It wasn’t all that long ago that NASCAR seemed to be going nowhere fast (pun intended).
In 2004 Bill France Jr. son of NASCAR founder ‘Big’ Bill France, held court with a group of reporters around a table in the cafeteria of the media center at Daytona International Speedway. During the conversation he warned that the popularity of NASCAR was on the rise. The key, he said, was to know when it had reached the top so it could avoid losing that popularity and being pushed from the mountaintop.
Bill France Jr. passed away in 2007 and not long after the sport, aided in part by a recession, was not just coming down from the summit, it was falling off a cliff.
The sport seemed stale in some ways. The schedules changed very little from year to year, and the sanctioning body seemed slow to react to any sort of outside pressure to change. Tradition ruled and other than shaking up the ways its champions were determined, one year seemed to melt into the next.
Grandstands that once held hundreds of thousands of fans during a race weekend were empty, and many were taken down. NASCAR evolved however, and a few years ago slowly seemed to be coming back to life. In 2018, Steve Phelps was named president of NASCAR. He knew then the task ahead for him, and the sport, was going to be a hard, but he was determined to climb back towards the summit
Then came COVID.
Phelps and all of NASCAR could have sat on their hands and waited until the ‘all clear’ was given. Instead, an organization that only a few years prior seemed the opposite of its on-track product, slow and unchanging, responded by finding ways to keep its product in front of fans and completed its scheduled number of races.
Steve Phelps obviously meant business.
Now as NASCAR reaches the end of its first full season in the post-COVID era, Phelps can look back on a year that is perhaps one of its most successful in decades. Friday at Phoenix Raceway where NASCAR will close out the 2021 season, Phelps met with the media for his annual state of the sport address, reflecting on the first time he had done so, in 2018.
“At that particular point the sport was going through some challenges, some headwinds, right? Those were real. I think we felt that”, Phelps said Friday. “I remember using the phrase that our best days are ahead. I’m not sure everyone in this room or folks around the country, world, believed that to be true.”
During the COVID ravaged 2020 season, tradition was secondary to getting in the scheduled number of races. If a track was in an area of the country that was still locked down NASCAR simply went to a track that would allow racing sometimes multiple time, even if fans weren’t able to attend in person. The schedule was put together seemingly on the fly.
While all that was going on behind the scenes NASCAR was working on an entirely new schedule. A 2021 schedule that looked nothing like any before it. This year the top-tier Cup series raced on dirt for the first time since 1970. New venues were added, more road courses like Road America, the Circuit of the Americas; Nashville Superspeedway was back after a long hiatus.
“It really took an industry coming together in order to make that happen,” Phelps said. “It took race teams, our broadcast partners, our sponsors, tracks that we own or tracks that we don’t own, that all came together to create an opportunity for our sport to grow, which is exactly what’s happening.”
“Ben Kennedy (NASCAR SVP of strategy and innovation and grandson of Bill France Jr.) and the team put together the most aggressive schedule we’ve had in 50 years,” Phelps said. “I think it worked. Attendance was fantastic at all the new venues; the racing was good at all the new venues.”
By most measures the 2021 season has been a successful one.
“Our digital and social numbers are the highest they’ve been since 2015,” Phelps said. “We continue to add on the social side. We feel that energy level, that excitement level throughout the digital and social channels.
“Television, which gets a lot of focus, we are the most stable sport on television since 2018. No other sport, none, can match what NASCAR has done from a stability standpoint with our ratings. If you consider our share numbers since 2019 in our Cup Series, it’s up 18%, which is hard to do at this point. It’s just hard.
“Then you look at our ratings for Xfinity and our Camping World Truck Series, they’re up double-digits. The share in both of those series is up 25% to 30%.”
Now the focus is on 2022. That schedule was announced not long ago. It features even more new venues and will open in the most unlikely of places: the L.A. Coliseum, where NASCAR’s Next Gen car will make its competitive debut in a non-points exhibition race in February.
“Going to the L.A. Coliseum to kick off our debut with our Next Gen car as a proof point frankly to we’re going to be bold in what we’re doing, whether it’s the schedule or the car, all of it, we’re going to take calculated risks,” Phelps said. “I think the schedule variation was very important. The reason why we’re able to do schedule variation frankly is the two public companies that dominated the Cup schedule, they had responsibilities to their shareholders. Those shareholders wanted to see a return on the investment they were making in those public companies.”
That all changed in 2019. NASCAR merged with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports went private. And that according to Phelps, “were things that people don’t think about that were very, very important to the success of this sport and will be for decades to come.”
In the days prior to the recession, even a slight change to the schedule caused an uproar among traditionalist fans, and even a lawsuit. Those days it seems are in the past; the schedule variation seen for 2022 won’t be the last.
“I don’t know what the ’23 schedule is going to look like,” Phelps said. “But I know it’s not going to look like the ’22 schedule.”
Not only did the merger and privatization help with scheduling, but it will also no doubt with one of the biggest revenue streams for NASCAR, its lucrative TV contracts. Last signed in 2013, those contracts are coming up for renewal with negotiations starting in 2023-2024.
“I would say that we are positioned well to have a good media rights discussion with FOX and NBC,” Phelps said. “If I started off talking about us being the most stable major sports property, it’s just a fact, the numbers are what they are.
“Could I have said that in 2018 and been completely honest with you? Probably not. What I do know about 2022, based on the way the schedule is going, we’re going to have our most successful year on television than we’ve had in a long, long time. It’s going to happen, assuming that weather is our friend.
“We have a tremendous schedule that we’ve put together. I think it’s going to yield significant results for us. If you consider that next year is the last full year before we start our discussions with our media partners, that’s a good thing.”
A part of the TV rights negotiations will be something that hasn’t been seen before, streaming. Streaming has become part of the consumer media landscape, and according to Phelps will be up for discussion.
“Listen, I don’t know where we’re going to go,” he said. “Direct to consumer is an important thing for our media partners. I know it’s important to NBC. They’ve made a big bet on Peacock.
“Do I think there’s a role for streaming or direct to consumer for our fans? I do. I think it’s a really important one as we look to create better content that we would put through that streaming service.”
This past season was about as normal as it was prior to the pandemic. Fans were allowed in, and if COVID continues to fade, next season will be more like the pre-pandemic days. This season most races were still one day shows with no practice or qualifying. Next year those will be back, and combined with open attendance, the season opening Daytona 500 will look more normal than it has in the past two years.
“I certainly hope so,” Phelps said. “I think if we continue to trend the way we’re trending now, I think we absolutely will have that,” Phelps said. “I won’t get into the exact numbers that we have from a Daytona 500 Speedweeks standpoint, but we haven’t seen advanced ticket sales like this in decades.
“People are feeling like we’re going to have some normalcy, but I also think it speaks volumes to where the sport is. People want to come out for big events. We’re going to see it this weekend. We’re going to see it around the 500. We’re going to see it around the Coliseum, and it’s exciting.”
NASCAR may never reach the once lofty peak it sat atop, but it’s clearly climbing back towards the summit. Aided in large part by the merger of NASCAR and ISC and the privatization of Speedway Motorsports, and by the lessons learned in the COVID 19 there is momentum that hasn’t been seen in many years, and would no doubt put a smile on Bill France Jr.’s face.
“We are having a moment as a sport,” Phelps said. “It’s important that we keep it going, which is exactly what we’re going to do.”