopped short of stepping in with situations like Brett Moffitt, who might not have a job next year despite winning the Camping World Truck Series championship. And while referencing the success of teams like Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing in acquiring sponsorship, the sport was less clear on its role in helping that revenue trickle down to smaller programs.
Phelps did reference the cost-cutting measures adopted by NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series this year and how he hopes they’ll work their way up the ladder. Additional changes, like midweek races and new tracks added to the schedule, are also under consideration. Phelps made it clear on that front “everything is in play” as soon as the 2020 Cup Series schedule.
As for NASCAR inspection, Phelps was clear the sport will be investigating changes. But it was perhaps the one moment where you could sense tension between teams and officials after constant inspection problems peaked with Kevin Harvick‘s illegal spoiler two weeks ago.
“We’re going to look at it,” Phelps said. “That’ll be up to Steve [O’Donnell, NASCAR VP] and his team to figure out. We’ll have discussions with our race teams and make sure folks are comfortable; but at the end of the day, we will make that decision.”
Overall, Phelps came to the mic with an upbeat approach considering a sport that appears to be in transition. In 2019, with a new handling package, he hopes there can start a new chapter in a stock car series seeking to reverse perception it’s declining nationally.
“We do believe that this racing is going to get better. We have a promise to our fans, and that promise is about close, competitive side-by-side racing,” he said. “This 2019 rules package will give us exactly that.”
“The season overall, I think we’ve had a tremendous amount of storylines. The racing product is as good as we’ve seen. The Championship 4, arguably the best we’ve ever had. I don’t think they will disappoint.”