AVONDALE, Ariz.—Over the last two seasons, Steve Phelps successfully navigated NASCAR through a pandemic, reinvented the wheel—albeit on the Next Gen car—and elevated fan engagement by introducing new venues to a tired Cup schedule.
Next up for Phelps is a sold-out Championship 4 weekend at Phoenix Raceway, followed by the introduction of the Next Gen car—a project which was first announced in January 2019 and delayed a year after the onslaught of Covid-19.
Throughout Phelps’ State of the Sport address on Friday, the overwhelming message was the continuation of intrepid steps to build NASCAR.
“I would say the drivers right now are up on the wheel more than any other time in our history throughout the field and it's exciting,” Phelps said. “How does that translate to engagement? Our digital and social numbers are the highest they've been since 2015. 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%. We are having a moment as a sport, it's important that we keep it going, which is exactly what we're going to do. We're going to continue to invest, we're going to continue to collaborate with the rest of the industry to continue the growth this sport is on.”
Phelps will need a collaborative effort throughout the Cup garage if the Next Gen debut is to live up to its promise. Issues with handling and overheating have plagued the car’s development over the past year. Still, Phelps understands the importance of the new model when it comes to advancing the sport. As solid as the current product is, the Next Gen must succeed that.
“It really hits on a lot of different important things for this sport, whether you're talking about relevance, you're talking about styling, you're talking about bringing this car to a place that, frankly, the existing car can't bring us to,” Phelps said. “The technology in the car, the data that's going to spin off that car, all designed to enhance the fan experience. That's what I think is going to happen here.
“It will create some opportunities for race teams to be competitive for a long time. The racing itself is going to be one that is going to continue the momentum we've had from a racing standpoint and a competition standpoint. Is it going to be exactly like it is today, significant number of passes for the lead throughout the field? I don't know. But I do know that our race teams, our drivers, our OEMs, our own competition people, will make sure that this is going to be the best racing we've ever had in this race car.”
Competition will have to be stout if NASCAR expects to attract additional OEMs to the playing field. Rumors of Dodge’s return have run rampant through the industry. During a recent press conference involving Tony Stewart Racing’s foray into NHRA, the three-time Cup champion and current co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing was quite evasive when pressed on a manufacturer for his two-car team. Another scenario that has been kicked around is that Dodge’s most recent Cup champion Brad Keselowski could usher in the Ram’s return under Roush Fenway Racing.
Regardless, Phelps acknowledged there were ongoing discussions with new OEMs.
“Our three existing OEMs are happy about that,” Phelps said. “Our race teams are happy about that. We're happy about that. It's been widely rumored that Dodge is one of those or closest. I won't confirm or deny that. It is important. We've made no bones about the fact that we want to have a new OEM in our sport. I think we got delayed with the pandemic.
“With that said, we are an attractive place I believe for OEMs to come into the sport. Now is an important opportunity for them to do that because of the Next Gen car. I also believe the fact that the sport is growing and has a relevance that it hasn't had in decades is causing some real interest from other OEMs.”
Phelps was extremely proud that NASCAR was named Sports Business Journal League of the Year for 2020—after setting the standard for Covid protocols across the board. While he admits it wasn’t easy, Phelps believes NASCAR emerged stronger because of it.
Still, challenges remain. Phelps has received pushback from the garage on vaccinations. Brandon Brown has become a household name among conservatives—not because he won Talladega but as an anti-Biden rally cry. Despite the return of fans to the racetrack, the midway experience lacks the energy it once held. There’s uncertainty surrounding the proposed changes to Auto Club Speedway. While TV numbers might be up, attendance at Texas and Kansas was less than impressive. Phelps, however, claimed attendance was up at every race from pre-pandemic (2019) numbers except at Darlington, which added a date.
“We need to make sure that the marketing and promotion is as strong as it can be,” Phelps said. “We need to make sure we are driving storylines. We need to make sure the event experience is better than it's ever been.
“Are we satisfied with where that is? We're not. We're going to constantly get better. I think you'll see that this weekend. I think this is going to be the single best championship weekend we've ever had, not just here, but ever. I think you're going to feel that from an energy level. I think the drivers are going to put on a hell of a show for us.”