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Volume 22 No. 35
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NASCAR eyes schedule shake-up that could see new races in major metros

Tracks such as Martinsville Speedway in rural Virginia have been a schedule mainstay for decades.
Photo: Getty images

NASCAR wants races in new markets, especially in major metropolitan cities, sources say, a move that would mark a dramatic shift from its current schedule, which is based around sprawling speedways mainly in rural or suburban areas. Such a move could come as early as 2021, when the sanctioning body is expected to significantly change its schedule.

 

The premier Cup Series runs a 10-month, 38-race schedule. NASCAR is now immersed in talks with prospective race hosts around the country, as its five-year track sanction agreements expire after 2020. That means the 2021 schedule represents the sport’s first chance in half a decade to reimagine where it races.

Sources say the sanctioning body has informed industry stakeholders that it’s interested in new markets. That could include permanent race tracks that are closer to, or in, major cities, such as Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway or World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Or it could involve street races or temporary courses erected in parking lots adjacent to stadiums. Formula One, for example, is looking into such an arrangement with the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium.

NASCAR declined comment last week on the topic, but President Steve Phelps has indicated all options are on the table. During a news conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago, Phelps discussed the criteria being used to shape the 2021 slate.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said at the season finale that all options are on the table with future schedules.
Photo: Getty Images

“We’re having a lot of discussions right now on the 2021 schedule, and we’re looking at three things when we’re looking at that race schedule: where we’re going to have the most competitive racing we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like — is it a new market we can service?” Phelps said. “There are a lot of discussions going on both internally and with other owners of racetracks.”

One source close to NASCAR said executives there want to go to eight new cities by 2022. Others said NASCAR could try to do a doubleheader with IndyCar at one of that series’ street races (such as St. Petersburg or Long Beach) and may even look at an international destination.

With such a long schedule already, NASCAR would likely have to take away races from some of the tracks that currently host in order to accommodate new venues. Making major changes to the schedule was previously harder to execute because track operators International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports were publicly traded companies. But both ISC and Speedway Motorsports went private this year, with the former company being folded under the NASCAR umbrella owned by the France family.

NASCAR Offseason To-Do List

■ Sponsorship model: The sanctioning body will unveil its new sponsorship model next week in Nashville, where it will roll out both the sponsors signed up and the parameters of the three-tier system. Geico is expected to be one of the three to five top-tier partners, while Coca-Cola has also long been seen as a likely candidate.
■ Media rights: NASCAR is halfway through its 10-year media rights deals with Fox Sports and NBC Sports, and it will continue its efforts to stabilize TV ratings and attendance. NASCAR finished 2019 flat in viewership across Fox and NBC, averaging 3.3 million viewers, the same as 2018. NASCAR was cruising toward being up for the second half of the season with NBC Sports, but dips in the final two races erased those gains. Fox Sports was up 2% for its half of the season.
■ The rest: Other important topics to watch heading into the offseason include NASCAR’s attempts to land a fourth engine manufacturer; its merger with International Speedway Corp.; and its efforts to build a new generation of star power. The latter notion was punctuated once again last week by the announcement that seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson will retire after the 2020 campaign.

There continues to be rampant industry speculation that NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports may eventually strike a significant arrangement, whether an outright acquisition by NASCAR or more of a partnership. That would give NASCAR maximum flexibility in changing the schedule.

The prospect of NASCAR racing in more urban locations and dropping races at its current venues would raise questions about the long-term plans for some of the tracks in the sport that aren’t rated as highly. There has been industry chatter for months now that some tracks could be sold as part of the massive changes underway.

Holding races closer to major population centers could be a smart move for NASCAR, according to some industry experts.

“Is it better for younger or existing fans to be able to go witness and experience the sport of NASCAR in a new environment that is a bit closer to home and economically a bit easier for them to visit and see? I think there’s something strong there,” said Ben Reiling, the former director of motorsports marketing for Coca-Cola who now is a consultant in the space. “In turn, [engine manufacturers] have the ability to showcase their vehicles there. I think there’s a tremendous upside to doing that in major markets.”