Meet NASCAR's new president: Steve Phelps has a collaborative vision for 2020 and beyond (2023)

NASCAR has a new president but the direction will remain the same.

Steve Phelps will become just the fifth individual to hold the title but he plans to maintain the policies that have been in place since Brent Dewar acquired the title last summer. That means NASCAR will continue to place an emphasis on collaboration with the entire industry in advance of expected significant change to the entire sport.

It’s no secret that NASCAR could begin to take on a new look come 2021. The league is anticipating schedule diversification, a revamped entitlement sponsor program and the continued evolution of television-digital rights.

And for the first time since the decline of NASCAR’s mainstream popularity began, the sanctioning body is publicly admitting what Phelps is calling a headwind -- the challenges major league stock car racing will face as it looks to discover its place in modern American pop culture.

Phelps will officially take over as president on Oct. 1. Dewar will take on a role in the sport’s international offices before transitioning back to an advisor role by the start of the new calendar year. Phelps met with select members of the media at NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina to discuss his new duties and the direction he hopes to steward.

The following is a selection of the most important quotes or answers Phelps provided over the course of a 90-minute roundtable.

Why would Steve Phelps want to be NASCAR president in this climate?

"Let me start with this: There has been a notion that I don’t understand at the team level that there’s headwinds that they have from a sponsorship standpoint. There are headwinds that they have from a sponsorship standpoint, and when you rely so much on that percentage, that’s very real.

"With that said, not trying to be Pollyannaish about it or put rose-colored glasses on it, but we have more sponsorship than anyone, any sport. Which is just a fact. As it relates to my taking this job, I’m incredibly positive for what the future of this sport will be – not just can be – but will be because there’s a lot more things that I believe are going to happen to the sport that takes advantage of what we already have working for us.

"Do I think the racing is really good right now? I do. Do I think we’re going to make it better? I believe we can. Do I think the business model for the teams is going to improve? I absolutely do. Do I think that we’ve had a confluence of different things happen to the sport with retiring of drivers? Yeah, we’ve had five of our most popular drivers, six maybe, that have retired in the last three years. Is that a headwind? Of course, it is."

What will be different about NASCAR under Steve Phelps’ watch?

"With respect to changes we're going to make, or vision, that isn't going to change. The path we're on right now, which is industry collaboration, is one we're going to continue. It's one that I see as very important to this sport. What Brent (Dewar) has done as both the chief operating officer and as the president of NASCAR, in trying to bring the industry together, that's one we're going to continue. Our sport has headwinds for sure and we're addressing them head on and we're going to do it with our teams, our drivers, our tracks and media partners and our sponsors."

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Is NASCAR for sale?

"I don't have anything to add to what's already been announced so far. I'll go back to what I've seen from (interim CEO) Jim France since he was named chairman, replacing Brian (France, CEO on leave.) If you've been at the track, you've seen Jim. He's been at the track four days a week. Jim, Lesa France are commited to this sport and will have their hands on it for a long long time."

Can Brian France come back once his legal issues are resolved?

"I can't look into the future and see what that looks like. Brian is doing what he needs to right now and we're going to do what we need to do."

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When can we expect to see significant change to the Cup Series schedule?

"With respect to any changes we make to the schedule, be it new venues, doubleheaders, midweek racing or anything that has been thrown around, we're going to look at. As I said in the first statement, we're going to get with the industry and get input from them, but at the end of the day, we're going to take that input and make a decision based on what we believe is in the best interest of NASCAR…"

"A fan told called me something really ugly on Twitter the other day and then told me ‘short tracks and road courses, you’re welcome’ and sent me his address so I could send him a check… Listen, I believe there are changes that will happen with the 2020 schedule that will be input from a lot of different folks. And one of those groups will be the fans -- what they like and what they don’t like and that can inform decisions as well."

Could the Cup Series have less than 36 races to end in October?

"There has been a lot of talk about this within the industry. There are a lot of things in play. We wouldn't rule anything out at this point. We need to make sure we have all the relevant information needed to make a well-informed decision that will allow us to determine what the 2020 schedule looks like.

Everything is in play. Less races, doubleheaders, moving the schedule forward, backward, this, that and the other. There are stakeholders with different ideas. Brad (Keselowski) thinks we should race 55 times a year. I'm going out on limb and predicting that won't happen. (Laughs) But everyone has input. I'm not trying to belittle Brad. The costs to do that are unrealistically high. Sure, we could find a taker for that content in a heartbeat. But we need to make sure we have the proper alignment on what those things are."

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Update on the 2019 rules package and if it will be the drafting package

"We’re not going to have 100 percent agreement (from drivers, teams, stakeholders, etc.,) we’re just not. When you have something that is a significant competition issue, you’re going to have differences of opinion. When we’re ready to announce that, which should be fairly shortly, I think the industry will come together and say ‘this is in the best interest of the industry.’ What we’re trying to get out of whatever that package is, we want it to put on the best racing that it can. And, what is going to deliver against that promise is competitive, close, side-by-side racing and that’s a goal we’ll always have."

Do the drivers have a larger say-so when it comes to the topic of what package they will drive?

"I think the great thing about our drivers, take this weekend, they're going to take the green flag and the best drivers in the world will get after it to win that race. No one knows what that will look like. That's exciting and I say that as a fan. I think our fans will say the same. Interest levels for (the ROVAL) has peaked ...

"To answer the question if drivers have a greater weight in the 2019 package discussion or any rules we would put into place, I wouldn't say they have more weight than others. With that said, I will say we have made many many advances or changes that came from their input... There are dozens of changes we've implemented based on conversation with the drivers council or one-on-one conversation with Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson. We're never going to have 100 percent agreement, but their input is incredibly valuable."

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Is NASCAR worried that prospective owners have been scared-off by Furniture Row’s closure?

"We don’t want to see owners leave, or switch like that, especially when it’s the reigning champions. There were some circumstances that happened with his deal, from an expense and sponsorship standpoint, family things that he may share with you all. Do I think its systemic? I don’t. Do we need to have new owners and welcome them into the sport? We would. We want new OEMs and we’re on that journey as well."

Does NASCAR have an answer for teams having to rely on sponsorship as primary revenue?

"That is not different than it has ever been. Now what the percentage is, and what that looks like, that is a fair question... On the expense side, we're working with teams to collectively make the most competitive racing we can and do it in a way that doesn't ratchet up costs. We have to make sure we're working with the teams to find solutions that allow balance. It's important to have healthy teams. They are a major major part of this sport and we need to make sure they are healthy, so whether that's on the revenue side or to find things that are more efficient, we're going to do that…"


"I think we need to, and we are on this path, working with teams to improve on a revenue standpoint ... and on the expense side ... Do I think having a profitability element would entice new owners to come? Absolutely, I would. We're trying to make this sport as easy to come in as possible. We're a complicated sport. There are a lot of different stakeholders and moving parts ... So how we do marry up OEMs and new owners? How do we get them shops and crew members? Do they buy an existing charter or start from scratch -- and that's a relatively new dynamic. We have to figure out how to make that an easier process and that's something we need to do better for sure."

Update on the new sponsorship model, moving away from one entitlement sponsor

"We want to make it easier for sponsors to say yes to NASCAR …"

"I’m excited about this new model I think it will be beneficial for all parties. We’ve had a lot of folks that are our sponsors at NASCAR, who aren’t new to the sport, stay in the sport. There’s not this mass exodus from a sponsorship standpoint.

"I’m bullish on how we’re going to change from a marketing standpoint and all the different levers we’re going to pull there. I’m bullish on how we can change the mindset for how you can promote racing and how we drive ratings.

"The relationships we have with NBC is incredible, so we entered into a joint advertising with them that allows us to be in more places with the same voice. There are a lot of incredibly positive things happening on the quote business side of NASCAR."

What is a suitable attendance number for a track like Richmond, and should a track that’s lost roughly seven percent of its crowd twice a year be allowed to keep two races?

"I won’t try to be Pollyannaish about this at all – I don’t know what the optimal crowd is for a Richmond or for any other facility, frankly. What I do know is we need to make sure the race product that we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do.

"We do know that the race-day experience or the race-day weekend is really important, so we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that, and we need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion and what that looks like. And that gets back to a collaboration effort which we are going to see to between our racetracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way we haven’t in the past."

What will NASCAR do with ARCA?

"Obviously we’ve had a lot of discussions and we’re in constant discussion with Ron (Drager, president) and his team on the ARCA side. Not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, specifically from a structure standpoint. But what I think makes a lot of sense for us is that you will have what is K&N East and K&N West and ARCA, and figure out how those three series work best together to create racing for the fans that they have of those three individual series, as well as what that model looks like, and an opportunity for us to use that as we do today for driver development."

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