NASCAR President Steve Phelps delivers State of the Sport address
NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed team ownership, the prospect of a new manufacturer joining the sport, and questions around next year’s Daytona 500, among many topics, in a nearly hour-long media session with reporters Saturday at Phoenix Raceway.
NASCAR will complete its season on schedule with Sunday’s Cup finale (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will race for the Cup title in a season that was delayed 71 days by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The year has been in short I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something,” Phelps said in opening comments. “It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport. I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.
“But through it all this industry, I’ve said this before, I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport. If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage. We don’t own ourselves. We’re not franchised, right? We have independent contractors who come to race as one.
“What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable. ... I think a couple highlights that I want to touch on that I’m particularly proud of. When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing. It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races. Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races. We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right?
“A bunch of midweek races. Three doubleheaders. No practice and qualifying. Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right? You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right? For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17th in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.
“When we were here the last time (at Phoenix) and we raced here on March 8th, we were focused on, ‘How is that short track package going to work?’ It was up in the air, weren’t sure. We thought it was going to be great. By the way, it was. Then three, four days later, the world goes crazy, right? We’re just in a situation that was unthinkable.
“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back, right? Our ratings had stabilized last year. Our attendance was going in the correct direction. If you think about where we are as a sport today, I believe we’re stronger as a sport today than we were pre-COVID. I believe that. I think that the momentum that we’ve been able to gain has been nothing short of incredible.
“I think the other word I want to use that I stole from one of the senior people at Comcast is that your sport is relevant. It’s not that it wasn’t relevant before, but where you are today, you’re in a significantly different place. I believe that to be true.”
Here are select comments Steve Phelps made Saturday
Q. We’re going to have a new president in January. Donald Trump was at this year’s Daytona 500. Does NASCAR have any plans to invite Joe Biden to any of the races?
STEVE PHELPS: If a sitting president, as President Trump did this year, wants to come to a race, then we would welcome that sitting president. We didn’t reach out to President Trump to come to the Daytona 500. His people reached out to us. Again, I don’t see us reaching out to a sitting president. Again, if a sitting president wants to come to a racetrack, we would certainly welcome the sitting president.
Q. There’s obviously a lot of interest in Cup team ownership. I’m curious if NASCAR is considering expanding the number of charters available?
STEVE PHELPS: We are not considering expanding the number of charters. The way the charter system works, we have the ability to expand if there’s a new OEM. Without that, we do not. That’s a contract that we have with our teams. So there will be no expansion of our charters.
Q. Last week the 20 car didn’t pass the 11 for whatever reason. NASCAR found nothing wrong with that. Fans are upset about the 100% rule, questioning if it was in play. Does the rule need to be addressed or rewritten in any way to avoid scenarios that leave interpretation open such as last week?
STEVE PHELPS: Yeah, I know that Scott Miller addressed that earlier in the week. Whether the rule needs to be looked at, I think we have shown repeatedly if there’s a better way to do something, we’ll do it, whether that’s a rule change or some other competition change to a rules package, whatever that might be. I personally don’t think the rule needs to be changed, but we will certainly, again as we do with everything, if there’s a better way to do it, we’ll find it and do it.
Q. I think the last time you spoke to us in September you said at that point you didn’t see any way that garage access would expand until there was a vaccine available. Going into 2021, where does NASCAR stand on that? Do you still see that as the only way forward to expand garage access? Are you looking at COVID‑19 testing across the board in the future regardless?
STEVE PHELPS: Kind of two parts of the question. I think the first part as it relates to the competitors and the current footprint or bubble, whatever we call this pristine area, it’s something we’ll look at. I would suggest that our sport did as well or better than other sports did with respect to how our protocols worked with our competitors. A significant number of competitors we have, not just our drivers but our crews, our officials, the safety workers. Been proud of how that worked. John (Bobo, NASCAR vice president, racing operations) and his team are always looking to see whether there are ways to create a better, safer environment. That was the goal all along, as you know, which is to make sure that our competitors felt safe in this environment.
That gets to the second part of your question. When we talked in September, I did say until a vaccine was developed, widely distributed that was effective, we wouldn’t have people in there. I will clarify that. If there is an opportunity, I’m not sure there is, to have rapid tests that are effective, that doesn’t have a bunch of false negatives or false positives, it’s something that we would entertain. But it’s too early at this particular point to determine what that is going to look like.
Q. Earlier this season you said that words without action are meaningless in terms of addressing racism and the sport being more inclusive. Going forward, is NASCAR doing something concrete to continue its anti‑racism and inclusivity efforts inside or outside of the industry? Can we expect to see things like Black Lives Matter written on the infield, continued sport for the LBGTQIA community that shows solidarity or welcomes others in?
STEVE PHELPS: What I would say is, will you continue to see results and action from NASCAR? The answer is yes. So we have broken this kind of in this area into three specific buckets. One is what we’re going to do internally. The middle bucket is what we’re going to do from an industry‑wide standpoint. The third is what are the partnerships that we’re going to do externally.
I would say on the internal side we’ve done things that it’s really just about us, obviously. We have an ally council, a diversity council, employee resource groups we’ve put together to try to make sure we’re doing what we need to do. We also have a drive to make sure that we are hiring diverse people, right? That’s a stated goal for us, as well. Then we’re doing, as part of our procurement, making sure we have minority vendors as part of that, too. That’s internal.
External is what are we going to do as an industry. One of the things we are going to do, we talked early on at Talladega, as an industry we are going to mandate that everyone take sensitivity training, unconscious bias training. We are going to do that. Before we get to the 500, all the race teams, anyone affiliated with this is going to do that. It’s part of our internal community.
The third thing is what are you going to do from an external standpoint. Partnerships with Comcast, Coca‑Cola, GEICO, Anheuser‑Busch, others. Other groups like ISSJ, Rise, others we’re using to try to help in this education process.
We believe we are a sport about action. We are going to continue to be. It’s an important journey for us to be on. I’m excited about what the future holds there.
Q. Obviously there’s no question the challenges you have faced this year to get to this point. Obviously as any business, it can’t be just about the immediacy, it’s also about looking ahead. I know there’s uncertainties and challenges, you referenced earlier the notion of relevancy in this sport. How do you envision or hope to continue that relevancy for the sport so that it grows and becomes stronger, and the potential of adding another manufacturer since everything is being put back a year or so with the plans?
STEVE PHELPS: I think it’s hard to say, Hey, we are going to continue to relevance. I think it’s kind of an arrogant statement. I think there are some building blocks here that indicate that’s going to continue.
We have new ownership coming into this sport. That new ownership comes with different levels, right? Then we have different drivers affixed to those new owners. Take the Michael Jordan situation with Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace, the situation with Justin Marks and Daniel Suarez, the Tiffts and B.J. McLeod. These are kind of all across the spectrum.
Do I believe we are positioned well to continue that relevance? I do. I think we’ve seen this year the significant number of new fans who are participating in this sport. Because kind of the positions that we have taken, the great racing that we’ve had, the fact that we came back first, all those different pieces that created this relevance.
Do I think we’re positioned to continue that? I do think we’re positioned to continue that. I’m bullish on what the future looks like. I know it’s kind of as the head cheerleader of this sport I’m supposed to say that.
If you look at where we are from a ratings standpoint, if you look at kind of where the sport is overall in the general kind of thought process of where things are in this country, I think we’re in a much better position than we were, as I said, pre COVID.
Q. You’ve been very outspoken about human basic rights, the issue with the Confederate flag. You talk about new fans. Can this sport afford to be as vocal moving forward? There are those that feel it’s a more conservative fan base. How have you felt the fans responded in that time since in gaining new, losing some, what you can do moving forward, be potentially more aggressive?
STEVE PHELPS: Kind of on balance you look at those new fans versus fans we have ‘lost’. I think for us, it’s really about this notion of welcoming everyone to our sport. I think people are feeling welcomed to our sport.
I think by and large people have said, Hey, NASCAR means more to me than displaying my Confederate flag, displaying a Confederate flag at our facilities. I think by and large that has been a true statement.
What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about, to your point, human decency. We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities. We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally and socially. We want them to feel part of this community. It’s a fantastic community, it really is.
I know when I go to a racetrack and I see people who are camping next to each other who are total strangers, that invite each other for a beer, do you want a hot dog, brat, whatever it is, that’s what our community is about. We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome when they come to those facilities.
Q. I know you can’t predict the future. The introduction of the NextGen car is pushed back to 2022. Do you see there’s any way that doesn’t get introduced in 2022?
STEVE PHELPS: It’s hard to say. We are on schedule. John Probst and his team have done a great job working with our OEMs, with our teams, to get us to a place where we feel confident where things are.
I just think the hard part is we were confident that we were going to introduce it in 2021. Then it became very clear that we couldn’t. It really has to do with are we going to have the parts and pieces in order to make this car, to build it at scale in order to have enough cars to race. As of right now the answer is absolutely yes.
Our guys are excited about it. I think we all are excited about it. We’ve seen some renderings. It’s a cool‑looking car that I think will have some great characteristics that will make the racing even better than we’ve seen this year.
Again, it’s hard to predict the future. Given the things we know today, we’re in good shape.
Q. If COVID would require the NFL to slide back its schedule, would you commit now to saying that NASCAR would not run the Daytona 500 against the Super Bowl even if it means moving the Daytona 500 date?
STEVE PHELPS: No, I will not say that. Right now we’re running on February 14th. That’s as much information as we have. Will we potentially scenario plan for a change? Perhaps. But I don’t foresee that. It’s just hard to say.
The NFL, they’re trying to get their season in. Thus far they’ve done a good job of having the majority of their football games take place. But I think at this particular point, I don’t want to speculate what would happen with the 500 if the NFL were to put the Super Bowl on February 14th. We’ll react to that at that particular time. Obviously we’ll make sure our friends at FOX are aligned with the decision that we make.
Q. If someone did come in, would there be a potential to expand the charter system? It would be really tough to figure out where a new manufacturer starts out on an equal playing field ensuring they’re in the field every week.
STEVE PHELPS: I don’t know the answer to that. We have the opportunity to do that. Again, someone coming in wouldn’t come in, I would suggest, until probably 2023 at the earliest. I think the world is just going to look a lot different at NASCAR once you get to kind of the NextGen car. Just the dynamics are going to change so significantly.
If we deem it would be in the best interest of the sport to add an additional charter or two to try to help jump start a new OEM, it’s something we’d consider.
Q. New owners are considering coming into the Cup Series. Conceivably they’re going to have to buy charters, which costs are rising. Are you concerned with the charter system, how it’s working now, how it was devised?
STEVE PHELPS: I think it’s a good question. One of the thoughts about the charter system, and this really gets to the business of NASCAR, fans don’t care about charters. But one of the thoughts on the business side for charters is that if someone decided to leave a sport, they would have enterprise value that they’d be able to sell their race car or race team and make some money.
I think that’s something that is happening in this system. It’s not the only reason why the charter system exists. I think there are things about the charter system that work quite well. There are others that I think we could probably improve on moving forward.
It’s something that we’re not faced with at this particular time. The charters go through 2024. Again, I think it’s working well in some cases. Again, as I said, in other cases I think there are some things that we would look to change moving forward.