NASCAR President Steve Phelps held a preseason media availability on Friday, Feb. 12 in advance of the season-opening Daytona 500.
As usual, Phelps was an open book and touched on a myriad of topics regarding the sport’s present and future. Everything from on-track competition to off-track scheduling was addressed in an informative session.
Here are five major takeaways from Phelps’ presser.
Positive fan reaction from social justice stances taken
Phelps said NASCAR’s progressive stance taken last year was “one of the most important things that happened” all of 2020. But it didn’t come without some backlash, specifically from longtime fans.
“There was a question at the time: did NASCAR go too far to ban the Confederate flag?” Phelps said. “Social justice, is that something a sport should do, NASCAR should do? Do we have permission to do it? The answer is yes. The question was: How is that going to affect our core fan, our avid fan?”
He provided some answers via NASCAR’s brand tracker it received for the 2020 calendar year as it relates to the banning of the confederate flag and social justice.
- For fans surveyed that have been watching the sport for 16-plus years, the results were three-to-one (3/1) favorable to unfavorable on the flag ban.
- For fans surveyed that have been watching the sport for four to 15 years, the results were six-to-one (6/1) favorable to unfavorable.
- For fans surveyed that have been watching the sport for zero to three years, the results were eight-to-one (8/1) favorable to unfavorable.
Phelps mentioned that taking a stance as NASCAR did last summer may not be the best thing for other sports leagues, but it’s the right thing for NASCAR. It’s also broken its diversity and inclusion strategy into three separate pieces: internally at NASCAR, within the industry at large and securing partnerships, things he said “are proud to say are working well.”
The introduction of Michael Jordan and Pitbull as team owners has also clearly made an impact. Phelps said a reflection of their stances is not only having a desired effect, but also producing a tangible change in a rather short period of time. To have two international icons that represent diversity within the Black and Latino communities is not lost on the sport.
As for critics who don’t support the direction NASCAR is headed, Phelps recognized their perspective but was steadfast in his commitment to these new initiatives.
“I would say you’re going to have critics no matter what you do,” he said. “You’re not going to please all the people for sure. We’re going to do what we believe is right for the sport, right for the growth of this sport.”
Schedule for 2021 and beyond
With four new tracks (Circuit of the Americas, Road America, Nashville Superspeedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) set to debut in the Cup Series this season, Phelps said he is “thrilled” to be exploring new markets and race tracks. That’s not to mention Cup cars running on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway while the Camping World Truck Series adds a second dirt race at Knoxville Raceway.
Road courses will make up almost 20 percent of the schedule in total. Phelps said fans, manufacturers and broadcast partners all asked for more road courses leading into this season.
“As evidenced by what happened on Tuesday night (the Busch Clash), I think having stock cars on road courses works well,” he said. “They’re slipping and sliding, they get into each other. It puts on great racing.”
As for 2022, Phelps was noncommittal in terms of specifics but added that NASCAR “(has) a promise to (its) fans that (it’ll) continue to create new opportunities at new venues and new formats.”
Thoughts on the charter system
The charter system is a hot topic nowadays. As evidenced by Derrike Cope’s near miss last night on the final lap of Duel two and Gaunt Brothers Racing’s Ty Dillon failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 over multiple cars laps down, the question was posed to Phelps regarding balancing competitiveness and financial gain while owning a charter.
“There are some things that we are undertaking to try to make sure that if there are folks out there who want to compete, want to buy a charter, that they have the ability to do that,” Phelps said. “We have to make sure that we are putting out the best field that we can. Obviously someone needs to finish 40th, right? But we need to make sure that the ones that are finishing 40th don’t continue to be the same cars that are finishing 40th.”
.@stevephelps on the charter system: "We want to make sure everyone is bring competitive race cars to the race track […] if you're not competing, this isn't the right series for you." He also added "we have to make sure we're putting out the best field that we can." #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/iGTBqkHwL7
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) February 12, 2021
Phelps added that charters have contractual obligations within them, making sweeping changes rather difficult. But that doesn’t mean changes can’t be made, and conversations can’t be had.
“Whether there is a change to the bottom three rule moving forward, I think that you all have seen some maneuvering that has gone on with respect to the bottom three rule, the ability to have someone lease a charter,” he said. “It’s not perfect.”
With new teams set to bid on charters next season, as Toyota Racing Development’s David Wilson mentioned earlier in the week, having the possession of one could prove to be a worthy investment.
Only time will tell.
Practice/qualifying coming back
Once things get back to somewhat normal, Phelps anticipates 2022 race weekends looking similar to pre-pandemic days.
Phelps: 💭 "For 2022, my feeling is that we'll probably go back to more practice and qualifying."
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) February 12, 2021
He also mentioned their television partners “can’t get enough of (NASCAR’s) content,” which was a main reason for bringing back the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series for 10 events this season, split between FOX and NBC.
“We’re excited our partners want more NASCAR,” he said.
In terms of the departure of NBC Sports Network at the end of the calendar year, Phelps reiterated that there are no plans to shift Cup events to streaming services behind a paywall anytime soon. NASCAR’s current television deal runs through the 2024 season, and Phelps is on the record as saying negotiations usually don’t begin for a new package until around 18 months before expiration.
#NASCAR president @stevephelps does not foresee Cup Series races going to exclusive streaming services at this time. Not on their radar yet. NASCAR believes the teams and sponsors need the value of being on over-the-air channels or cable.
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) February 12, 2021
However, that’s not to say NASCAR won’t shift some programming behind a paywall in due time. The sport’s existing OTT platform, TrackPass, hosts local and regional racing, notably ARCA Menards Series East and West events, Whelen Modified Tour events and other weekly series across the country. With NBCSN going away, NBC’s Peacock also becomes a viable option for additional content down the road.
Potential new manufacturers/future electrification
It’s a touchy subject with many longtime NASCAR fans, as a hybrid component to stock cars seems completely detrimental to everything stock car racing is. But make no mistake: it’s coming. Heck, it’s here.
Formula E, as weird as the cars sound, is not only doing well, but is also garnering interest amongst new manufacturers. NASCAR is not far behind, as conversations regarding the electrification within the sport have been ongoing for years.
As have the introduction of new manufacturers. None have joined since Dodge’s departure following its championship season in 2012, but talks have remained fluid over the last half decade to get others to sign on.
“I would be surprised if a new OEM came in without some type of electrification,” Phelps said. “I’m not talking about all electric. I’m talking about a hybrid system. I think it probably is something, obviously something that we’re exploring now with our existing three OEMs. The question is, What is it? What’s the timing of it?”
Phelps admitted he doesn’t have any answers at this moment, but NASCAR brass John Probst and Steve O’Donnell have been having consistent conversations with potential new and existing manufacturers, engine builders, owners and the like.