When the championship confetti is cleaned away and the haulers leave the racetrack on Sunday night, NASCAR's 75th Anniversary season will be complete. And with that, the focus for NASCAR's leadership will be on what happens in Year 76, Year 77 and the many years beyond that.
Ahead of NASCAR Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR president Steve Phelps and chief operating officer Steve O'Donnell gave their annual State of the Sport address and fielded inquiries from the media concerning many topics within the sport, ranging from pressing concerns on the competition side and on-track product to the state of critical negotiations and discussions in the business of stock car racing.
Here are some of the most notable topics that were discussed by NASCAR brass.
Media rights and the charter agreement
The 2023 season has taken place as two major negotiation processes affecting NASCAR's future have gone on behind the scenes. With its current media rights deal set to expire at the end of the 2024 season, NASCAR has been hard at work on agreements with both new and existing media partners for 2025 and beyond. And in those talks -- which Phelps said has attracted a level of interest that has "exceeded our expectations" -- there's more at stake than simply which networks will be putting NASCAR racing on the air each week.
NASCAR has spent the 2023 season trying to work out a deal with its race teams on an extension to the charter agreement -- NASCAR's version of a franchising model -- a process that has been contentious at times as NASCAR and its race teams have disagreed on both financial terms as well as the matter of whether charters should be permanent or have conditional clauses on the basis of performance.
Charter negotiations seem to be looking up -- Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal reported some race teams came away from a quarterly team owner council meeting "feeling more encouraged about the prospects of a deal" -- but Steve Phelps stated Friday that NASCAR would prefer to settle its media rights deal first before finalizing what would be a notable shift in the financial model of Cup race teams.
"We've acknowledged that we want to change the paradigm for our race teams and we need to make sure our race teams are profitable competing on the racetrack," Phelps said. "We are interested in having their enterprise value climb ... No timeline, but we are as we're finalizing our media rights talking about other portions of what our charters would look like that are not financial."
Improving short tracks and road courses
While the Next Gen car has seen the quality of racing on NASCAR's major speedways improve enormously, getting the car to put on a compelling racing product on short tracks and road courses has proven to be much more challenging and remains a work in progress. Steve O'Donnell acknowledged that a compelling race last weekend at Martinsville continued positive momentum toward improved racing on those tracks, but more work is being done.
O'Donnell said everything is up for consideration on improving short tracks and road courses, including increasing horsepower, a popular suggestion from drivers seeking more power than the 670 that NASCAR settled on for the Next Gen car. However, he stressed there is more involved in increasing horsepower, making such a proposition more of a long-term solution while NASCAR focuses on tire, gearing and aerodynamic changes.
"It's not as simple as just upping the horsepower. You better be ready for all your OEs to be onboard. It better make sense for any potential new OEM and technology. It's not just a short-term answer," O'Donnell said. "For us, we're going to look at shifting specifically around that at our next test and see what we can do. There will be variations. Also some aero things we do with the underbody. There's some things we found in [a past test at] Richmond from an aero standpoint that could work as well.
"Nothing to report in terms of yes we're going to do that. Open to everything, but I would say short-term more around shifting and the aero package."
While one of the characteristics of the Next Gen car had been consistency in engine package and aerodynamic parameters from one racetrack to the next, O'Donnell did acknowledge the door was open for removing certain elements of the car -- namely the sealed underbody -- in the interest of improving short track and road course racing.
Auto Club Speedway's future
One mainstay of NASCAR's schedule over the last 25 years that will not be featured on the 2024 schedule is Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a facility facing an uncertain future. Demolition of the track's original two-mile configuration began this week, and there's been a lack of clarity as to the speedway's plans to be redeveloped into something new.
In September 2020, it was announced that NASCAR planned for Auto Club Speedway to be redeveloped, with plans for the new track to be completed for the 2022 season. But a variety of factors outside of NASCAR's control -- namely the COVID pandemic as well as economic issues -- have resulted in the project's timeline being completely upended. Phelps stated NASCAR still plans to build a half-mile short track to maintain its presence in the Southern California market, but no timetable was offered.
In the interim, NASCAR's annual Southern California date will be the Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which will return for the third year in a row as the Cup Series' preseason exhibition.
"This isn't the best time to be building based on inflation, the cost of capital, et cetera. But our intention is to continue to be in the Southern California market," Phelps said. "For 2024 will be at the Coliseum. It is our intention to build a short track in the Inland Empire. ... We are ready to go when the time is right."
Prior to the release of NASCAR's 2024 schedule, there had been some talks of the Cup Series going across the border to race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, which would have given the Cup Series a race in an international market. That did not happen -- Phelps said there was interest on both sides, but that 2024 was "a little quick" to make it a reality -- but there are a "number of opportunities" for NASCAR to expand its international presence in 2025 and beyond.
2023 saw a large step taken in that direction, as a NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 stole the show as an experimental entry into this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. O'Donnell also shared that NASCAR has developed closer relationships with Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) leaders in certain countries, and that the sport would continue to look at what racing and technologies it could bring outside the United States.
As far as what NASCAR can bring back to the United States, O'Donnell shared that conversations took place with potential new OEMs to join Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota in Europe at Le Mans, and that similar conversations will occur when NASCAR leadership travels to Japan to examine hydrogen racing technologies. The technology aspect is important to the matter of whether other automakers join NASCAR, as the sport balances its traditional internal combustion engine-based technology with alternatives like electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
"The challenge remains for us what engine package are we going to be running, specifically around Cup," O'Donnell said. "The good news is all of our existing OEs are very open to dialogue now about where the new technologies are going.
"As everybody here reads about the auto industry. It's in flux, right? There's a lot of technologies being looked at. Things change almost monthly in terms of what is going to be in the hands of consumers. We need to get that right. I think the dialogue that we're having now with our OEs is allowing us to have those conversations with potential new partners."
O'Donnell shared that NASCAR has developed an electric car as well as an alternative body style for the car, but the car would likely be showcased at certain events next season as opposed to raced.
Showing and telling
As NASCAR has sought to build stock car racing's profile back up after a a down period in the 2010s, there has been recurring debate over whether the responsibility of promoting NASCAR and its stars has fallen upon the sanctioning body, the race teams or the drivers themselves. As NASCAR has tried to figure that out, another racing series has caught lightning in a bottle: Formula 1's "Drive to Survive" series on Netflix has proven enormously popular, greatly enhancing F1's profile and the profile of its competitors within the United States in particular.
NASCAR will have a Netflix series of its own centered around the 2023 playoffs, and the sanctioning body is currently in the process of building a new production facility in Concord, N.C. for both live broadcasts and its own NASCAR Studios. Those should help create better storytelling opportunities for NASCAR, an area where the sport is looking to improve while still keeping the on-track product front and center.
"There's things that we've got to do as a sport to really showcase their talent more on the racetrack ... I think that will help us," O'Donnell said. "We're not going to be a soap opera. We're a sport that's going to go out there and race and showcase the talent of our athletes. With that will come personality. With that will come some storytelling. We've got to do a better job certainly around storytelling."
Nuts and bolts
- When asked about the reintroduction of stage breaks to road courses at the Charlotte Roval in October after they were absent from other road courses this season, O'Donnell shared there was a 99 percent chance there would be "some sort" of stage break on road courses in 2024. The sanctioning body will determine how that looks through discussions with the drivers and teams as it pertains to mid-race incentives, strategies and points.
- Phelps made a point that NASCAR has sold out 50 percent more races this year compared to last, and that NASCAR's digital and social consumption have both risen as well. Television ratings have been more of a mixed bag -- ratings for Cup and Truck Series races have been down low single-digits, though Xfinity Series ratings have been up -- but Phelps did cite poor weather in races earlier in the season as a contributing factor. NASCAR expects to see a growth pattern in television next year, as most races will have lower comps in 2024 compared to 2023.
- When asked about officiating issues and inconsistencies during the 2023 season, O'Donnell stressed both the quality and integrity of NASCAR's officials, but admitted the sanctioning body had not gotten every call right in 2023 despite officiating's goal always being to make each call correctly. NASCAR meets every Tuesday to go over what occurred in race control on a race weekend, and it also regularly communicates with drivers and team owners as well.
- When asked about a reported complaint by America First Legal to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging NASCAR and Rev Racing's diversity and inclusion initiatives discriminate against white American men, Phelps did not address the matter specifically, but instead spoke in platitudes about the sanctioning body's pride in their DEI efforts. Rev Racing primarily fields cars for drivers who have come through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity pipeline, but also has one white driver -- Jack Wood -- who has competed for the team in ARCA competition this season.