NASCAR’s 75th Anniversary season marks its first on-track competition this weekend with Sunday’s primetime Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in high-wattage Los Angeles. The annual season-opening Daytona 500 is two weeks later – on Feb. 19 – at the most iconic track on the schedule, Daytona International Speedway.
The two venues are a perfect representation of modern-day NASCAR – the bold move into a famed facility like the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that introduces tens of thousands of new fans to the sport in a thrilling, high-energy two-days of racing. The other in Daytona Beach is the most famous speedway in the sport hosting an absolute bucket-list weeklong event that has long featured the sport’s legends and provided legendary moments.
The 2023 edition of an ever-evolving NASCAR Cup Series schedule will also mark the debut of a summer street race in downtown Chicago and a return to one of the most iconic and popular venues from its past, North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway for the annual All-Star Race. There is a road course event at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, where Formula One will race later in the year. And there is the traditional Labor Day event in the heart of stock car country at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway – both fan favorites.
For sure NASCAR in 2023 doesn’t look exactly like NASCAR in 1983, but that’s the point of well-considered progress. And the resounding success thereof.
“I take a lot of pleasure in celebrating that time frame whether its 50 years or 75 years, as quick as time goes by now," longtime NASCAR executive Mike Helton said. “It seems like it wasn’t but a couple days ago we were celebrating the 50th anniversary but when you study the history our sport you see all the evolutions that went into the first 50 years and then the last 25 years, the things we’ve done and gotten done.
“It’s kind of indicative of that going into 2023 - our 75th anniversary - with the uniqueness of the L.A. Coliseum for the Clash and then the Chicago Grant Park race because it all signals, yeah, we’ve been doing this for 75 years, but one of the ways we figured out how to do it for 75 years was to stay fresh and current.”
Certainly, the flexibility of the schedule in recent years and the openness to bringing NASCAR to the fan, wherever the fan may be is indicative of the sport’s ever-evolving mindset.
The question isn’t ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’ as the sanctioning body embraces trying bold new initiatives from race locales and Playoff formats; from social media and track entertainment that didn’t even exist during the sport’s grand 50th anniversary celebration.
“I think it starts with the fan," NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “Our fans have told us again and again - and again - they want schedule variation. So, whether we’re going to North Wilkesboro for the All-Star race, or to the Chicago street course - in our 75 years we’ve never raced on the street ever - so you’re talking about milestones.
“The Coliseum is 100 years old and for us to go somewhere we’ve never been before and build a racetrack, race on it and then dig it up and put grass back down, that’s big.
“I just think it really comes back to ‘what is going to entertain our fans?’ And we want to put on great racing that will be unique and different and creates visibility for our sport. Last year, 70 percent of the fans that went to the race at the Coliseum had never been to a NASCAR race. … The Chicago street race will probably have a similar number of people having never been to a NASCAR race. And it’s exciting and it’s going to be fun."
The willingness to think outside the box and to be open-minded are exactly the kind of approaches that have sustained NASCAR through so many challenges from the fuel shortage in the 1970s to the COVID-19 epidemic more recently. And the positive results have given the sport and its leadership reason to feel confident going forward with new ideas and approaches.
“In the early days, NASCAR’s gameplan was to try and be as consistent as we could for fans to be able to plan and companies involved in the sport to be able to plan because it took that long to do those plans," Helton said. “Now in the modern world, people make quick decisions and make changes quicker. So, we can move stuff around and have fun and add pizzazz and the industry and the fans aren’t left out.
“They are actually driving us to do things quicker.”
The mix of tradition and innovation is a delicate balance that NASCAR executives take seriously. The cars, the rules, the venues, the speedways are all vital components of that progress.
Yet, above all, is the commitment to stay true to the most fundamental element of the sport: close, safe, thrilling big-time racing in front of packed grandstands – the fans eager and entertained.
And it’s worked for 75 years.
“I think anyone who is involved in this sport at all, whether you work at NASCAR, or you work at a race team or for a racetrack, or our fans, it’s just a moment in time for us to take a step back and really celebrate and honor the past which is what we’re going to do," Phelps said.
“And I think the unique thing is we also need to celebrate what’s happening today in this sport and then a look forward. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re talking about this our “75th” and we have a tagline, “always forward.” That’s going to represent what we’re going to do.
“For anyone, it’s about being a fan. For me personally, I’m just excited about what the opportunity is for us to celebrate 75 years of NASCAR."