INTERVIEW: Steve Phelps on how NASCAR is meeting the relevance challenge

Harold Hinson/Getty Images for NASCAR

INTERVIEW: Steve Phelps on how NASCAR is meeting the relevance challenge


INTERVIEW: Steve Phelps on how NASCAR is meeting the relevance challenge


Early in his tenure as NASCAR president, Steve Phelps found that conversations were always about how the sport was struggling.

Four years later, Phelps believes the narrative has changed. And, somehow, NASCAR changed its reputation and relevancy pretty quickly, Phelps going back to a rough 2020 that saw the sport forced to navigate both a pandemic and social justice issues that came to the forefront.

“It used to be, ‘I heard that sport is not doing very good,’” Phelps told RACER during a nearly 30-minute interview. “I don’t hear that anymore. I did hear that in 2018. I think the cool thing is there are many additional opportunities for us to grow.”

In his state of the sport address at the season finale last month, Phelps touched on several topics, such as parity on the track and the first season of the Next Gen car. But as the new year approaches, there are other successes NASCAR executives are relishing in.

NASCAR added to its official partner list in 2022, including SeatGeek, which now has a presence across all NASCAR-owned tracks and Digital Properties. Viewership continues to increase as the entire season saw a 4% growth and NASCAR-controlled racing series (national, ARCA, IMSA, etc.) account for 80% of all viewing hours in motorsports.

And with fan engagement, NASCAR touted its digital platforms and the metrics. NASCAR Digital Media saw its highest level of consumption since 2015, with an increase of 11% in unique users in 2022.

The 2022 season had eight sold-out races and a spike of 11% in new individual attendees to events. NASCAR also saw its highest multicultural audience numbers since at least 2015.

While there will always be issues to address, overall, NASCAR as a business appears to be in a healthy place going into 2023.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Q: NASCAR says it has increased its relevancy. What does that mean, and how has the sport done that?

STEVE PHELPS: Use your relationships — family, friends, whatever — and when you talk about NASCAR, I imagine, because I get this a lot, it’s like, “Wow, you guys are killing it. It’s incredible what you’ve done.” There’s a March of Dimes luncheon last Tuesday of Nov. every year and it’s attended by all the sports and media executives in this country. Plus, sponsors, plus agencies, plus all the leagues, and we are a bit of a toast of the town at this particular point, and I think that you’ll see that (with a recent) Sports Business Journal reader survey about where NASCAR sits in the overall landscape of sports. We won League of the Year for SPJ, and by the way, I think we earned it and deserved it. We never would have done that (before).

So, if you think about us being a relevant brand that’s what they’re talking about, and it’s relevance in a lot of different areas. There was a survey that came at the end of 2020 that showed that NASCAR was one of the top 10 fastest-growing brands with Gen Z. That’s insanity to me when you consider how Gen Z considered NASCAR a year earlier. We wouldn’t have been in the consideration set. But now we are, and I think that really has to do with the relevancy, and there are other things that we can pull, but that’s really what we’re talking about.

New events like the Busch Clash at the L.A. Coliseum have helped transform NASCAR’s appeal, Phelps says. Matt Thacker/Motorsport Images

Q: How do you feel about the health of NASCAR right now?

SP: I think you need to take a step back and look at where things stand with the metrics, the engagement metrics with our race fans and so for us to be the most stable sports property since 2018, I would start there. This has nothing to do with our media rights negotiation, but it does have to do with visibility for our race teams and sponsorship. The digital metrics and social metrics being at all-time highs, those are important things as we think about the overall health of the business. Do we have additional opportunities to get better and to continue growing? I believe the answer is yes. Am I pleased with the progress we’ve made (through) 2019, 2020 and ’21, and now into ‘22? I would say the answer is yes, as well. This sport is far healthier than it was four or five years ago. But I think there’s an opportunity for continued significant growth overall for the sport.

That bodes well for any stakeholder group, whether you’re a media partner, whether you’re a team, whether you’re a sponsor, all with the backdrop of what it means from a sports standpoint, to have the highest quality fan from a sponsorship perspective and that is indisputable. The Sports Business Journal reader survey, where we were (by and large) where you would want to put your money if you’re a sponsor. It wasn’t even close. And every survey that we do like that, it’s the same result. That’s what is different about our sport — that the fan understands the importance of the role sponsorship plays. I can speak to that because I’ve been in this sport for 17 years, and I spent 13 years at the NFL doing exactly the sponsorship work.

Q: Why is it important for NASCAR to have so many official partners, and how do they help the sport’s overall health?

SP: I think if you see a decal on a car, the number of team sponsors there are, frankly, dwarfs how many official partners we have. That would make sense because, on the Cup side, there are somewhere between 36 and 40 cars running every week. I think the fans certainly understand what it means to have their logo on a car. But what does it mean — and I think it’s a fair point — what does it mean to a fan to have official partners on there? It allows us to re-invest in the sport to make sure the sport continues to grow, and that’s what official partners do for the sport overall. Whether it’s Coca-Cola doing promotional things or any of the other sponsors that do things promotionally that help drive interest in our sport.

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