Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway, clinching his spot in the Final 4 (Joey Logano has also qualified with his win last week at Martinsville). There’s one last Round of 8 race next weekend in Phoenix, before the 2018 championship is settled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday November 18th.
On October 1st, Steve Phelps assumed the role of NASCAR President; responsible for oversight of the sport’s commercial, media and competition. If NASCAR were a publicly traded equity, Phelps says he’d consider the sport a “buy stock”; intrinsically under-valued and on the right path, again. We sat down with the new NASCAR President on Friday morning to discuss the direction NASCAR is headed; who he thinks will replace Dale Jr. as the face of the sport, the demographics driving fan base growth, the international markets with the greatest potential and the changes coming to the race schedule in 2020.
Howie: Critics will say the Cup series has yet to replace the star power that Dale Jr. brought to the sport. Which young driver has the potential to be NASCAR’s biggest draw?
Steve: The odds-on favorite would be Chase Elliot. His dad was the most popular driver in NASCAR for 15 years and now fans are gravitating towards him, but Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney, Eric Jones and Danny Suarez are all very talented race car drivers who resonate with our fan base.
Howie: NASCAR draws a larger female demo (from a television viewership percentage standpoint) than the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL and the sport and is 2nd (to only the NFL) in terms of the total number of female viewers tuning in. What is NASCAR doing differently than other sports, that is resonating with this audience?
Steve: We’re not specifically targeting the female base, like we’re doing with the Hispanic fans. The general outreach that we have seems to be resonating with women. I think there are several different factors at play here; the style of racing, the new generation of drivers and the racing is better than it was.
However, for the last three or four years, we have been targeting the Hispanic fan base and we’ve seen results. Our media partnerships and consumer facing activations have resonated and it doesn’t hurt that Danny Suarez, who is from Mexico, won a championship in our Xfinity series and is now competing in the Cup series. Our fan base, in the last four years, is up four full percentage points – not four percent – and all new NASCAR fans over that time are more female and more Hispanic than any other demographics.
Howie: Most perceive NASCAR to be a domestic sport, but fans in more than 185 countries (and territories) can watch races. Which international markets offer the most potential and what is NASCAR doing to develop fan bases in those countries?
Steve: Mexico is an incredibly important market for us. We have a developmental racing series there and it helps us in two ways; with driver development and fan development. Mexicans are enjoying our sport at the grass roots level and then they follow these young talented drivers as they race in our three, national series. It’s a recipe that we think we can replicate in other countries. We’re looking at potentially starting a series in China, we have a series in Europe and ideally, we can nurture those fan bases to eventually participate in some fashion; whether it’s coming to the states to watch a race, watching on television or buying licensed merchandise.
Howie: Television ratings are down (historic low viewership for 24 races this season). Fans of the sport complain there’s not enough variety to the race tracks on the schedule; there are too many 1.5 mile ovals. Competing with the NFL on Sunday afternoons in the fall, doesn’t help ratings. Is NASCAR considering new stops on the circuit or revamping other track layouts (think: ROVAL) to keep the sport fresh? Is there any thought to altering the schedule (think: ending season before Labor Day) to avoid losing fans to the NFL?
Steve: We are looking at all kinds of things to enhance our schedule in 2020 (’19 schedule already set), including some sizable changes to where we race. A lot of fans – and people within the industry too – will say we should include more road courses and have more short track races. We race at several tracks a couple of times, we may race at some of them a single time. We’re willing to look at it differently than we have in the past
There are also things that we could do to this schedule that would make it more appealing to fans and frankly give us better windows, so we’re not competing against the NFL (on Sunday afternoons in the fall). We have some off-weeks, we could do some double-header weekends, we may look to do a mid-week race, we could potentially start the season earlier; I’m not suggesting we’re going to make all those changes, but we’ll certainly make some of them.
Fan Marino: Steve mentioned Ryan Blaney as a driver with the potential to become the circuit’s most popular driver and his NASCAR sanctioned podcast “Glass Case of Emotion” is among the reasons why. Over the last 2 years, the show – which rarely discusses racing, but will delve into Star Wars and video games – has developed a loyal following (“Glassholes”) and it’s Blaney’s authenticity on air that has listeners now invested in his career on the track. NASCAR wisely intends on replicating the model, giving other charismatic drivers the chance to draw fans in with their personality.
Editor Note: Part 2 of our NASCAR State of the Union address with new President, Steve Phelps, will be released on Friday November 16th; the last newsletter (sign-up: JohnWallStreet.com/sign-up) before NASCAR crowns a new champion.
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