Sports

It’s full speed ahead for NASCAR president Steve Phelps

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR President Steve Phelps is sitting in his office overlooking Daytona International Speedway. You can see and hear race cars turning laps around the 2.5-mile World Center of Racing. On the shelves behind him are artifacts that represent the perfect mix of where NASCAR has been and where it is going.

There are a lot of hats. A glass-encased signature Richard Petty cowboy hat. A ballcap from the newly reopened Nashville Superspeedway. A red hat with white block letter embroidering that reads, “Put The Stock Back In Stock Car Racing.”

The 59-year-old Phelps is entering his fourth full season on the job. The second year brought the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the sport also found itself on the frontline of the fight for social justice as the sanctioning body banned Confederate flags from its racetracks. The third season brought a slow emergence from the restrictions of the pandemic.

Now, with season four comes the project Phelps has pushed since his first few months in this office, the arrival of the technologically advanced, cheaper-to-build Next Gen racecar, which will make its Daytona 500 debut Sunday, two weeks after it raced on an asphalt bullring built in the center of the L.A. Coliseum.

With all of that on his mind, he has been in meetings this week that his assistant describes as, “Sun-up to sundown, every single day and night.” But as Phelps settles into his chair with the awesome view, he doesn’t look tired. He looks energized. Energized enough to hit a broad range of topics in this Friday afternoon exclusive interview with ESPN.com.

Ryan McGee: I have asked you this before, but never during Daytona 500 week. Do you sleep?

Steve Phelps: This week, not as much as I usually do, but that’s not because of stress. I’m just busy. Honestly, I thought there would be a lot of sleepless nights around this Next Gen car, but I don’t have any. The car’s great. We have some parts stuff (pandemic-related supply chain issues) but we are in a really good place. There is more excitement heading into this Speedweeks than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here (he joined NASCAR in 2004 after 14 years with the NFL). We are on a different plane than we were pre-COVID.

McGee: Different how?

Phelps: It’s a different level in terms of both a relevance that the sport has had and significant reputation gains. Those gains were earned by a number of different things, including the banning of the Confederate flag and taking a stand on social justice, diversity and inclusion efforts that we have committed to since June 2020, which is important.

McGee: When I walk the garage, the makeup of the people in it certainly looks much different than it did when I first came here in the 1990’s, but the difference in the last five years…

Phelps: It’s striking. It’s exciting. It’s working, right? There is a reason why we have so many African-American team owners in this Daytona 500 (Brad Daugherty, Michael Jordan, John Cohen, Floyd Mayweather). If we don’t take the stance on social justice, the stance on the flag, I would suggest that things would not be a lot different than they were.

McGee: Are you out recruiting new owners? Did you pick up the phone and call (Trackhouse Racing co-owner) Pit Bull and say, “Hey, you should come check this out?”

Phelps: No, it’s happening organically. They feel like it’s a place where they are welcome. And that’s not just people of different backgrounds, that’s people who look like those who have always been in the sport but didn’t come here because they didn’t see an open door for everyone. Now they do and they want to look at being a part of that. And we don’t talk about charter values (NASCAR introduced the charter system in 2015, a model similar to franchising in other sports) but that growth has been exponential. My expectation is that we’re going to continue to have new hunters that want to come to the sport. You know, some will be diverse, and others won’t be. But the interest level is continuing. When the money eyes start to look at the sport, the [venture capitalist] money, and they are, you’re onto something. But we want people who aren’t just investors, we want passion in ownership. They see profitability, but they also love NASCAR, they want to be here, not just here to try and turn a profit and leave. I think that’s important.

McGee: We’re both old enough to remember when NASCAR was booming in the 2000’s and, wow, how many press conferences did I cover with athletes and entertainment stars who announced they were all-in on NASCAR, but then vanished?

Phelps: But this is a different place now. I think we’ve created a place of cooperation. That’s the thing that people don’t fundamentally understand about our sport, is the fragmented, independent contractor nature of it. My single biggest job is to make sure an industry comes together. I used to say that this sport was best at finding ways to shoot itself in the foot. That’s no longer the case. We don’t agree on everything, but there are discussions now. It can be an argument, but it’s ultimately about talking, being on the same page.

McGee: No one will ever attach the word “good” to the pandemic, but…

Phelps: COVID was the best thing to happen to us from a standpoint of cooperation. We are always preaching to be bold and touting the benefits of innovation, but this sport has always been filled with what I call plodders. They have a willingness to do something new, but it’s literally incremental steps, incremental gains. And there’s a place for that for sure, but not in our decision making. When COVID happened, we had an excuse, if you will, to try bold stuff because we had to, just to survive and get to the next race. It allowed us to take some of the ideas that the plodders had talked about but would never do, and then we did a lot of them all at once because we had to do something, right? People were willing to do anything and now we see a lot of that is still here with us. Bold ideas that stuck. That “we’re in this together” mentality led us to do things we might not have done otherwise. I know we wouldn’t have. Quite frankly, the L.A. Coliseum race probably doesn’t happen if the pandemic doesn’t shake a lot of people’s imagination loose.

McGee: People who were rivals and enemies, including track ownership groups, now at the table together because they had to be?

Phelps: Yes, and the benefits of that have been immediate, going back to those ideas of relevance and reputation. I met with all of our track presidents yesterday and this was the discussion, what I keep saying to the entire industry, that if we want to continue this trajectory of growth we have to invest and cooperate. We’re going do the part on the investing, NASCAR and our track operations group. We’re going spend a lot more money than we have ever spent promoting our sport, putting butts in seats, creating a better fan experience. Get a casual fan to watch more, a new fan to watch at all, more people from different walks of life, but also making sure we take care of the people who got us here. And the great gift is, whether I’m a new fan, or I’m a fan for 50 years, the racing has been good, we’ve got slick, new sexy cars, great storylines. All these young drivers battling these future Hall of Famers. That’s it. So, whether a fan for 50 years or 50 days, it’s the same thing. They all want the same thing. We can give them that if we are bold enough to try.

McGee: But the cynics will say they have heard this before. A lot of the so-called “core fans” felt left behind during the boom days two decades ago.

Phelps: They aren’t wrong. The people who sat in this office before I did, it was, ‘Don’t worry about avids, they’ll always be there.’ But they weren’t. The lesson is that you can be bold and innovative while also staying true to who you are. Returning to Nashville. Racing on dirt at Bristol. Everything we look at now, protecting our avids as we call them, it’s a priority.

McGee: A lot of people believed those avids would be alienated by the June 2020 decision to ban the Confederate flag from racetracks. We all braced ourselves for that pushback, but the part we saw as the public felt short-lived. It’s been a season and half since you handed down that policy. Do you still feel that pushback?

Phelps: There was some early pushback, but a very small minority. I was surprised how quickly the change happened. As for how quickly success came because of its removal, did that part surprise me? I knew we’d get there. Because at the end of the day, it’s a business decision that needed to be made. And it’s the right business decision that was made. But I just didn’t think that was going happen almost instantaneously.

McGee: But are you constantly worried there will always be another thing? Example. I drive around Daytona today, and I see no Confederate flags, but there are a lot of political flags. The “Let’s Go Brandon” chant started at a racetrack last fall and those flags certainly aren’t hard to find. Is there a difference in perception now, when NASCAR talks to a potential team owner and they see political banners everywhere, are they OK or is it, “Well, here they go again”?

Phelps: What we’ve tried to do is to distance ourselves from anything that’s going to be divisive, anything that’s going to be political. That’s a good place for our sport to be, you know. You don’t see those things in other sports. You won’t have a Trump car or a Biden car. We don’t need those paint outs, right? It’s not helpful. So, we’re not approving those moving forward. We continue to break stereotypes. I think when we do things that surprise people, like racing at the L.A. Coliseum or the banning of the Confederate flag, things people never thought they would see from NASCAR, those are the most gratifying because you are breaking those stereotypes that I think the sport has had for a long time. Racial issues or perceptions of, hey, we’re all Southern, we’re all white, male and older. You walk around here today. What I was struck by last year is how many families are coming to the racetrack. How many kids, how many twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, people of color, and guess what? They are sitting right there next to the avids and everyone is having a great time. Everyone. It’s different than it was, just five years ago, and that’s amazing. Because the goal has always been to make our fan base look more like the population of the United States. And that continues to be the goal.

McGee: So, after this week, will you sleep then?

Phelps: I will sleep great next week. But this week, it’s always going to be this. When I was at the NFL, the worst and best week of the year was the Super Bowl. This the Super Bowl. This Daytona 500 is a chance to celebrate the wins this sport has earned over the last couple of years, and an industry that is feeling very good about itself, and it should. That garage feels a lot different than it did two years ago. These people have endured a lot and they deserve to feel good about where we are now. And the garage looks a lot different than two years ago. We deserve to feel good about that, too. But yeah, I sleep well, thank you.

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