NASHVILLE—Before the season finale of Superstar Racing Experience, Ray Evernham paced around the infield of Fairgrounds Speedway like an expectant father.
Despite sweltering temperatures and threats of thunderstorms, race fans packed the century-old venue on Saturday to see what the buzz surrounding SRX was all about. All pit passes and standing-room-only options were sold out.
Evernham knew he had to deliver. While TV ratings will ultimately determine SRX’s fate, the response from the Nashville grandstand was music to his ears.
“I really appreciate people telling me ‘Great job,’ but when I walk out there and people were cheering when the cars came out? That was the moment for me,” Evernham said. “They were cheering for the cars! They were happy and excited—and I think they got a good show.
“Honestly, that’s all I want. I want the drivers to have fun, the fans to have fun, and you know what? I enjoy that. All along I thought, ‘Man, there’s got to be a space for motorsports entertainment in this world nowadays.’ And I think there is. I really think there is.”
None of NASCAR’s top three tours had raced at the iconic half-mile track in 21 years. There was a whole group of race fans who never imagined they would have the opportunity to see two generations of stock car champions—Bill and Chase Elliott —compete against one another.
Taking stars to local short tracks was just one of the attractions of SRX. While the previous six venues offered a seat—and a stage to a local standout—the father-and-son battle between literally two of NASCAR’s Most Popular Drivers would be the headliner.
“Did you all have fun tonight,” Chase Elliott asked the roaring crowd after winning the event. “It really was a lot of fun. To have a chance to race dad and beat and bang for the lead. We were both pushing hard. Those are moments I’ll cherish forever. Racing with Tony and Dad, I couldn't have scripted that any better.
“It’s just amazing. The crowd was unreal. I’ve never experienced a crowd like that at a short track—ever.”
While the younger Elliott found energy from the crowd, his 65-year-old father found inspiration from his son. His third-place finish was his best result of the season.
“This was such a cool deal to be able to come to Nashville and race,” Bill Elliott said. “And to have a crowd like this? It’s like Rick Hendrick said, ‘How can I say no to a guy who wants to race his dad?’ That made me completely emotional. It put a completely different spin on the night.
“To me, I finally kind of got what I wanted out of the race car and felt good out there. I’m like, I’m on Medicare and I’m trying to keep up with these young kids…I knew Chase would be hard to beat—especially at a track like this.”
The underlying storyline was Tony Stewart wrapping up the SRX championship. He entered the race needing just 12 points and accomplished the feat before the final run. For most of the race, Stewart watched the elder Elliott from out of his windshield. While he eventually passed Bill, he couldn’t catch Chase in the end.
“There’s no shame in running second to that kid,” Stewart said after he climbed from his car. His last year in the Cup Series was Elliott’s rookie season in 2016. Still, that didn’t stop Stewart from adding an SRX title to his lengthy motorsports resume. He was stoked to be the last to win the International Race of Champions (IROC) and the first to win the SRX title.
While the six weeks of racing breezed by for the drivers, Stewart acknowledged it must have felt like six months to the crews, Evernham and others in the front office.
“Ray is the backbone and the heartbeat of this entire program,” Stewart added. “And what he and Tony Eury Jr. did and the cars they built to be able to go to two different surfaces and a variety of tracks—banked and flat—and have fun like we’ve had every week in these cars, they could not have done a better job.
“To come out of the box with a car that drives like that is amazing. It just doesn’t happen like that very often. You had good racing, you had different winners, you had awesome crew chiefs, awesome ringers, awesome track champions. To have heroes and villains in the series—I don’t know if you could ask for more than that.”
Perhaps a podium featuring Smoke, Awesome Bill and the People’s Champ?
Still, Evernham’s biggest challenge is packaging the competition into a tight two-hour package complete with qualifying heats and a feature. There are no misconceptions when it comes to amping up the excitement level when necessary. While there are no ‘competition cautions’ or calls for ghost debris, if Evernham feels the cars are too strung out, he won’t think twice about waving the yellow flag.
Evernham doesn’t view SRX as traditional racing. His term “motorsports entertainment” is at the essence of his mission. And he's not an apologist.
“We’re not big on rules here,” Evernham said. “We don’t have a lot of rules. We just kind of wing it. I tell them in the drivers’ meeting, ‘Usually expect a caution. If you don’t cause it, I’m going to cause it.’ And everybody is happy with that. It’s not like a debris (caution). I tell those guys, ‘Look, it’s like a TV timeout.’ If you’re a football player, you have TV timeouts.
“We are motorsports entertainment. We’re not a racing series. We’re motorsports entertainment and we’re going to take TV timeouts and I’m going to keep the field closed up.”
Prior to the season finale, Evernham said the ratings would determine SRX’s fate. Although the Fairgrounds race went up against Game 5 of the NBA Playoffs on Saturday night, SRX still drew 1.3 million viewers.
“I hope some big sponsors call and TV calls and the race tracks call,” Evernham said. “You know, IROC went on for a long time. If we can keep entertaining the people, I’ll do it as long as TV wants it and people want it.”
What Evernham also wants is to move the product around to introduce SRX to a wider, live audience but still offering a variety of different racing surfaces and drivers.
“We want to do some different tracks—mix and match,” Evernham said. “But we’re going to go where the people support us because this is for them. But I want to have a mix of dirt, pavement and some…I don’t want to say road course, it doesn’t have to be road course. It can be like a rally deal, something where they brake, turn, shift, right, left—because we have some really interesting rally drivers and Formula 1 drivers that are interested in doing this and I’d like to give them a shot in their own environment.”
At the conclusion of the race, Evernham made the rounds on pit road to the drivers and crew chiefs. As he worked his way back to the victory celebration, fans complimented Evernham on the show’s execution. He modestly acknowledged the accolades, then later credited IROC president Jay Signore (who was in attendance at Nashville), former Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche, Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske with shaping his education in motorsports management.
“I always feel like that’s my job,” Evernham said. “I asked these people to come. I asked them to spend their money. I asked TV to put us on—and I’ve got to do my job. If I wasn’t doing my job, I would feel terrible.
“My problem is I always look at what I could have done to make it better, right? The year we won 13 races I said, ‘Well, we lost 20. There are a lot of things we could do better—infrastructure-wise and planning-wise. I think we were surprised by the number of people. Sometimes we have to think bigger as an organization. But when I walked out and the stands were packed and the people were cheering for my guys driving the cars out—like fighters when they are walking to the ring—it was like that. And that was the moment I will never forget from this year.”