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


Q: What have been some of the critical points that the sport has looked at that have made it to where you feel like it’s healthier than where it was a few years ago?

SP: I think you need to look at what has happened, starting with the product itself. I think our racing, honestly, is better than it was. Coming off what we saw this year with 19 different winners, 20 if you include (Ryan) Blaney at the All-Star Race or 21 if you’re going to include Brad (Keselowski) with one of the Duels. That level of parity was brought about by this Next Gen car, and I think the Next Gen car, as we talked about in Phoenix, delivered. But it is much broader than that too.

If you think about NASCAR and what happened in 2020, in particular, it just really changed the trajectory of the sport. Think about 2019. Our ratings were up 3%, we are feeling good about getting back, you had a sitting president come to the Daytona 500 and then COVID. We had some momentum (before) cutting to March 13, everything shuts down and we have nothing. You don’t have a plan for getting forward, etc. The fact that we as an industry came together to create something special, which was to get back to being the first sport to competing, I think was an important thing, and then combine that with the first sport that was competing in front of fans in the stands was another.

But I even put that aside and then really look at the changes that NASCAR made with respect to the stance we took on social justice, the banning of the Confederate flag and the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that have led to new owners, new competitors and new fans that may have looked different, frankly, then what they looked like in 2019. I think that is really important, and I do think it’s not just what we did in 2020 but what we have done since that time.

I would suggest two things led to Michael Jordan and Pitbull wanting to come to the sport. One was the Next Gen car itself and that kind of changing model that exists from the Next Gen car and an ownership perspective, and then what does it look like from the stance we took on social justice in our (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts? Without those two things happening, I don’t think they’d be part of the sport. And frankly, millions of new fans who are watching and coming to races would not be there at all. Or, frankly, employees at NASCAR or new employees to the sport. All of that was what I would call a seismic shift in where NASCAR is today relative to where it was when I did that first state of the sport back in November 2018.

Financial stability offered by the Next Gen car as well as greater social outreach has helped NASCAR attract significant cultural crossover opportunities like Pitbull’s involvement with TrackHouse Racing, Phelps believes. Motorsport Images

Q: You’ve said multiple times over the last few years NASCAR has been the most stable sport. How do you measure that?

SP: If you look at where our viewership was in 2018, our viewership now is higher than it was in 2018. We are the only major sport that can say that. I’d like to say it’s a 20% lift (but) it’s not. There have been single-digit increases since that time. It’s this thing called homes using televisions or HUT levels. The HUT levels right now are a third lower than they were, which means that our share — which is how many people are actually watching the television at that particular time — is up by more than a third. In the last two years, our share is up 24% or 14% last year and 10% this year. If you look at our ratings, our ratings were up during that time period; I think we’re up 4%, which means the balance of it or 19%, we still share from another sports property or entertainment property. That’s where the stability comes from.

So not only did we see growth, everyone else did not. And I’m not suggesting we have the gaudy numbers that the NFL posts, but our numbers are strong. If we’re just going to look at it with how we do relative to other sports properties that are not the NFL from a volume standpoint, we do really well. Then how do you look at it in a relative standpoint? We’re doing even better. The good news for us is there’s no hyperbole in that at all; the numbers are the numbers.

Q: When you talk about what has made the sport attractive, how much has NASCAR being more willing to make schedule changes, go to different markets, and have new ideas and innovations helped?

SP: The schedule variation is huge. What we talk about internally all the time that has led to some of the successes that we have seen really is this idea about being bold and innovative in the decision-making that we are making and the plans that we are developing and then implementing. I think that’s important. The schedule happens to be one of them. We’ve seen countless positive schedule changes, whether you’re talking about the change to Bristol dirt, or you’re talking about the St. Louis event, or you’re talking about the Clash at the Coliseum, the Chicago street course, or any number of other scheduled changes that we’ve made. Our fans, industry, OEMs, and sponsors were starved for these changes, and we’re making these changes not just to change but because the fans said that’s what they want. And if I’m a stakeholder, give them what they want. It would be foolish not to.

I don’t know what our ‘24 schedule is going to look like, but it’s going to have more changes in it, for sure. Until such time as the fan base says “enough,” we’re going to continue to drive change throughout our industry. It’s change that really either delivers a better product or brings it to a market where there’s significant demand for our racing.

Since we announced the Chicago street course, the number of cities that have reached out to NASCAR is significant, saying, ‘Hey, we would love to have a street course with NASCAR.’ Now, we’re going to certainly wait to see how this first street course goes before we would make any commitments anywhere else. It’s going to continue to evolve in terms of what the schedule looks like, but in general, I think what you’ve seen as a result of schedule variation, what we do from diversity, equity, inclusion standpoint, or any number of the other changes that are happening within the sport, they’re bringing a relevance gain in the overall kind of population of this country and around the world. Reputation gains as well that, “Hey, NASCAR is a place where you want to invest your money.” NASCAR is a place that, “Hey, I’ll give that a shot. Didn’t think it was for me. I think I’m wrong. I think it actually is for me.” We’ve seen that repeatedly, whether you’re talking about race fans, different cities, companies that wouldn’t consider us before, new owners. All of it is due to the very intentional things that we’re doing to grow our sport.

Q: Many great things are happening for the sport, but what concerns or items must be improved?

SP: It’s a constant journey for improvement. The one thing we got dinged on this year, and I would say deservedly so, was the rear impact safety issues we experienced. But we’ve got plans for that, so I’m excited that when we get to the Clash that will be something that we won’t be talking about. Or I don’t think we will anyway. And if we are, we’ll continue to make changes to what that is.

From a viewership standpoint, I think our viewership is going to continue. Our attendance last year was really strong relative to where we were the year before and relative to where we were in 2019 and 2018. So continued gains there. I’m not concerned. The economy is a concern, I think, for everybody. What impact is that going to have on our race fans? But I’m very bullish about 2023.

Again, some of the changes — the schedule changes in particular, but there are others as well that will be meaningful changes that will continue to drive interest in the sport. And then an opportunity for us to come closer together with our race teams and make sure that we have healthy race teams moving forward. It’s important for us as a sport to make sure our race teams are healthy.