NASCAR completes full schedule despite challenges

November 7, 2020: Steve Phelps at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, AZ. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

In March when the entire world ground to a halt, many people who followed or worked in NASCAR wondered if there would be any more racing, much less a full season.

Despite the pessimism in those early days NASCAR not only resumed racing after 10 long weeks, after Sunday will have completed an entire slate of 36 Cup series races and will crown a champion.

Much of the “normal” NASCAR and its fans were used to evaporated. The All-Star Race was held at a track other then Charlotte for only the second time in its history; races were held in the middle of the week, double headers at the same track, there was even a Cup race on the Daytona road course that replaced the road course race at Sonoma. The final 10 races in NASCAR’s Cup Playoffs went off without a hitch, though not all had fans in attendance.

But after Sunday, NASCAR will have done what it said it was going to do when it resumed at Darlington in May: run an entire slate of 36 races.

In an otherwise chaotic year the one thing that remained the same was NASCAR’s annual state of the sport address which has been held on the Saturday before the final race of the season. For the first time since 2002 the season finale is being held at somewhere other than Homestead. Instead Phoenix Raceway will end the season. But, in a season of uncertainties, the season ending moving to Phoenix was something we already knew.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps met with the media Satruday. He was at Phoenix along with a few members of the media. Most were working remotely as they had been since March.

“I know it’s been a difficult year for all of you, as it has been for all of us,” Phelps said as he opened. “We asked you to respect the bubble, do things remotely and virtually.  I know that’s hard.  But I’m really proud of the work that you guys have done in these difficult times. I think the stories were great stories that were produced.  Very fair.  Again, we can’t do any of this without you.  You do bring this closer to the fans, and we appreciate all you do. So thank you.  I know it has been a hard year, but you guys have come through it incredibly well.

“The year has been in short I would say extraordinary, although I could probably use 15 or 20 other words to try to get to something.  It’s just unprecedented in the history of our country, in the history of sports, and certainly in the history of our sport.  I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport. But through it all this industry, I’ve said this before, I believe this industry does adversity better than any sport.  If you think about it, we’re at a competitive disadvantage.  We don’t own ourselves.  We’re not franchised, right?  We have independent contractors who come to race as one.

“What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable.  We can’t do what we did as a sport without coming together.  I want to thank the race teams, the racetracks, both those that we own that are part of NASCAR, but importantly the folks at Speedway Motorsports, Pocono, Dover, Indianapolis.  Frankly, all of our partners, right?  Our media partners, our sponsors, everyone that really banded together to create something that was really something to be proud of.

“As I sit here today getting to crown two more champions; one today, another one tomorrow, the one last night with Sheldon Creed winning the Gander RV and Outdoor Truck Series, I just couldn’t be more proud.

“I’m fortunate to sit in the chair that I sit. Jim France and Lesa Kennedy allow me to do this.  I’ve got a phenomenal team around me that really makes this sport go.  But without that collaboration with our industry, it just wouldn’t work, particularly when you’re facing something like we faced this year.

“So, I think a couple highlights that I want to touch on that I’m particularly proud of. When we shut down heading into Atlanta, we had no idea when we were going to get back to racing.  It was our goal, and a stated goal, that we were going to run all races.  Tomorrow when we crown a champion in our Cup Series, we will have run all our races.  We did it through ways that frankly probably we didn’t think we could do, right? A bunch of midweek races.  Three doubleheaders.  No practice and qualifying.  Things that were kind of significant in bedrock that we do, right?  You come to the racetrack, you’re here for three days, you practice, you qualify, you’re on your way, right?

“For us to be the first sport back without fans initially on May 17th in Darlington, to the first sport back with fans, I think it’s an extraordinary achievement.

“I’ll leave you with this before I open it up to questions.”

“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, weren’t sure.  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.  I believe that.  I think that the momentum that we’ve been able to gain has been nothing short of incredible.

“I think the other word I want to use that I stole from one of the senior people at Comcast is that your sport is relevant. It’s not that it wasn’t relevant before, but where you are today, you’re in a significantly different place.  I believe that to be true.”

Phelps admitted that when NASCAR shutdown in March, as all professional sports did due to the pandemic, he wasn’t sure what came next. It wasn’t long however before he and the sport, had a direction.

“It was our intention that we were going to get all these races in,” Phelps said.  “Now sitting here, a race away, if you will, or a day away from doing that, it feels gratifying.I think the most difficult part of that period really is just the unknown, right?  There’s so many things that were outside of our control.  It got to a point literally where my phone would ring, I didn’t want to answer it because there’s nothing but bad news on the other side of that phone call.  It was scary.  It was scary for the industry as a whole.

“I think anyone who was in sports didn’t sleep very well in March and April, mid-March to April, into May.  Until the engines fired at Darlington, it was scary because you have so many things outside of your control.  There are a lot of us in this industry that are control freaks.  I consider myself to be one of them.  When you have things that are truly outside of your control, you are working hard to develop plans, you don’t know if you execute against them, it’s just difficult.

“I would say in a word it was scary, but we developed a plan and we executed against that plan.  I think we executed it very well.

Now that the season is reaching a successful conclusion, thoughts turn to next season. The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging across the country and the world. The offseason is here and NASCAR won’t have the same control over those who work in the industry as they do when visiting a track every week.

“They are going to be away from us for roughly three months,” Phelps said. “I would just ask them to be safe as we would any part of our community, any part of our family.  We want them to be.

“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. I think as it relates to NASCAR and our competitors, we are going to continue to do the things necessary in order to stay safe during this time period. “

NASCAR will return to action in February of 2021, with no assurances that the COVID-19 pandemic will be abated. Phelps said the sport has learned a great deal and will be ready for the Daytona 500 which will kick off the NASCAR Cup season on February 14th.

“We have this incredible schedule that has been put together leading off with the Daytona 500 on February 14th,” Phelps said. “Do I believe we’re going to have fans in the stands?  I do.  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 500.  Our plan is to race in front of fans.”

The 2020 NASCAR season will also be known for the heightened social consciousness that sprang forth as it did across the nation. Led by the activism of Black driver Bubba Wallace, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag on racetrack premises and reaffirmed its commitment to make the sport as inclusive as possible.

“What we do from a social justice standpoint moving forward really to me is about human decency,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that people want to come to our facilities. We want to make sure they want to participate in this sport on television, radio, digitally and socially.

“We want them to feel part of this community. It’s a fantastic community—it really is.”

Despite any obstacles that might emerge, including a nationwide shutdown, NASCAR has proven that they can pivot to meet any challenge.

“There are things that are out of our control,” Phelps said.  “Will we scenario plan for all the things we can identify?  The answer is yes, we are going to.  I think we showed this year as a sport that we did as good or a better job than any sport did, frankly, getting back early and often.

“I believe as of tomorrow we’ll be the only sport that finished a full season.  The NFL is obviously in the midst of theirs.  We are hopeful that they continue with their progress and finish their season.  But as of now, as of tomorrow, we’re the only major sport that finished a full season.  Certainly, proud of that.

“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.”