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NASCAR touts innovation at SEMA show

November 06, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Helton delivers keynote speech, addresses sport's growth in technology

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In the moments after NASCAR President Mike Helton delivered the keynote address for the annual SEMA (Specialty Equipment Marketing Association) Trade Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, he found himself both contemplative and comforted.

There was once a time, when the decades-long NASCAR executive wouldn't have imagined updating this huge highly specialized automobile industry audience with news of electronic fuel injectors, high-tech officiating, massive environmental initiatives and Air Titan track dryers -- only to promise more innovation still.

"I think what gave us this opportunity was the more recent efforts where we've shown the world we're serious about being a leader in technology around our product, which is racing, but also the relationship we've built with OEMS (original equipment manufacturers),’’ Helton said. "The Gen-6 car went a long way toward showing the automobile enthusiasts how serious we were about our product and the industry saw NASCAR's direction of embracing technology and embracing innovation, which may not have been the case 10 years ago, quite frankly.

"We were probably more restrictive on those types of efforts then, so to come around today is I think easier for folks at SEMA to say this is about the business of the automotive industry and NASCAR fitting into it better."

NASCAR's new Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development, Gene Stefanyshyn, also represented the sport during Tuesday's opening day of activities, sitting on a panel with top industry executives. And like Helton, he found the audience and -- equally as important -- the other panelists receptive and encouraged by the direction NASCAR is headed.

After spending 30 years with General Motors, this was the first time Stefanyshyn had interacted at SEMA as a member of a sport's governing body. He said it was a real eye-opener, but also confirmation that NASCAR was making progress. The size of the crowd, alone, was encouraging.

And Stefanyshyn picked up on an unmistakable vibe.

"I think there’s a general theme, what are we doing to make sure we bring in younger fans to sport," Stefanyshyn said. "I think that is one of the challenges for NASCAR, but also a lot of the other companies.

"I think in general as the economy picks up ... in our end of the business we need to make sure we bring in young people. I believe they are still interested in high-powered cars and that whole car culture. The thing we need to do is figure out how to reach them.

"The young kids these days are used to an instantaneous world; information turnover is very quick and we need to do that. We need to be able to present that our younger fans and draw them into the sport."

And at the same time, Stefanyshyn believes the advance in technology and the enhanced fan offerings it provides will make a better experience for all fans -- the loyal long-timers as well as the new ones.

"There are kind of four phases to that, the first one being the inspection of the car before it goes on track -- what are the details, why do we do that, what are we doing,’’ said Stefanyshyn, who is confident that this kind of behind-the-scenes insight will draw fans.

"The second phase is officiating. Some of those calls are transparent to the fan but it's not like we have a guy in a striped shirt on pit road. Then what's the car doing, all the things that are going on in the car and then the last phase is, what's going on with the driver.

"If we could harvest all that information and present it to young fans in a logical way they could easily understand they would be drawn into the sport and the technical part of the sport. There's a big opportunity to do that stuff, but we have do to it in a smart way.

"If we kind of celebrate on the run and keep working hard and improving, and being open-minded and open to change -- measured change -- and remember the world moves quickly and we need to move with it."

To his point, Ford Motor Company had a big announcement this week that it was joining forces with seven-time sports car champion Chip Ganassi Racing in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship next year. Ganassi's team will field 3.5-liter, V-6 EcoBoost Fords in the inaugural season of the new series.

"It's huge for Ford and huge for Chip Ganassi and for (series sanctioning body) IMSA," Helton said. "It speaks loudly to Ford's commitment in the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and where American sports car racing is headed."

Another piece of big news for NASCAR occurring in conjunction with the SEMA show was a huge sign of endorsement from Germany-based auto parts supplier MAHLE. It has finalized a multiyear extension to supply parts to all NASCAR series, making it the only automotive brand active in every domestic, international and sports car series under the NASCAR umbrella.

This kind of upgraded involvement offers promising signs to Helton and Stefanyshyn.

"There's a direct connection between what we do and what the automobile industry does, and it's exciting to be able to evolve with them and help each other along the way," Helton said. "The SEMA show is a huge opportunity to come out and see what’s going on but to be involved is a great opportunity for NASCAR.

"The thing I'm more anxious to get us to is using the technology to make our sport more interactive. As we get better at what we're doing, we're more interactive with the race tracks, more interactive with the race teams and in particular the race shops which are developing things. We have a great opportunity there to use technology and innovation to be interactive with those.

"But what we're really excited about is getting the innovation and technology so we can create content so fans can be interactive with our events and our teams and tracks and get into the integral back parts of our sport and enjoy it in real time."

NASCAR Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development Gene Stefanyshyn addresses the crowd during a panel discussion at SEMA. (Bryan Haraway photos)

NASCAR Next members Ryan Preece, Kenzie Ruston and Darrell Wallace Jr. sit in on a panel of up-and-coming drivers.

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