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Helton opens up about industry's future

August 08, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

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NASCAR president talks industry action plan, economic growth, NASCAR 'characters'

NASCAR President Mike Helton says the sanctioning body, its teams and tracks all learned valuable lessons in the wake of the economic downturn, lessons that have made each stronger over time.

Speaking to business leaders during the Aug. 6 Charlotte Business Journal’s Motorsports 2.0 program at The Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, Helton addressed several topics during an hour-long question and answer session with 1999 NASCAR Cup champion Dale Jarrett, including the continued importance of sponsorship in the sport and how it has evolved in recent years.

“Like any other business, we have our ups and downs and our cycles,” said Helton, who noted that one in four Fortune 500 companies are involved in NASCAR today. “And while the whole world felt the shift in ’08, so did motorsports in general. Certainly NASCAR realized that it and all the stakeholders in the sport were going to have to review their models. And we had some lean times.”

Sponsors -- which today include companies such as 3M, Walt Disney Co., UPS and Wal-Mart -- “didn’t want to leave,” Helton said. “They just had to figure out how to justify staying and how to make their investment make sense to them. And everybody (including) the race tracks and race teams and NASCAR were willing to figure that out.”

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Helton said the sport is beginning to “see more engagement and conversations,” but that growth must continue in order to meet the needs of all parties.

“It’s not where we want it to be and never will be,” he said. “It never was. We’re always wanting … to continue to grow. So we’ll keep doing the things that we feel like are right and correct; the race tracks will (and) the race teams will, to continue to build good, solid relationships.”

Helton said the company’s industry action plan was a result of the downturn, spurring officials to take a closer look at how they conducted business.

“And it was an eye-opener, I’ve got to tell you. It was tough to sit in some of the conversations and be told by a third group what your dirty clothes looked like. But it was the way we felt like we had to do it in order to make the next decisions.”

From that study came the realization that more needed to be done to help promote growth among a younger audience as well as a more multicultural audience.

“There had to be an initiative around not just cleaning up the perception of those barriers but an active pursuit of a multicultural audience,” he said. “Certainly we want NASCAR to fit in that environment and be all-inclusive and not exclusive.”

The plan wasn’t built solely to help NASCAR determine what it needed to do, but what the sport needed in order to move forward and continue to be successful.

“We were the group that said ‘here’s what we know. Let’s work together to figure out how to do this,’ ” he said. “It’s not a NASCAR action plan, it’s an industry action plan. And it’s for the health and the future of the sport.”

Star power continues to help drive the sport and can help it stand out in a sea of opportunities available to today’s consumer. While noting that the NASCAR Hall of Fame is “full of characters that drew fans to our sport,” Helton said the need for such “characters” is still very real today.

“We’ve got to have modern characters that compete against other (entities) -- it can be an animated movie or it could be a …  football player that makes the Panthers stand out and makes you want to go to watch a football game,” he said.

“We’ve got to do the same thing in our world. We’ve got to have more Tony Stewarts and Jeff Gordons, Dale Earnhardt Jrs. who have been around for a while and are still tremendous characters. But we need an influx of making some of the folks that may not be getting the right attention more attention and we need to be thinking about where that next group of characters come from.”

Helton said the recent TV packages with FOX and NBC will benefit the sport from more than just a financial standpoint. The effort and energy put into launching new entities such as FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network will be tremendous, he said, “because they have their network at stake so they are going to present our content at their level.”

“Between FOX launching FOX Sports 1 and building that to a quality level and NBC wanting to build their entire sports program along with Olympics and NFL -- that’s a pretty good closet to share space with.”

The process of approval for track entitlement sponsorships will be reviewed by the sanctioning body, although Helton said NASCAR wants to continue “to be as open as we can be.

“We want to allow the teams and the tracks to pursue their own relationships as much as we can allow them to,” he said.

“There are those at times though that we have to say, ‘wait a minute. That may not be well accepted for the good of the sport.’ We’ve had that in the past and will continue to have look at that more closely whether it’s race teams or race tracks because it seems like in today’s world with the advent of social media and the digital world … controversy can be fired up a whole lot quicker than it might have been (in the past).”

With initiatives involving youths, star power and the multicultural environment in play, he said, “we have to be sensitive and careful to anything that someone might interpret against those issues and topics. We get criticized sometimes for being too authoritative but at the end of the day it’s all for the good of the sport.”

Helton said that while legendary team owners such as Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Richard Childress are entering the twilight of their careers, “I suspect the names … will be on those organizations for decades to come.”

The decision-making that goes on at those organizations has already shifted in some cases, he said, while the process seems to be under way with others.

“J.D. (Gibbs) certainly now is making the decisions for Joe Gibbs Racing,” he said. “Same thing with Jack Roush (Roush Fenway Racing); Rick Hendrick (Hendrick Motorsports) has already got Marshall (Carlson) and Doug Duchardt; Richard Childress (Richard Childress Racing) has generations of operators (in place).

“Michael Waltrip Racing is a relatively new player in our world but has a very strong program that should sustain itself well past Michael’s … days, and Michael’s got a bunch of them left.

“So our hope and desire is … because it is critical for us to have successful organizations that have the race teams just as it is for the race tracks, that those organizations continue to be a part of the sport and then along the way others decide to enter the sport as Michael … did. As his days of a driver (began to wind down), he figured out how to stay in it.”

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