NASCAR President Brent Dewar on fans, facts and the future

By Jerry Jordan, Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Recent articles and commentary about NASCAR dying or being set-up for a sell-off to a major conglomerate have no merit, according to NASCAR president Brent Dewar, who is in daily talks with the chief executive officer Brian France.

“Of course not,” Dewar told Kickin’ the Tires, protective of the sport he fell in love with after attending a night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1988. “We’re celebrating our 70th year with NASCAR, and we’re probably as excited about our 71st year coming up as we’ve been at any time in our history, I think.

“I’m in the market like you are, and there’re lots of stories written all the time. I think this might have been the 10th version I’ve heard. I’m starting my fifth year. We’re working on growing the sport, Jerry. The France family have been here for 70 years.”

With the announcement of Ben Kennedy, son of International Speedway Corp. CEO Lisa France-Kennedy and nephew to Brian France, Dewar said the foundation is being laid to continue what was begun by Bill France Sr. back in 1948.

Since that time, NASCAR has become an empire in the racing world, dominating its ratings category despite there not being as many eyes on the TV screen as there were a decade ago. NASCAR estimates its fanbase to be 80-million strong.

“You know, there’s a lot of great elements, and it starts with our fanbase,” Dewar said. “Our fans are passionate. They love this sport. They’re engaged with this sport. I think what a lot of people miss is how engaged they are. I think that’s a story.”

Dewar explained that since he has taken over as NASCAR’s president, he worked to nearly double the size of the fan council. It was something he said he wanted to do in order to get an even broader perspective from NASCAR’s core audience.

Additionally, he personally engages with fans on social media and isn’t afraid to call someone out for proffering bad information. If he sees something that needs correcting, he will address it and not sluff it off on a public relations rep or marketing executive.

Getting the right message out is key, he said. And while some fans call into radio shows or rant on chat boards and Reddit, he and his team are going through reams of data from the fan council on what works and what doesn’t.

“We’ve increased the fan council to almost 25,000,” Dewar said. “That’s a forum to allow the fan to directly communicate with us. These people give their time every race weekend, and they give us qualitative and quantitative feedback on that particular race. We plow through the research of what they tell us, and we make decisions on the races coming forward and calibrate through the season.

“It’s a lesson I’ve learned a long time ago when I was at an automotive company and I was kind of leading a big brand. Social media to me is a way to connect with the fans,” he explained. “I’m a disciple of a guy named Alfred P. Sloan (former chairman and CEO of General Motors Corporation). He had a great technique of how they calibrate research with reality. I use social media that way.

“I have a little different approach, where I will follow NASCAR fans as opposed to NASCAR fans following me. If you look at mine, I do that, and every week I seek out fans across America, and I’ll follow them. I’ve had some of them respond back at me, ‘Why are you following me? I’m so-and-so from Wisconsin.’”

Dewar’s answer to that question was that if a person proclaims they are a NASCAR fan in their social media profile, he wants to know what they are thinking because those are the people openly discussing what they like and don’t like.

What are their views on the sport? What message are they receiving, or projecting, and why? Dewar wants to know.

“I follow them, and I try to understand what they’re looking at, and how their interactions are,” Dewar said.” I’m not stalking them by any stretch, but I’m just trying to understand the fan perspective. I try to calibrate that with our fan council. We’ve got really good research and analytics from the fan council and syndicated studies. I also believe we owe it to the fans to share a voice, and my voice as the president, is the amplify the sport – but, also to clarify things.

“I take a slightly different approach. I don’t say I call people out per se, and it doesn’t sound the way I am. But I will if people are communicating what I believe are just absolutely erroneous facts. We have to clarify, because in social media … it’s a much more of an instant gratification form of media, and that erroneous fact can be a (perceived) fact pretty quickly. So, you’ve got to step into the fray.

“I’m okay with being critical,” Dewar continued. “You can critique. I’ve got some followers that call me a moron and different things like that. I don’t put them in the social terrorist category. They just don’t know me yet, but that’s okay. I’m all good for criticism.”

One erroneous fact, which played out during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour in January, was that France is an absentee leader of the sport – not engaged and unable to care about racing. Dewar finds that laughable and explained that France gets a bad rap. In fact, he knows firsthand just how engaged France is, and he is also aware that the oft-maligned leader of the sport is many times present at the track but not seen except by a select few.

“That’s just flat not true. I mean, we talk multiple times a day,” Dewar said, as he began to laugh, recalling the amount of interaction the two have on a regular basis. “It could be upward to five times per day that I talk to Brian.

“I’m the president. He’s the chairman (and CEO). We talk seven days a week. So, for a guy that’s not engaged, he’s really engaged. I’d be okay if he was a little less engaged.”

The catalyst for the latest round of debates about France being at the track occurred when Brad Keselowski gave his answer regarding one thing he could change if he were put in charge of the sport for a single day. In its simplest form, his answer would seem harsh and very critical of France – and many media outlets jumped at the chance to have a story about a former NASCAR champion firing off about France.

“If I could make one change it would be that the leader of the sport is at the race track every weekend. That would be my change,” Keselowski said at the time.

In Keselowski’s defense, he joked with reporters before giving his answer and explained there was a chance he would get in trouble. He also seemed perplexed that he would be allowed to make only one change – given time to think he may have come up with a different answer.

Dewar said the statement was “unfortunate” and not fair to France or the sport. He also believes Keselowski would probably want a do-over if he could be asked the question again.

“I think Brad’s a great guy. He’s great for the sport, a heck of a driver, a fabulous champion,” Dewar said. “All of us probably would love to have that one back. He wasn’t really targeting Brian per sé, and indirectly kind of got to that because he knows Brian is very supportive of him. But I think what it is … you know at times because we’re in a transition, right – I’m the fourth president of the sport. I’m very honored to be that. I’ve led in my role as a Chief Operating Officer, kind of deliberately by design behind the scenes.

“Now as the president I have to come more to the forefront. I think I was hired by Brian France to come in and do the things I’m doing – to move the sport forward in a positive manner, to work on all of these opportunities, and some of the challenges to bring the industry together – to collaborate.

“Brad knows me very well,” Dewar continued. “He’s on our driver’s council. I think he got the mic that day and he was asked about it, talking about Brian. And I went on social media and said, ‘Look. I’m just trying to set the record straight. You’re implying whether you’re seeing him visibly at a track as you would have seen his grandfather and his father as a form of disengagement.’

“I get it. I understand what they’re looking at. But they kind of see that. He sees the sport and is actively engaged in the sport differently, and by design (than his father and grandfather). My job and Mike Helton’s job and Steve O’Donnell’s and Steve Phelps’ job, is to be those visible leaders at the track because he’s doing other things.”

Dewar also elaborated on the fact that France sometimes brings his son, Luke, to the track and is in dad-role. In fact, Dewar said his own daughter, Olivia, accompanies him to some tracks, as well.

“We all have a role to play at the track,” he said. “The industry kind of knows it, but some people have taken liberties of judging him and his contributions. When the stories are all written and told, what he’s brought to the sport from the media, broadcast contracts and the marketing side are, quite frankly, immeasurable.

“I think it’s a lot to do about nothing. So, as I said to everybody else, any fan that’s listening, I’m at the track. I try to go to every single race, but I make 30 of 36. There’s usually a spring break for my daughter, and we go skiing. Then, unfortunately, the last couple years we’ve probably had a couple more funerals than I would like to attend, as you lose some dear friends and family members. But I’m at 30 of the races. Mike (Helton, NASCAR vice-chairman) is at almost all of them, and so is Steve O’Donnell. So, between all of us, for the fans, if that’s important to them, for us to be seen or to engage … we’ve got some really cool ideas to have fan engagements with the leadership of NASCAR here this year coming up, which we’ll be really excited about.”

Some media members and fans take issue with attendance, TV ratings and other aspects of the sport that NASCAR has been working to correct. Although TV ratings have dropped across the board for sports in general, that doesn’t let NASCAR off the hook. And while many tracks overbuilt grandstands in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the correction being seen with reduced seating is seen as a weakness.

In fact, according to Dewar, those perceived weaknesses are a direct result of tracks working to make life better for fans at each end of the economic scale.

Whether it be luxury amenities for well-healed motor coach owners with backstretch parking that gives an overview of an entire track, or the new restart bars at Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks, fan terraces or the stadium-concept of Daytona International Speedway, redesigns at ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix International Raceway) and Richmond International Speedway, Dewar sees the reinvestment trend as positive.

“Our fans are craving more, so we’re trying to find that right balance,” he said. “Attendance is really important at the track, and that’s one thing we look at. But we’re asking the tracks to go through a complete modernization of their facilities, and that’s part of their plan. But we kind of messed up their modernization plans because we came up with a safety initiative first. We said, ‘While you’re working on your modernization, you’ve got to accelerate your SAFER barriers and the rest of your safety techniques.’ We had a very thoughtful plan to progress that, and we had a wakeup call when Kyle (Busch) got hurt in Daytona a few years ago. We went back to the tracks and said, ‘Whoops. Sorry about that. Will you work with us and change that?’

“So, I think it’s sort of unfair for some of the folks to be criticizing the tracks on where they are in their phase in terms of wi-fi in these facilities or doing some fan amenities.”

Dewar also challenges the notion that fan engagement metrics are completely fair. In the past, there was only one metric – TV. Now, there are multiple platforms for NASCAR fans to keep track of what is going on at the track. Twitter, Facebook, NASCAR.com, TV, terrestrial radio, satellite radio, mobile devices and DVRs are all available for fans.

“I think what a lot of people get into is they get into a couple of key metrics, which are still very important – it’s the size of the TV audience.,” explained Dewar. “They get into this ratings debate. What happens in ratings? Quite frankly, all ratings are down right across the board in virtually all sports. It doesn’t mean the sports are in decline, it means the metric to measure TV consumption is changing.

“So, all of it needs to be third-party verified because there’s a commercial aspect to all sports. The gold standard, or standard of measuring TV, is going through a transition itself. How do you capture people as they move to mobile devices or they move to different ways of consumption? It’s been evolving for many years, and it continues to evolve. But the fans are still there.

“The fans are still there consuming sports and live sports still matter. We’re still talking about 50 million unique (viewers) that watched NASCAR last year. That’s a huge number. In any given weekend, we’re still the number one or two top sport. We don’t have a lot of home games like these other sports have. Some people say we have a long season but we have 36 sanctioned races at the Cup level, and we have two other national series that are important to that. The fans have an opportunity to consume the sport in different ways.

“When you’re making those kinds of investments, it’s silly when people ask if the sport’s dying. These are really smart businessfolks that see the passion of the fanbase and the fans are asking us to grow with them. As I’ve said, I’ve been around the sport for 20-plus years, 25-plus years, probably, directly both from the sponsor side and now with NASCAR. I’m excited because I look from a fan’s point of view and there’s a lot to be excited about.”

3 Comments

  1. W.G.Gruner

    February 12, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Sorry but I see a lot of this as corporate kool aid speak. You can almost hear Micheal Waltrip saying this as a corporate shill. IMHO all this visionary speak is still missing the points that the fans talk about everyday. The things that the fans just don’t like and have led to empty seats. The NASCAR hierarchy still needs to come down from that ivory tower and actually see the fans, hear the fans, they make NASCAR without them there is no NASCAR, period end of story. Lastly, BOZO at the tracks and just not being seen, really? If I were to believe that then it just further shows his true disconnect from the gift he was given by his grandfather and father AND THE FANS!

  2. DeLaun Fifield

    February 15, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Hi Brent,

    I was willing to give you a little bit of ‘credibility’ until I read the statement “I believe our fan base to 80 million strong…”

    Who are you trying to kid??

    I will give you a quick piece of REALITY pal. Literally 10 minutes away from your offices is a business/store called “Daytona Racing Souveniers & Hobbies”. This store just announced that after almost 40 years in business, it has been forced to close its store because of lack of patronage from those 80 million fans. Also, when I asked the owner, who is a good buddy of mine, he told me that it was the HOBBY side of his business that had been carrying the store for the last 5 years. NOT NASCAR related sales….

    Some other FACTS about the sport: Since 2005 TV ratings have dropped 45%!! Attendance has an even DEEPER drop!

    During that same time you have lost 2 magazines that used to cover your sport. The weekly “NASCAR Scene” newspaper (that used to be called ‘Winston Cup Scene” and you have closed down the monthly “NASCAR Illustrated” magazine as well. Don’t say that people have changed consumption-if there was an audience willing to BUY said mags-you would STILL have them….

    The fact that there ARE STILL thousands of tickets available to this years Daytona 500 is VERY indicative that this sport is not at all carrying 80 million fans! How can there be that many fans, yet the sports “Superbowl” is not sold out? Or not sold out a year in advance like it used to be?

    No, sorry kids. But this sport IS dying. And Its true, the ratings and attendance this year will show the “Earnhardt effect” when it comes to viewership and most notably, race attendance. I myself had tickets to the summer race at Daytona since 1992, and I choose NOT to renew because Dale Jr. won’t be racing. Who else should I be spending a whopping $400+ for a pair of Winston Tower/Sprint Tower/Nextel Tower/ Section 405 seats to be rooting for?

    Nope I’m done. NASCAR you have imploded! And if this sport is so “healthy” and heavily supported by fans, why is it that you yourselves are having problems getting title sponsors? And the one you have, “Monster” paid a paltry 19 million a year-AND has NOT extended its contract beyond this year as we speak?

    80 million fans ??? Haaa haaa….no way….

    NASCAR R.I.P. 1948-2017

    EDITOR’S RESPONSE: First, thank you for reading the article. I believe what he is talking about are casual fans of the sport, and that would include a worldwide audience. I can ask for clarification. Additionally, it is 2017, so either NASCAR is either a new spinoff of The Walking Dead or they have lived past your life expectancy date. Either way, NASCAR isn’t dying anytime soon. I think Mr. Dewar is exactly the person the sport needs to guide it to new levels. SO far, he has been doing a heck of a job. — Jerry Jordan, Editor

  3. Anne

    February 18, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    As a fan, I’m concerned about the long-term viability of the sport. And I’m not being disparaging, just assessing reality. Maybe the corporate tax cuts will encourage more businesses to consider sponsorship if NASCAR can make a persuasive case for it.

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