PHOENIX — For roughly an hour Friday (Nov. 5) at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed media members and took questions regarding the state of the sport and NASCAR’s future.
Phelps, in his third full year as president, discussed a variety of topics, from critics of the Cup Series’ 550-horsepower package (“a vocal minority”), whether Auto Club Speedway is on schedule to be a short track by 2023 (“I don’t know”) to how NASCAR will address poor attendance at tracks like Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway (“Unacceptable level of tickets sold in that marketplace”).
In the opening portion of his address, Phelps spoke to the quality of racing NASCAR is seeing.
“If you think about the racing product itself … I think the racing we have is absolutely terrific,” Phelps said. “If you do it from either an eye 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 [most] since 2007. The most passing throughout the field that we’ve had ever.”
Phelps also touched on NASCAR’s position in the television landscape among other sports.
“Television, which gets a lot of focus, we are the most stable sport on television since 2018,” claimed Phelps. “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.”
The following are edited and condensed highlights from Phelps’ press conference.
On driver concerns over the Next Gen car
STEVE PHELPS: ”So I would say we went through a stretch in the summer where the drivers felt they didn’t know enough about the safety of the Next Gen car and were vocal about it.
“What I can say is we had repeatedly met with the drivers to try to alleviate their concerns about safety. With that said, they weren’t in a good spot. We just kept meeting with them, making different opinions and experts available to them, specifically around the test that we did down in Daytona.
“I think the drivers are satisfied with the answers that they heard. I would say as we looked at kind of June, July, early August, that’s probably a fair statement that the drivers and the sanctioning body were not on the same page. But I think right now I believe the drivers feel good about the direction of the Next Gen car both from a drivability standpoint, since most of them had the opportunity to drive it now, and from a safety perspective.
“I would say that we endeavor to make sure that our drivers understand where we’re going, what’s the vision of the sport, what’s the direction we’re going in, what role they play. I think although there isn’t a driver council, per se, we’ve had I think three all-driver meetings, we speak with drivers all the time. I speak with drivers myself if they have concerns. I want to address them. I know the entire NASCAR team feels the same way.
“Do I think that the communication between our drivers and the sanctioning body can improve? Yeah, it can. It’s going to. I think there’s some different things that we’ve spoken to some veteran drivers about that will address some of those. May not be a driver council, per se, but we’ll continue to have all-driver meetings, probably have some smaller meetings with a handful of drivers, then we’ll have individual driver meetings.
“To answer your question, Steve O’Donnell and I met individually with, I don’t know, 12 or 15 drivers to make sure they were comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”
On poor attendance at tracks like Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway and holding tracks accountable in some form:
PHELPS: “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 toward 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.”
On whether Auto Club Speedway is still on schedule to be converted to a short track by 2023:
PHELPS: ”I don’t know. 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. DMA, than any other DMA 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. Fifty percent of the people have never been to a NASCAR race.”
On the political meme that has originated from Brandon Brown‘s Xfinity Series win at Talladega and whether NASCAR will pursue producers of merchandise with it that includes NASCAR’s logos:
PHELPS: “So it’s an unfortunate situation. I feel for Brandon. I feel for [NBC Sports reporter] Kelli [Stavast]. I think unfortunately it speaks to the state of where we are as a country.
“We do not want to associate ourselves with politics, the left or the right. We obviously have and we’ve always had as a sport tremendous respect for the office of the president no matter who is sitting.
“I think it’s an unfortunate situation. Do we like the fact that it kind of started with NASCAR and then is gaining ground elsewhere? No, we’re not happy about that. But we will continue to make sure that we have respect for the office of the president.
“With respect to the trademarks used on that statement, to the degree they’re using a NASCAR logo, we will pursue whoever that is and get that stopped. That’s not OK. It’s not OK that you’re using our trademarks illegally, regardless of whether we agree with what the position is or not.”
On looming TV right negotiations and whether Phelps believes NASCAR will receive more money than its last deal:
PHELPS: “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.”
On NASCAR’s relationship with Barstool Sports and how NASCAR, its teams and tracks, should respond when its sponsors are involved in sexual assault allegations and scandals:
PHELPS: “The Barstool reference, the sign out here (next to the frontstretch), we have a very large relationship with Penn National Gaming, which bought Barstool. We actually had a partnership with Barstool several years ago which we ended a couple years ago. The Barstool relationship, sports betting specifically, is an important part of where I think all sports are going, including ours.
“But, again, I think where Penn is in the relationship with Barstool, because they own them, that will be their decision about what they do.”
On NASCAR’s COVID-19 vaccination rate:
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.”
On NASCAR’s philosophy in using the 550-horsepower package and fan feedback that resulted in doubling down on it for the Next Gen car:
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 eye test, I would go to the data. The data suggests we have better racing right now than we’ve had arguably ever. …
“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.”
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