With a new rules package coming in 2019 for NASCAR’s foremost series, with significant schedule changes under consideration for the year after that, and with a groundswell of new corporate interest in the sport as a marketing vehicle, NASCAR President Steve Phelps was upbeat when he took questions from reporters on Sunday morning before the Ford EcoBoost 400 (at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90) at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Despite an on-track product that has produced compelling racing this season—as well as perhaps the strongest Championship 4 contingent since the inception of the elimination-style format in 2014—NASCAR has introduced a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition package that will constitute a paradigm shift for next season.
Phelps expects the higher-downforce, lower-horsepower combination to enhance the on-track product.
“I think the rules package was put in place because we want to have the most competitive racing we can,” Phelps said. “We believe the 2019 rules package is just exactly that. What effect it has on ratings or what effects it has on other things that are outside of our control, I can't say.
“I can say that we do believe that this racing, which today arguably is the best we've ever had, is going to get better. We have a promise to our fans, and that promise is about close, competitive, side-by-side racing, and we believe that this 2019 rules package will give us exactly that.”
Though the 2019 NASCAR schedules are set, Phelps indicated the sanctioning body is looking at a wide range of options for 2020, even though the current five-year sanctioning agreements don’t expire until the end of the 2020 season.
“In short answer, I think everything is in play,” Phelps said. “So we've heard from our fan base that they would like to see more short-track racing. They want to see more road courses. They want to see less cookie-cutter tracks, whatever that means. I think that we are looking with our broadcast partners and with our tracks and with our teams and drivers to get input on what each of them believes would be an ideal schedule, and then we're obviously doing fan research as part of it.
So do I believe that everything is on the table? I do. Will we see a lot of the things that have been talked about, so more short tracks, more road courses, double headers, mid-week racing, pulling the season forward? All those things would be in play. I don't know what's going to happen, but we’re working diligently on what a 2020 schedule would be. As soon as we have something to talk about, we will get it to you.”
During Ford Championship week in Florida, Phelps attended a sponsorship/marketing event hosted by Team Penske. The event reaffirmed what Phelps already was feeling about the business climate with the sport.
The 2019 season will be Monster Energy’s last as the title sponsor for the Cup series, after which NASCAR will roll out a new sponsorship model for its premier series.
“The sponsorship component of this, there are… and I've been accused of being Pollyannaish before… I believe the state of sponsorship in this sport continues to accelerate in a positive manner, not just because we have a new sponsorship model coming. If you look at the state of where the teams are—I went to a Penske summit that I was fortunate enough to speak at, and I was speaking to (Team Penske executives) Bud Denker, Tim (Cindric), and they were saying, ‘Hey, we have 15 new sponsors here.’ That's fantastic. You talk to Joe Gibbs: ‘Hey, we've got a bunch of new sponsors here,’ sponsors that have been signed at the sanctioning body.
“We're always seeking to have new sponsors in the sport. We have a competitive advantage over other sports, I believe, because of our great fan base. Our fans understand what it means to be a sponsor of NASCAR, and they understand that that product or service or whatever it is, if I support that, it helps my sport.
“That's the competitive advantage we have. I think we'll continue to make gains on the sponsorship front.”
The most valuable coins of the realm are the talents and personalities of the drivers themselves. Relative to other major professional sports, the nucleus of star athletes in NASCAR racing is by nature more limited, although NASCAR stars conversely are more accessible to fans than they are in any other sport.
“Our drivers are the single most important ambassadors for our sport,” Phelps said. “There is no question about that. I was struck by something Ryan Blaney said earlier in the year. He's like, ‘I'll do anything you want me to do. I want to be an ambassador for this sport.’
“We are at a competitive disadvantage relative to other sports because we don't have as many athletes that are participating at our highest level than say the NFL. They have 1,600 players. We don't have that. And so, every driver is really important for us to help drive star power in our sport.
“It is about the driver. Listen, you have other players that are important, crew chiefs and teams, but it's really about the driver. And so, we have worked for seven or eight years to try to get drivers when they're young and try to train them about media training and try to get their personality out there, trying to build their brand.”