NASCAR President Steve Phelps: Track facilities to distribute COVID-19 vaccine

NASCAR President Steve Phelps touched on a variety of subjects Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, including the sport’s response to COVID-19, social justice and navigating the future in a new era of stock-car racing and entertainment.

As the world continues to battle the year-long pandemic and work together to put an end to this period in history, Phelps discussed what NASCAR learned from a brief midseason hiatus, the protocols put into place once racing resumed and how those takeaways translated into plans for the 2021 season.

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“I thought (last season’s protocols) worked very well,” said Phelps, NASCAR’s President since 2018. “Nothing’s perfect. We did have some cases, a couple high-profile drivers as well. But all in all, I think if you look at our protocols relative to other sports, I think it worked really well. I think our competitors felt safe and I think our drivers, for the most part, they’re very pleased.

” … I think for us, just to kind of pivot away from that a second, for 2021 it’s going to be largely the same. We’ve done a little tweaking here and there, but for the most part it’s the same. If it didn’t work, we’d do something different. But I believe it worked, so we’re going to stay with the protocols that we had.”

With operations and preparations largely remaining the same as last year’s successful restart and completion of the season, Phelps indicated that focus would then turn to community outreach and the nationwide effort on vaccinations.

What’s one kind of place that’s big enough to hold lots of people in a spaced-out manner with built-in traffic patterns in convenient locations?

Race tracks.

“One thing I would say that is tangential to this, all of our facilities have worked with local, state governments and health officials to open up their facilities for vaccines to be distributed at all of our NASCAR Cup Series tracks. Not just NASCAR-owned, but SMI, the independents. They’re all open and want to be distributing the vaccine,” he said. “There are some that are doing it right now: Texas, Charlotte, Bristol, Atlanta, Auto Club, Richmond. All of them are ready to do it. They are in short supply in some places so we can’t do it. We had a conversation with the White House earlier this week, and the White House is thrilled that we will be doing this.”

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While helping to facilitate the rollout of vaccinations is certainly crucial from a public health and safety standpoint, there’s a positive byproduct for the sport, as well.

As more citizens are vaccinated, more fans will be able to return to the track and witness racing as it’s intended: live and loud, with their own eyes and ears.

“With respect to the vaccinations, to me it can’t come too soon,” Phelps said. “It’s not the reason why we’re using our facilities to vaccinate people, but when we get to a place where we have herd immunity, that is something we welcome the time when we can have our media partners in the garage, in the media center, and our race fans.

“NASCAR is about access. Right now we don’t have access with our race fans. We want to give them that access because it’s a unique point of difference in our sport relative to our stick-and-ball brothers.”

Despite the pandemic lingering, there’s more optimism surrounding this season than any other prevailing feeling, as the sport welcomes new teams, new race tracks and new fans.

Phelps feels the momentum is tangible — “more wind at our back than we’ve had in decades,” he said — and it all starts with Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I think that if you look at our partner FOX, their promotion right now, they’re calling it the best season ever,” said Phelps.

“I’m hopeful that’s exactly what is going to happen.”

Phelps touched on several key topics surrounding the sport in the 40-minute press conference. Here are some other notable bits.

On NASCAR’s increased involvement in social justice initiatives 

“One of the most important things that happened last year was our stance on social justice. We had talked about being a sport of action. We were at that time. We continue to be. I’m happy to talk about that moving forward. It’s important for us. I think if you look back to what happened in early June to mid-June, probably those moments, that two and a half weeks, was the seminal moment for our sport. It opened up an aperture to a brand-new fan base. Our fans are so welcoming. You’ve all been to the race track, you see what it’s like when an avid fan that has a new fan that comes with them.

“There was a question at the time: Did NASCAR go too far to ban the Confederate flag? Social justice, is that something a sport should do, NASCAR should do? Do we have permission to do it? The answer is yes. The question was: How is that going to affect our core fan, our avid fan?

“For us, I think it was a moment in time for us back in June that seemed for us it was the right time to act. I think it was the right time for our country. I think it was the right time for our sport. The response to that was fantastic. What we do in the areas of social justice and diversity equity inclusion is going to be authentic to who we are.”

On driver star power and celebrity influences

“There’s no question, our drivers are obviously the stars of the show. They’re the ones with the personalities. They’re the ones that fans care about. So any time we can use them as brand ambassadors, we’re going to do that. I think you’ve seen that repeatedly, whether it’s drivers being in Super Bowl ads, drivers that are going to short tracks, or drivers who want to become owners. Every opportunity for us to connect with a fan where they are with our drivers and showcase things, I think it’s important.

“I think like the Denny Hamlin commercial for Domino’s with his PJs, that’s a fun ad that showcases NASCAR and Denny to a national audience. … You look at Pitbull and the thing he did yesterday, how he’s talking about NASCAR. …It’s exciting, right? It’s a new opportunity for us to connect with a new fan. Our drivers are the face of that, whether it’s Bubba Wallace or Danny Suarez, the people’s champ Chase Elliott, or it’s Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick, any number of our drivers in all three of our national series.”

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On increased business interest in NASCAR 

“Absolutely we are feeling it on the business side. We’re feeling it not just on the business side of fielding new calls and new relationships that are coming to the sport – those are happening, too – but it really also is around how our existing sponsors, team sponsors, sanctioning body sponsors, track sponsors, want to jump in with NASCAR.

“Some of them in the areas of social justice which we’ve seen a lot of conversation around, others just because the sport has more relevance and it’s growing.

“Obviously, that’s a place where we want to be. You could see it even with FOX, frankly, right? You look at the amount of promotion that they’re running, the number of spots that they’re doing, the fact they’re going to continue to pour gas on this sport long after the 500 has been run, is fantastic for us.

“What they’re doing with Bristol, what they’ll do with COTA, what they’re going to do with the throwbacks at Darlington, these are all important things for us as a sport. A lot of it has to do with schedule variation, but it’s more than that, right? It’s where this sport is and the importance for these new partners and these long-term partners as well.”

On what practice and qualifying will look like in the future

“The great news for us is (our TV partners) can’t get enough of our content. As far as the practice and qualifying, the reduction in P and Qs, we decided to have more iRacing Pro Invitationals. We decided to create new content with them or work with them to create new content, which that part isn’t ready to be announced but will be announced soon.

“We’re excited that our partners want more NASCAR. We had on NBCSN and on FS1, 60 of the top 100 programs for each of those networks. That’s important. The cable companies want to have programs that are going to drive ratings. That’s what we do. I think for 2022 we will go back, my feeling, back to more practice and qualifying.”

On the Next Gen car and potential for electrification down the line

“Next Gen sits by itself. There are many things that Next Gen will do for us as a sport when it rolls out in 2022. The styling is going to be amazing. I think the racing is going to be better based on the aerodynamics of the vehicle. The costs associated with the vehicle will be lower in terms of its absolute cost as well as the number of cars that will be necessary to run and run up front. Those are all wins for us.

“As it relates to electrification and new OEMs, I would be surprised if a new OEM came in without some type of electrification. I’m not talking about all-electric. I’m talking about a hybrid system. I think it probably is something, obviously something that we’re exploring now with our existing three OEMs. The question is, What is it? What’s the timing of it? I don’t have either of those answers at this point, although John Probst, Steve O’Donnell, that group, plus our OEMs, engine builders, are all working on that right now.

“I don’t foresee a time in the future where we would go, with all of our series, to an all-electric. I don’t see that. Could we have an exhibition series potentially? We could. That would be something that we might explore.”

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On the revamped 2021 schedule

I’m thrilled with the schedule. As I said, it’s a bold schedule. This is something that we’ve been creating for a long time, to be able to put out a schedule that looks like this one.

“The fans had said they want more road courses. The OEMs said they want more road courses. Our broadcast partners said they wanted more road courses. As evidenced by what happened on Tuesday night (in the Busch Clash), I think having stock cars on road courses works well. They’re slipping and sliding, they get into each other. It puts on great racing.

“I think for us, as we think about ’22, will we continue to have schedule variation, additional changes? I think the answer to that is yes. What that looks like, I’m not sure at this particular time.

“We have a promise to our fans that we’ll continue to create new opportunities at new venues and new formats. That’s what we’re going to do for ’22.”