INSIGHT: How NASCAR navigated a year like no other

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INSIGHT: How NASCAR navigated a year like no other

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: How NASCAR navigated a year like no other

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There was a time early in the racing season’s resumption that NASCAR President Steve Phelps didn’t want to pick up the phone. For about a month, the sport didn’t have a lot of good to enjoy, and every time the phone rang, it was more bad news for Phelps and company to handle.

“And so, you’re like, I’m not answering the phone, maybe they’ll go away,” Phelps tells RACER. “Which obviously didn’t happen; they just kept calling.”

A global pandemic had derailed the season, requiring officials to structure new policies and procedures before getting teams back on track with a schedule written in pencil (there were nearly 90 versions written). One of the sport’s brightest young stars, Kyle Larson, was fired by his team and suspended by NASCAR over a racial slur. Before too long, the industry was also addressing social inequality issues, banning the Confederate flag, and dealing with what was initially suspected as a hate crime against Darrell Wallace Jr. in Talladega.

It’s a lot for anyone to digest, and it’s led to long hours, hard work, and exhaustion by all those involved.

“It’s mentally and physically taxing,” admits Phelps. “But the team put a plan together. Strategically, what do we need to happen? What’s the plan to get us here, here, and here. Then you executed. The execution portion of it is the most liberating part of all of it. Once things started to abate from, this is outside of my control, we got to a better place, because then it was just about, ‘OK, you’ve made the plan, and you’re going to execute it’, as opposed to, you made the plan and outside variable came here and it changed the equation completely, and you have to start over, right? Or go back to square two, or five, or whatever that number was.

“But we started to get to a place where it was really about knowing the plan’s in place, and we’re able to execute it because something didn’t change outside of our control.

“It has been an incredibly rewarding year for our sport. I think it has been an incredibly rewarding year for the people who work at NASCAR, and our race teams, and the sport broadly. And it has been a very demanding year.”

When you ask Phelps about this season and what it has been like to navigate unchartered waters, he starts by talking about the people around him, crediting John Bobo (NASCAR vice president of racing operations), Tom Bryant (NASCAR managing director of racing operations), Steve O’Donnell (NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer), and others who were the architects behind the season restarting in May.

“I did nothing other than say, looks like a good plan to me, and challenge it where it needs to be challenged,” says Phelps. “But by and large, what they came up with was smart and sound. Then getting back to racing, then trying to get back to racing with fans. What’s that going to look like? What are the protocols we’re going to use? Then followed soon after by the social justice things and banning the Confederate flag and the situation at Talladega, and then more fans (at races), and then midweek racing. All of those things that kind of make your head hurt.”

Phelps believes that the way NASCAR navigated social justice issues this year cost it a small percentage of its traditional fan base, but opened the door to a larger injection of new fans of the sport. Harrelson/Motorsport Images

On track, the racing has looked the same, even if it’s been multiple visits to the same racetracks and without practice and qualifying. Not always seen are the restrictions upon all those involved. There are health screenings and questionnaires upon arrival, teams have limits on personnel allowed in the infield, while media, also smaller in numbers, is confined to the press box.

A 30-page protocol handbook was created and distributed before racing restarted. And while Phelps and everyone at NASCAR were confident they had the right protocols in place, it was still nerve-racking to go to Darlington in May. For two months, things had been outside of NASCAR’s control, so it was possible something could go wrong – and there was an agonizing wait to see if it would.

“When the engines fired in Darlington, it was this massive relief,” says Phelps. “When they took the green flag, the emotion for me was just relief mixed with joy. Thinking back on it, and I haven’t written anything down, but reflecting on it as of late, in particular, it seems long ago. But it wasn’t that long ago.

“I remember a situation where we had something that happened with one of the states and governors. I would say how we approached it… if the same thing had happened a year ago, it would’ve seemed catastrophic. But it was like, no, let’s figure out how we solve for this—just very matter of fact. No drama. It was just go and get it done. “The industry proved that it’s always been good at [coping with] adversity, and no more so than this.”

An industry made up of independent groups came together when things were the most difficult. For Phelps, the result has been positive. Pre-COVID, he already felt the sport was coming back to life in ratings and attendance. He believes now the sport’s Q Score (the measure of familiarity with a brand) is much higher due to how NASCAR was able to get back to competing first and in handling major social issues.

“It really then led to a series of other events that have made NASCAR more relevant than we were before,” says Phelps. “Do I believe that we potentially have lost a very small percentage of our fan base because of the stance we took? I believe that to be a true statement. But I think it’s a very small minority, as evidenced by ticket sales and fan council surveys and where our fans heads are at. But we also, I believe, truly opened up the aperture to a far larger fan base that, frankly, I don’t think would’ve considered us previously, and for any number of reasons.

“For us to move past the Confederate flag was an important thing, and it’s born out in the short term to be a very good decision for our sport.”

It wasn’t until about two months ago things started to feel relatively normal to Phelps. When the Cup Series ran its second race at Dover on a Sunday afternoon in late August, the sport saw its original 2020 schedule back on track.

The regular-season finale followed in Daytona, and the playoffs have been rolling right along. Midway through October, all three national series have hit the midpoint of their respective postseasons, and it won’t be too much longer before the championship fields are set. Somehow, four weeks of racing remain in what has been an unusual, unexpected, and unpredictable season.

Rather than attempting a redo of the disrupted 2020 calendar, NASCAR has opted for a dramatic schedule overhaul for 2021, with a lot more right/left. Thacker/Motorsport Images

“To use a racing metaphor, you can see the finish line, but given this crazy year, I will take nothing for granted until we crown a champion,” said Phelps. “But Phoenix is coming, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed and (we’ll) keep the protocols in place and make sure that people don’t get foolish or lax in these last few weeks.”

If nothing else, 2020 will leave a positive lasting impression on those in the NASCAR offices, as well as industry partners like Fox and NBC. Officials were cornered into adapting, or as Phelps told reporters last month, forced to do things they frankly didn’t want to do.

Consider that a doubleheader at Pocono was already on the books, but NASCAR wound up holding three of them this season (Pocono, Michigan, Dover). Then there was the pattern of racing on Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday.

No three-day weekends? No practice and no qualifying?

“This all heresy,” chuckles Phelps. “I mean, oh my god, you can’t do that. That will never work. I think we showed as an industry we could do those things, and we’re willing to test them.”

None of that means NASCAR is going to make changes for the sake of change. Sure, the industry might have broken out of its shell of pre-conceived notions and saw flexibility doesn’t hurt, but decisions will still be rooted in data and analytics. Furthermore, just because something like mid-week racing, for example, isn’t on the 2021 schedule, doesn’t mean it’s entirely off the table.

And speaking of the ’21 schedule, there was thought early on to make it a redo of what 2020 was supposed to be. NASCAR figured it would have gotten a pass because of COVID-19, just like it got a pass on pushing Next Gen to 2022. Except for the schedule, there is a strong push by NASCAR to continue to be aggressive in how the sport is governed.

“I personally, and my team, thought that wasn’t a good idea,” Phelps says of keeping the schedule as is. “We thought there was enough movement and willingness and interest from the fan base, the OEMs, from the drivers. Almost everyone was like, oh no, no, no, be aggressive in your schedule. And we were.

“Is that something that’s different, that was kind of a sacred cow, or, hey, we didn’t think we’d be that aggressive? Yeah, I think that’s another (example of change). I hope this season has proven is that we are willing to be bold, and we’re willing to do things that are in the best interest of the sport.”

Of all the contingency plans and worst-case scenarios NASCAR plans for, a global pandemic likely isn’t on the list. But Phelps and his team, the competitors, as well as partners of the sport, have taken on an unprecedented situation and are less than a month away from not only completing a full race season, but doing so on time.

“I think the only other word I would use is ‘resilient’,” says Phelps of this year. “We, as an industry, were resilient.”

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