NASCAR President Steve Phelps Sounds Off on Navigating the Pandemic, Rising Ratings, Tech Innovation
New venues, new markets, more diverse audience are part of the organization’s transformation
Since being named president of NASCAR in September 2018, Steve Phelps has overseen the organization’s dramatic commercial, cultural, and technological transformation. Most notably, in 2020, he guided NASCAR through a pandemic-afflicted season, during which it became the first sport to return to competition and bring back fans to the venue.
At SportsBusiness Journal’s World Congress of Sports last week, Phelps discussed how NASCAR has navigated the pandemic, its improving TV ratings and efforts to expand its audience, its commitment to racial equality and social justice, this year’s dynamic new race schedule (featuring new venues, markets, and track layouts), the highly anticipated launch of the Next-Gen car next year, and more.
On NASCAR’s being the first major league to come back during the pandemic:
We were dark for 71 days while we devised a plan that worked to get back to racing. On May 17, 2020, we went back to racing in Darlington with no fans. And then, in mid June, we started slowly bringing back fans, and that felt good. It was a lot of work. All the sports should be congratulated for the work that they did to get back to competing. It was hard.
We have some advantages … in NASCAR with our crews wearing built-in PPE and our drivers in their cars with their uniforms, head socks, helmets, and head-to-toe [protection]. We took advantage of that. Now we are growing as a sport, and we’re stealing share … which was intentional and was a stated goal.
On growing the fanbase and how partnerships can drive interest:
We understand that not everyone’s going to be a fan of NASCAR. But exposing it through different partnerships is really important for us. We’ve been very deliberate about making sure that we are finding the right partnerships because we want to serve that potential fan wherever they are. If we [participate in] programs that are reaching different audiences … then we’re not going to grow. I think we have a foundation to grow the sport, but the partnerships are critical for us. We can’t be all things to all people, but we can certainly be smart about how we’re going to market or target specific segments of the population.
On NASCAR’s upward trajectory since Phelps took over as president:
It’s a different NASCAR than it was [when I became president]. We’re at a period now where our share this year vs. 2019 [is] plus 20%. Our engagement numbers on digital and social are the highest that they’ve ever been. Sponsorship is coming back.
We had a tough go for a decade. … If you’d said to me in 2018 that NASCAR was going to win League of the Year [at the 2021 Sports Business Awards], I wouldn’t have taken that bet. We clawed back, and the sports community said we did it better and deserve to win. That felt fantastic for every person that works at NASCAR. And I’m not just talking about the sanctioning body where I work but [about] teams, drivers, auto manufacturers, our broadcast partners. They were all part of the growth to bring NASCAR back. It’s an exciting time.
On the upcoming debut of NASCAR’s Next-Gen car in 2022:
It has been a long time coming. This car is a panacea for everything that is still ailing NASCAR. … It’s going to be great for the teams, great for our OEM partners, and, most important, it’s going to be great for the fans. It will have all kinds of really cool innovation pieces and cameras in every car, which will be phenomenal. Innovation for us is important.
It debuts at the L.A. Coliseum, which is where we will have an exhibition event called the Busch Clash. We are not going to race around the Coliseum; we actually are going to pave a track inside, which is going to be really cool. It will be a week before the Super Bowl, which is also in L.A.
On innovative scheduling for the 2021 and 2022 seasons:
This year, we had the boldest schedule that we’ve had in 50 years, so we’re going to build on that. All the venues that we went to for the first time this year, we will go back to next year. We added the Coliseum in L.A. and Worldwide Technology Raceway in St. Louis. In 2023, I don’t know what the schedule is going to look like, but it won’t look like 2022. We’ll continue to innovate … and we have to go to new markets.
In 2022, our Xfinity series is going to go to Portland, OR. We are underserved in the Pacific Northwest, so we are going to continue to showcase [NASCAR]. We have to go to different places. … That’s what we need to do to grow this sport. We need to make sure that fan experience is like none other. [We] need to have schedule variation and go to different parts of the country – or, frankly, internationally – to expose us to a new audience.
On NASCAR’s esports efforts and the future of iRacing:
After we shut down, we partnered with iRacing and Fox [Sports], and iRacing created something called the NASCAR Pro Invitational. The five highest-rated esports [events] on television of all time are all NASCAR races. The country wanted to watch something that was not a rerun, and it was fun.
We have a young African-American kid named Roger Carruth, who is going to be a star at NASCAR, and he was the only one in his Drive for Diversity program that got his start in iRacing. Or you look at a guy like William Byron, who was in our playoffs; he started his career in iRacing. It’s true sim racing. It’s very cool, and it’s very lifelike — so lifelike that you actually can go race and get into a car and be competitive. There’s no way the best Madden player is going to play in the NFL; it’s not going to happen. But it can happen in our sport.
On opportunities in the sports betting realm:
I see sports betting as an incredibly important tool for us to engage another segment of the population who loves to bet. Everyone has that opportunity. For us, it’s an important one for sure.
On what’s ahead for NASCAR:
For me, it’s really about continuing to expose our sport to new audiences. I believed in 2018 when we kind of hit the bottom that we were going to grow. … I see a continued opportunity for us to just mash the gas, do smart things that are going to help grow the sport — whether it’s new markets, new technologies, ways to bring their fans closer — and, obviously, build a younger and more diverse fan base. We are on that journey.