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Volume 23 No. 24
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The Sit-Down: Leading NASCAR’s team effort

NASCAR’s Steve Phelps, elevated from chief operating officer to president last month, dishes on his role and the vision he’s looking to bring to the position
Photo: scott hunter / nascar
Photo: scott hunter / nascar
Photo: scott hunter / nascar

The difference between my old role and new role is I would go to about every third race; I’m pretty much going to every race now and have for the last couple of months. I think it’s important to do that because our industry travels every week and if I’m going to be a leader of this sport, I need to do that as well. And not coincidentally, [interim chairman and CEO] Jim France is traveling to every race as well. The great thing for both Jim and me is we love racing and NASCAR, so it’s not a chore to go — it’s a joy.

There are many things that are obviously the same [about the new position]. If you look at the functional responsibilities, most of those are the same. The competition portion has been added to it, which has been great. … Then I would say a lot more opportunities to do things with the media and speak to different groups within the industry. I did quite a bit of that before, but it seems to be a little bit more. And then just overall kind of a leadership role within the organization itself, and that’s been very positive. I’m excited about how that’s gone thus far.

I have tried to be a little more active on social media. It’s a nice tool to engage with fans, but it’s not about me. [EVP and chief racing development officer] Steve O’Donnell probably has 20 times the number of followers I do, which is great — he heads up the area where that’s important to these fans. I don’t want to pull away from any of that; if there’s things I can add that fans or business partners might find insightful or interesting, I’ll do that and be a little more active than I have been, but it won’t be my day job.

The timing of [my new role] is really fortunate because we’ve right now kicked off our 2019 business planning, our budgeting. It’s a great opportunity to look at the things that are working, change the things that we don’t think are working as well, and redirect the dollars that are going to truly impact the business positively. So we’ve been on this journey to be more collaborative; that’s going to continue. It’s trying to provide a vision to this organization and sport more broadly, having the organization understand what our objectives are and how we’re going to measure success.

The efforts today, whether it’s race teams, broadcast partners, tracks, the willingness to collaborate and in some cases put self interest aside to help grow the sport, I think it’s at an all-time high and that’s probably one of the single most important things within my job. Other people have other things they need to do within their own function, and I believe that is probably one of the biggest things I need to do is to make sure this industry understands that it needs to come together and collaborate in order for us to be successful as a sport.

I think it’d definitely be helpful [if NASCAR collaborated more with competing series like IndyCar and Formula One]. If you asked Sam Flood, Mark Lazarus or Pete Bevacqua at NBC, they would say the same thing: “We want to be a motorsports network, and we think we can grow the sport overall.” The way I see it is if F1 or IndyCar are successful in this country, it’s good for NASCAR. If you look at other stock car series and racing at the grassroots regional level, we think that absolutely moving forward in 2019 we can help them and they can help us. I think there was a notion at one point that NASCAR didn’t care about these other racing series at the grassroots level; [that] couldn’t be further from the truth.

One of the biggest things I need to do is to make sure this industry understands that it needs to come together and collaborate in order for us to be successful as a sport.
Steve Phelps

It’s a coincidence for sure (that NASCAR introduced its first official moonshine just after he became president), but I think going back to our roots is not a bad thing at all. We have a rich tradition as a sport, and we should embrace that tradition and history and celebrate it. I think that is being true to who your brand is and being authentic is something we should continue to do, and you also have to look at the future so it’s not just, “Hey, where have you been in the past?” but, “Hey, where are you going in the future?” Our racing has always been about close, competitive side-by-side racing, trading sheet metal and paint. That’s an important part of our history, and we need to make sure in the future we’re staying true to that while making sure we are relevant to our [original equipment manufacturers] and fan base. All of those need to be looked at holistically.

We’ve got competitive and strong series in Mexico, Canada and Europe. I think there are other opportunities in China, Brazil and other places that will allow us to bring our style of racing and we believe it’s the best, most entertaining racing in the world, and finding those grassroots opportunities to grow those fan bases organically in those countries with drivers who are from those countries is really important. You look at the success Daniel Suarez has had — was really competitive there [in NASCAR’s Mexico Series], moved up in each of the series and has done a tremendous job. We see the same thing happening in other countries. What’s the length of time that it takes us to do that? We have time, but we need to get the process vetted, started and then implemented.

You need to have pretty thick skin. It doesn’t matter where it is, people have their own opinions and we’re not going to make everyone or every driver, team, track, fan, happy. It’s an impossibility. With that said, we’re going to take a significant amount of input from the various stakeholders, including our fans, and make sure that we are making informed decisions and what we believe is the right decision for the sport. When you make those decisions, you’ll hear some chirping — but you just have to have a thick skin and move forward, because at the end of the day, we are going to make what we believe is the right decision for the sport to grow.

I’m very optimistic and I think people consider me to be somewhat of an optimistic person — we’re not going to bury our head in the sand. We have headwinds, but we’re putting a plan in place that will allow for growth in attendance, broad interest level, consumption, TV ratings and digital/social. We’ve got pieces of it that are actually successful right now. The core is making sure we get our product right; is our racing compelling?