Steve Phelps still has a few days before he’s technically on the job, but there’s nothing like a little head start.
Phelps, a longtime NASCAR executive, was recently named the sport’s president, effective Oct. 1. And while Phelps will have plenty on his plate once his new role kicks in, he also took time Wednesday to meet with select NASCAR reporters.
Phelps addressed a number of issues during the nearly hour-long question-and-answer session, including everything from changing the Cup Series schedule to the sport’s new business model, which is scheduled to debut in 2020. He even touched briefly on Brian France, NASCAR’s former chairman/CEO who was arrested this summer and charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance. France is on indefinite leave, and his uncle Jim France is serving as interim CEO/chairman.
The below interview with Phelps has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. Where does putting new venues on the Cup schedule rank as far as on your priorities, and where would it rank as far as practicality?
A. Obviously our 2019 schedule is done. We announced that in April, and it’s going to be exactly the same schedule we have in ‘18. So with respect to any changes that we would make to the schedule moving forward, whether they’re new venues, doubleheaders, midweek racing — all these things that are being thrown around at this particular point — we’re looking at everything.
For us, we will look at 2020 and look at the schedule and figure out the best opportunity for us to put on the best racing. ... There are changes that I think will happen to the 2020 schedule that again, there will be input from a lot of different folks. One of those important groups will be our fans. What do they like? What don’t they like? That can inform decisions as well.
Q. As far as trying to grow team ownership, how do you view the Furniture Row Racing development (to shut down after this season)? Do you view that as more of an exception, or as a symptom of the greater issues NASCAR is working to solve?
A. We’re sorry to see Barney go. You guys have all spent time with Barney, and he’s something of a gentle giant, a quiet force. We don’t want to see ownership leave or see owners switch like that, particularly when you have someone who is your reigning owner of your champion.
With that said, there are circumstances that happened as part of his deal — from an expense standpoint, from a sponsorship standpoint — that he didn’t feel he could make work. Do I think it’s systemic? I don’t. Do we need to have, and would we welcome new owners to come into the sport? We would. We welcome new OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers ) to come into the sport, and we’re on that journey as well.
It’s an important thing. We’re all getting older, but our owners who love this sport and many of them who have been in it for decades, we want to make sure that there is a transition to new ownership as well, in a way that benefits the sport.
Q. What is the progress of NASCAR’s new sponsorship model, which is set to take effect after the conclusion of the 2019 season?
A. I actually left a meeting to come down here, we were meeting with the teams. So we’re meeting with teams and tracks, with our broadcast partners, to try to fine-tune what that looks like. We are continuing on that. Like ownership, we want to make this sport as easy as it can be for sponsors to come in and say yes to NASCAR. Reward those sponsors who are currently in the sport so they want to stay, so we are continuing on that.
It is something that we are interested in implementing starting with the 2020 season, but it won’t be a full roll-out. We have sponsors who are in place at the track level, we have sponsors who are in place at the sanctioning body level, that we have to honor those contracts and see where those go from there.
Q. Richmond drew a crowd Saturday, which was optimistically estimated at 40,000 people, and that was slightly larger than what they drew earlier this year. That’s about a third of what that track used to draw annually. What is a suitable number crowd-wise for a track like that, and should a track that’s lost roughly 70 percent of its crowd twice a year be allowed to keep two races?
A. I won’t try to get Pollyannaish about this at all. I don’t know what the optimal crowd is for a Richmond or for any other facility, frankly.
What I do know is that we need to make sure that the race product we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do. We do know that the race day experience or the race day weekend is really important, so we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that. And we need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion. And so that gets back to a collaboration effort, which we’re going to see between our race tracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners, and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way that we haven’t in the past. And that is really coming together and creating unique opportunities that reach fans and ask them to come out and see what’s going on in NASCAR.
Come see the racing. We’re putting out a great product, you’re going to have a great race day experience, whatever that might be. I don’t want to talk about other sports, but other sports are attendance-challenged, as well. The consumption patterns, same as with ratings, are changing, and we need to make sure that we’re changing with those things. What we do to promote the sport, in advance of getting people to go, I think we need to take a hard look at and we’re doing that.
Q. Why are you convinced that being president of NASCAR is still a good job, especially with the sense of negativity that sometimes abounds when discussing the long-term health of the sport?
A. As it relates to my taking this job or being appointed to this job and being careful what you wish for, I am incredibly positive for what the future of this sport will be — not just can be, but will be. Because there are a whole lot more things that I believe are going to happen to this sport that take advantage of the things we already have working for us. So, do I think the racing is really good right now? I do. Do I think that we’re going to make it better? I believe we can.
Do I think the business model for the teams is going to improve? I absolutely do. Do I think we’ve had a confluence of different things that have happened to this sport with the retiring of drivers? We’ve had five of our most popular drivers, six maybe, retire in the last three years. Is that a headwind? Of course it is. With that said, no disrespect to the Big 3 — or if you want to add Brad (Keselowski) and call it the Big 4 — the average age of those guys being whatever is, 38 years old, we have an incredible group of young drivers that are in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the Xfinity Series, and what will be the Gander Outdoor Truck Series, as well as folks that are coming up. Hailie Deegan, the announcement by JRM yesterday with Noah Gragson — these young people are the future of our sport.
Two decades ago when you had a dozen drivers come into this sport and we rode that wave, that’s fantastic. And now, we’ve had a bunch of retirement and retired drivers going about their lives and doing different things. It’s now the opportunity for these young drivers to come onto the scene, and they’re doing it with a backdrop of future Hall of Famers.
I mean, these guys are at the top of their game winning races. They’re all Hall of Famers, the four guys I mentioned and many others. When you think about who they’re racing against and who they’re cutting their teeth against, I think it’s phenomenal. I am incredibly encouraged by what the future looks like for our sport, and I’m ready to do my part.
Q. We heard earlier this year about the potential buying or selling of parts or all of NASCAR. Can you weigh in on that now as president?
A. I don’t have anything to announce that hasn’t been announced already. What I will say is, I’ll go back to what I’ve seen from (interim CEO and chairman) Jim France and what you’ve all seen from Jim France. If you’ve been at a racetrack, you’ve seen Jim France there. The moment that he was announced as the CEO/chairman of NASCAR replacing Brian, he has been at the race track.
Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy are committed to this sport, and they will continue to have their hand on this sport for a long, long time.
Q. To that end, does Brian return as NASCAR chairman and CEO?
A. You know what, I can’t look into the future and see what that’s going to look like. Brian is doing what Brian needs to do at this particular point. We’re focused on what we need to do at this point.