NASCAR’s Steve Phelps on progress with diversity, overcoming the pandemic and racing’s future

NASCAR NASCAR Cup Series
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By Jerry Jordan, Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As the 2021 NASCAR season officially gets underway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps explained the most important issues facing professional stockcar racing this year and how the sport has not only embraced racial diversity, its position is helping the sport thrive more than ever. Plus, the approach taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has proven NASCAR’s bubble is working, he said.

“As we head into 2021, I’ll try not to look into the past too much, as extraordinary as 2020 was for all of us, 2021 we’ve got real excitement as we head into this season, probably more excitement and more wind at our back than we’ve had in decades,” Phelps said. “That’s gratifying, feels good. We need to make sure that as a sport we continue to pour gas on the growth of this sport. It’s important.”

Phelps explained much that growth and attention from outside investors, like Michael Jordan, Pitbull and others have been because of steps taken to eliminate the Confederate Flag and welcome all people to the track. NASCAR’s inclusivity and commitment to accepting all races openly has come miles in the right direction with everyone in the NASCAR garage receiving sensitivity training to make them more aware of the issue, he stressed.

“As an industry, I made a promise to this group back on Thursday after the Talladega race with Bubba Wallace and the situation with the noose, that when people walked into the Daytona 500, into that garage, every single one of them would be trained in sensitivity training. I can say that that happened. That was important,” Phelps said. “The sponsorships I talked about a little bit before. The sponsorships that we have or the partnerships that we’re developing are significant. When it’s time to announce what those are, and that will be soon, it’s gratifying. I think it’s, as I said, right for our sport. It’s authentic to our sport. We are going to continue this. For us it really is about making sure that we continue to act, and act in a way that is consistent with where our brand DNA is.

“We have a great crop of young drivers, a great crop of first-ballot Hall of Famers that will be part of this sport racing side-by-side: a great young champion in Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson coming back, Bubba Wallace,” Phelps said. “Obviously new ownership. We have three new teams, obviously highlighted by the 23XI group with Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin and obviously their driver Bubba Wallace. The great outing last night.”

Phelps said overwhelmingly fans backed the sanctioning body’s position on diversity and the elimination of the confederate flag at the track – it was -proven out by their fan surveys and industry studies.

“A couple weeks ago we got our brand tracker for 2020 back. Looked at a number of different things including the health of the sport, the health of the brand, all which are soaring, which is fantastic,” he said. “One of the most important questions that was in there was a question about how our avid fans felt about the stance that NASCAR took on social justice and the banning of the Confederate flag. If you bear with me for one second. These are all avid fans broken into three segments of time spent: 16 plus years as an avid fan, four to 15 years as an avid fan, or zero to three. 16 plus, three-to-one favorable to unfavorable about how NASCAR handled social justice and the banning of the Confederate flag. Four to 15 years, six-to-one favorable to unfavorable. Zero to three, eight-to-one.

“To me, it really speaks to our fan base. If you go to a racetrack and you’re walking through the campground, you go up to someone, they’re going to offer you a beer, a hot dog, they’re going to say, ‘Hey, who is your driver?’”

Phelps also pointed out that NASCAR worked hard during the pandemic and was the first national sport to make a comeback when others were still sidelined. Because of NASCAR’s uniqueness in racers being confined to their cars and crews wearing helmets, it allowed a plan to create an inner bubble at the racetrack. No one on the inside who wasn’t absolutely an essential worker. On the outside, a second bubble existed that, at first, consisted of a handful of media, support staff and operations officials. It wasn’t long before changes were made and fans were slowly let back in, media numbers increased and teams created ways for sponsors to have a little hospitality in the grandstand suites.

“Nothing’s perfect,” Phelps said, of the protocols put in place at the time. “We did have some cases, a couple of high-profile drivers as well (Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon). But all in all, I think if you look at our protocols relative to other sports, I think it worked really well. I think our competitors felt safe and I think our drivers, for the most part, they’re very pleased. We have some competitive advantages as we had spoken about before. Drivers, they already have PPE, their fire suits, their helmets, gloves, all of it. It’s different than other sports. Same with the crew members, our officials. It’s outdoors. All kinds of things that are positive.

“I think for us, just to kind of pivot away from that a second, for 2021 it’s going to be largely the same. We’ve done a little tweaking here and there, but for the most part, it’s the same. If it didn’t work, we’d do something different. But I believe it worked, so we’re going to stay with the protocols that we had.”

NASCAR also took the initiative during the shutdown to introduce racing to a new fanbase – through virtual racing. iRacing numbers soared, everyone could be a racecar driver (if they could find a steering wheel and pedals as most stores were sold out) and NASCAR showed Cup Series drivers racing in hi-tech racing simulators on national TV. It brought ratings, it created new fans and it brought a cottage industry of an entirely new form of racing to the forefront. And that is continuing despite the ongoing pandemic.

“Is there some fatigue that comes with having another year of COVID as we start another season? Yeah, there’s some fatigue,” Phelps said. “But I think the sponsors and those in the sport are managing it as well as you can or as well as we can. We’re trying to be very consistent about how we’re approaching that. Whether it’s the sanctioning body, SMI, our race teams, we’re working as one entity to make sure that we are giving the sponsors real value. There are different ways we’ve done that through iRacing, making sure that sponsors have additional visibility in different places, from a media perspective with our own media. I give our folks a lot of credit as an industry on being creative and innovative to make sure the sponsors are seeing value for what they pay for.”

As most fans know, a new generation of the NASCAR racecar was supposed to debut in 2021. Again, the pandemic changed things. Due to shutdowns that led to numerous complications in the timeline, NASCAR pushed the Gen 7 debut back to 2022.

However, work continued throughout 2020 with testing, development and problem-solving. It hasn’t all been perfect but NASCAR is ready to wrap up its production phase of the car and let teams get their hands on it. That should come soon as parts and pieces are now beginning to make their way to race shops. A test is planned later this year and NASCAR has already announced that it will send its prototype off for crash damage testing to ensure all of the built-in safety features work properly.

“There are many things that NextGen will do for us as a sport when it rolls out in 2022,” Phelps said. The styling is going to be amazing. I think the racing is going to be better based on the aerodynamics of the vehicle. The costs associated with the vehicle will be lower in terms of its absolute cost as well as the number of cars that will be necessary to run and run upfront. Those are all wins for us.”

One of the sticking points with hardcore NASCAR fans has been the electrification aspect of the new car. The manufacturers have all committed to some form of hybridization to recoup energy that could be used to assist in braking or aspects of in-race competition. As it has been repeatedly pointed out through the years, OEMs use racing to develop their streetcars in a lot of ways and electrification in racing is an inevitable result.

Phelps said, he doesn’t see the complete electrification of racecars in the sport anytime soon but there will be a hybrid system. That has already been declared a reality. However, he was reassuring in that the sound of the engine isn’t going anywhere soon.

“As it relates to electrification and new OEMs, I would be surprised if a new OEM came in without some type of electrification. I’m not talking about all-electric. I’m talking about a hybrid system,” Phelps said. “I think it probably is something, obviously something that we’re exploring now with our existing three OEMs. The question is, ‘What is it? What’s the timing of it?’

“I don’t have either of those answers at this point, although John Probst, Steve O’Donnell, that group, plus our OEMs, engine builders, are all working on that right now. I don’t foresee a time in the future where we would go, with all of our series, to an all-electric (racecar). I don’t see that. Could we have an exhibition series potentially? We could. That would be something that we might explore. Sound is a major part of who we are as a sport. It’s going to continue to be.”

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