Off To The Races: Powerful group launching new auto racing circuit to debut next year on CBS
Two of the biggest names in auto racing — NASCAR hall of famers Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart — will launch an auto racing circuit that has the potential to be the biggest disrupter to the auto racing business in decades.
With top agent Sandy Montag and former NASCAR COO George Pyne rounding out the four-person board, Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) will feature six short-track races starting next summer.
SRX already has a TV deal in place with CBS, which has committed to carry the Saturday night races in prime time next year. The CBS deal runs for multiple years.
SRX has no outside investors; it is being underwritten by the four board members. Startup costs currently run in the low seven-figure range. Those costs will ramp up next summer when the races start, but SRX expects to have sponsors on board to defray those costs.
During interviews last week, SRX’s board members took pains to say the new group had no plans on competing with NASCAR. But it’s clear that they see openings where they believe NASCAR has fallen short. That includes:
■ A television strategy that will fit races into two-hour prime-time windows, presenting a contrast to NASCAR’s races that can run twice that long.
■ A focus on driver performance, rather than auto technology. Evernham will design the cars so that everyone races with the same equipment.
■ It will include racers and crew chiefs who are well known. Each race will have 12 drivers randomly matched with a crew chief.
■ It will feature racing under the lights at short tracks in the American heartland.
■ It is being positioned as an easier sale for sponsors that want to buy time on TV and at the event. “They make one phone call to be integrated in all aspects of the broadcast and the event,” Pyne said.
When it came to finding a media partner, Montag said his first and only call went to CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who was instantly drawn to the project based on the amount of experience each had in racing.
“If you look at all the elements that you want in a new venture in the world of sports television, it’s pretty much got everything you would want,” McManus said. “It’s got a great television schedule, it’s got a great track record of people working on it. It’s got high-profile names, it’s got really attractive live action that is unpredictable, it’s got an opportunity to tell a lot of stories.
“I am as excited about this as any new venture we’ve been involved in for a long time.”
CBS is not just licensing the media rights. As part of the deal, McManus said the broadcast network “has a vested interest in this working not just from a television standpoint, but from a sponsorship standpoint and a revenue standpoint and a live gates standpoint; we’re partners in all that.”
McManus also jumped at the chance to fill six of CBS’s summer nights with live sports programming.
“Let’s face it, with prime-time television being what it is, all the networks are looking for new, attractive and hopefully live content,” he said. “I can’t think of anything better than this for six Saturday nights in the summer on CBS.”
McManus has dabbled with startup sports ventures before, having signed a deal with the Alliance of American Football last year. He said this deal is different.
“Since we are partners, I’ve looked really carefully at the financial projections and the estimates for sponsorships and partners,” McManus said. “This works really well from a financial standpoint. I was not that involved at all in the finances for the AAF, and in the end, the finances are what brought that league down.”
SRX is most excited about the way drivers will compete on those short tracks. Evernham will design, prepare and build traditional stock cars that are capable of running on different surfaces and different types of tracks, such as paved or dirt.
“We want to make that machine be a big part of it, but it’s got to be the driver, crew chief, the human being controlling the machine, not the machine controlling the outcome of the competition,” Evernham said. “That combination of driver, crew chief and machine, no computers telling you what to do, no simulation. It’s really about the competition, how well that driver and crew chief can make that machine go against one another.”
Friends talked about concept for years before making move
George Pyne and Ray Evernham have been friends since the mid-1990s, when Pyne started at NASCAR and Evernham was driver Jeff Gordon’s crew chief.
SRX could not identify the drivers or crew chiefs it expects to compete next summer. But with just 12 drivers per race, it expects to have its pick of well-known crew chiefs and drivers, both active and retired. The series will randomly pair teams, grouping an up-and-comer with veterans. As for active drivers, the startup would have to work around other series schedules and any rules that could prevent those drivers from competing.
The races are designed to keep viewers interested throughout, with two 45-minute heats and no pit stops.
“That’s enough time to showcase the personalities in a way that’s fun and appealing and exciting,” Pyne said. “Having close, competitive racing, you’re going to get 20 or 30 lead changes in a race.”
Drivers will compete for individual race winnings each week and a points-based SRX Series Championship.
Executives also feel that the tracks that SRX is targeting — dirt, paved ovals, road courses — will give the group advantages. The group is identifying historic, smaller tracks, like the one at the Nashville Fairgrounds or dirt tracks such as Ohio’s Eldora Speedway or Knoxville Raceway in Iowa. SRX has not settled on any specific tracks, but Stewart does own Eldora.
“It’s appealing to go to short tracks in the heartland of America where there’s hundreds of short tracks,” Pyne said. “These tracks are 10-20,000-seat facilities that sell out on a regular basis. Now if you’re able to come with a legendary crew chief like Ray or Tony Stewart with a national TV audience live on CBS, you’re going to have a place that’s supercharged with a lot of excitement.”
Evernham said he’s looking for historic, shorter tracks.
“We’d like to be on shorter tracks in grassroots America, for a couple of reasons,” he said. “It keeps the cars close, it keeps the speeds down, it’s going to let the guys play and bounce around and use each other up a little for some exciting racing.”
The business model around the live event, including ticket and merchandise sales, is fluid and still to be determined, but SRX said it would control the series’ merchandising.
SRX currently has a staff of about 10 split between The Montag Group’s offices in New York for business and media, and Charlotte for race operations.
Montag described the SRX business model as “lean.” With no investors, the four board members are funding this startup themselves, a model that Montag stressed will lead to greater efficiency, creativity and quicker decision-making.
“The one thing that George and I have learned over our years, even working together at IMG, is when you have an investor or someone that owns something, it’s different and you have to rely on that,” Montag said. “We don’t have any investors. It’s our company. We are lean. We have a very good economic model, and we’re good right out of the gate here.”
Pyne, the founder and CEO of Bruin Sports Capital, is well-versed in stock car racing from his time at NASCAR from 1995 to 2006 and maintains strong connections to the sport. He referenced the flexibility of the upstart circuit, especially when it comes to sponsorship sales, which will be handled internally. With one phone call, an advertiser can buy time on TV or a position at the event.
“It’s a product that’s modernized and made for 2020,” Pyne said. “Whether you’re a consumer or a sponsor, we want to create a platform that is unique, different, innovative.”