By Jerry Jordan, Editor
PHOENIX, AZ. – Whether motivated by financial necessity, pride or the desire to give fans some sense of normalcy, NASCAR fought through the COVID-19 shutdown earlier this year, returned strong and will become the first national sport to complete the season in its entirety.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s president, went over the challenges the sanctioning body and race teams went through to ensure fans saw a full season of racing during his season-ending state of the sport, while also admitting he was “concerned” because of the “craziness” that occurred just days after the first event at Phoenix Raceway in March.
“When we were here the last time and we raced here on March 8th, we were focused on, ‘how is that short track package going to work?’ It was up in the air, we weren’t sure,” Phelps said. “We thought it was going to be great. By the way, it was. Then, three, four days later, the world goes crazy, right? We’re just in a situation that was unthinkable.
“What I would say is that on March 8th we were a sport that was coming back, right? Our ratings had stabilized last year. Our attendance was going in the correct direction. If you think about where we are as a sport today, I believe we’re stronger as a sport today than we were pre COVID.
“Is it where we want to be? Of course, not. But are we financially viable to move forward? We are. Do I think the majority of our race teams are in the same position? I do.”
Phelps was asked several questions about the pandemic and COVID-19 by media members in the annual address with many of them focusing on the solvency of the sport and what racing would be like going forward for competitors and fans. Phelps was adamant that NASCAR would be racing next season, he wasn’t too worried about another shutdown and hopeful that fans could return en masse at some point going forward.
“Do I believe we’re going to have fans in the stands? I do,” Phelps said. “What percentage of fans in the stands? I’m not sure. Will we have folks in the garage, fans in the garage? I don’t know. What I would say is I can’t wait till we do have fans back in the garage. The hallmark of our sport is about accessibility to the garage, accessibility to the drivers, the crews. We don’t have that. We don’t have that because we need to keep people safe. That’s the only way we’re going to run a race is if we’re going to keep people safe. I don’t know. I do know that we have every intention of running, on February 14th, the (Daytona) 500. Our plan is to race in front of fans.
“I think what we’ve proven this year is that you can do things differently, right, and they can work. What we’re in the process of doing right now is looking at what that race day experience is going to look like, or race weekend experience is going to look like. I think it’s going to look different, right? I think there are things both from a competition standpoint, as well as a fan standpoint, sponsor standpoint, where we are going to reinvent ourselves, take the best of what we had during this COVID situation to make ourselves stronger in the future. What exactly that looks like, we’re doing planning right now. We’ll obviously do some things looking from the broad racetracks, not just our racetracks, but racetracks in general. We need to make sure that the fan experience continues to improve. When they come back, we need to give them a reason. They have great racing, but you have great racing on television, right? We need to have a great fan experience that is going to look different almost certainly than it did before. It’s incumbent upon us, our racetracks, to make sure they’re getting that fan experience. We’ll have to do that with our race teams, our drivers. It needs to be about access, right? If it’s not going to be physical access, what are the things we can do that create something unique and different for a fan at the facility?”
As the cases of COVID-19 continue to increase and with what appears to be a change of leadership in the nation, there has been talk by Joe Biden, that if he did win the presidency, that he would call for a nationwide shutdown to stop the spread of the virus. Phelps said NASCAR learned a lot from the previous shutdown and that he understands there were financial strains on teams, drivers, fans and the sanctioning body but he doesn’t anticipate a cessation of racing.
When NASCAR first shutdown, Phelps said they have no idea when they would go back racing. He also conceded that teams and the sanctioning body saw some financial struggles but they have survived.
“I think anyone who was in sports didn’t sleep very well in March and April, mid-March to April, into May,” Phelps said. “Until the engines fired at Darlington, it was scary because you have so many things outside of your control …
“It’s scary, right? The spiking that we’re seeing is scary. I think if you think back to April or May or March, I think people were like, This thing will burn out in the summer, we’ll be good in the fall. Well, unfortunately, that’s not where we are. I want this to be over as much as anyone does, but we need to continue to make sure we are being safe and our competitors are being safe.
“What happens in the future is difficult to say because we don’t know what it looks like, don’t know whether it’s going to be federal, local. As of now, we’re going to go to Daytona and run the Daytona 500 on February 14th, then we’re going to adjust as needed based on what things are thrown at us. Again, things that are unknown are difficult. Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s fear. We were presented with significant obstacles this year. With those obstacles, we either went around them, jumped over them or knocked them down. Do I think as an industry we are better prepared for another wave of whatever that’s going to be? Yeah, I do. We’ve proven it. I think the uniqueness of our sport, how we run our sport, how we come together as an industry, where we run our races, I think it gives us some flexibility that other sports frankly just don’t have.”