NASCAR executives Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell deliver the 2022 State of the Sport press conference.

After a long malaise and period of decline that saw leadership changes, NASCAR has evolved in recent years from a position of weakness away from meeting the challenges of its future to an ambitious pursuit of the future from a position of strength. At the forefront of the turnaround and reshaping of stock car racing were NASCAR President Steve Phelps and Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell, both of whom addressed the media at the annual State of the Sport press conference at Phoenix Raceway on Friday .

While NASCAR still has much to improve and strive to achieve, much has changed since Phelps was promoted to NASCAR President in 2018 to spearhead the sport’s renaissance. The next-generation car, one of the sanctions body’s most ambitious projects, is now completing its first full season of competition. And that first full season has been extremely competitive and convincing, helping a changing sport grow again after years of stagnation.

“Excited about where this sport is at. Excited about where the sport is going as we move into our media rights negotiations next year as we venture into some kind of uncharted territory,” Phelps said. “…We will continue to be bold and we will continue to innovate.”

Here are some of the notable topics discussed during Phelps and O’Donnell’s joint press conference, which was overridden by several competition-related topics.

Next generation security

In the full two decades since a safety revolution following the death of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR’s track record of safety has been impeccable and virtually unassailable. But the 2022 season brought the dangers of racing back to the fore, especially in the second half of the season. The next-gen car proved far too stiff on certain impacts, leading to a slew of concussion issues — including one suffered by Kurt Busch in a crash at Pocono ended both his season and full-time cup career.

Competitor concerns boiled over into outrage until he crashed after two separate injuries at Texas Motor Speedway, but these have since been tempered by regular meetings between NASCAR and its competitors on safety and other competitive issues. Still, making changes to the next-gen car from a safety standpoint is an ongoing process — with NASCAR appearing to have built a car strong enough to protect the driver in the event of a catastrophic crash (like Ryan Newman’s crash at the 2020 Daytona 500). who saw his cockpit invaded), the focus is now on allowing drivers to be less physically punished in the minor accidents that have caused problems this season.

“What we’re learning are these smaller hits that we’ve never seen before in relation to a car that we’ve raced that we really need to focus on,” said O’Donnell. “That’s why you see the changes that are being made to the clip for these minor impacts, even a bump on reboot, things like that.

“It’s not just the car. I think the dialogue we’ve had with the teams now includes how you fit in your seat, helmets, foam headgear. All of those things are part of that dialogue, which is really, really good. We’re seeing some improvement every day as we look towards 2023.”

Next generation optimizations and technology

One of the main focuses in the development of the next-generation car was to create a better racing product at intermediate circuits, and NASCAR appears to have accomplished that mission. Racing at the mile and a half and similar circuits is among the best of the 2022 season, but that comes at some cost to the racing product at short circuits and street courses, where overtaking has become more difficult than in the past generation of Cup cars.

While noting that the sample size for such tracks is still relatively small, O’Donnell noted that aerodynamic and possibly horsepower changes are on the way for these tracks, including some lessons from the Garage 56 Le Mans program being implemented could become.

“We’re having a lot of dialogue with the drivers to potentially look at some performance aspects – I think that’s a bit more complicated than that,” said O’Donnell. “There are some things that we even looked at in Garage 56 that we found from an aerodynamic point of view that could be implemented as early as next year for both short courses and road courses.”

Beyond the next-generation car, NASCAR is also moving ahead with plans to integrate new automotive technologies, including electrification. O’Donnell hinted that further news on the development of a potential electric car and racing series could come in 2023, with a target of 2024 for implementation at the track.

“The ideal world for NASCAR is that you can show up at a circuit and see any form of motorsport you want, any type of power: electric, hydrogen,” O’Donnell said. “You want to see some loud engines going out there, that’s NASCAR too. All of this happens behind the scenes.”

A big part of that technology would be the involvement of the sport’s OEMs, which currently include Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota. While NASCAR was interested in bringing more OEMs into the sport, O’Donnell said there was no news on that front other than ongoing dialogue with potential automakers.

The charter system

While driver disputes over the next-gen car grabbed much of NASCAR’s attention that fall, another brushfire ensued when several team leaders went to the media to voice their grievances about the lack of progress this was done in negotiations with the sanctioning authority over how much of the revenue split they will receive in NASCAR’s next media rights deal. The behind-the-scenes row that spilled over into the public eye was the latest development in an ongoing, long-term process of reforming the sport’s business model to make racing teams less dependent on sponsorship money and less vulnerable to losses.

A major step in this direction is the charter model, the franchising model that NASCAR introduced in 2016 to give chartered teams guaranteed attendance at every race, dual earnings (fixed earnings and then competing earnings), and governance in the sport. The current charter deal expires in late 2024, but Phelps indicated NASCAR would seek to renew the deal, believing it’s helped the sport — even as it created a barrier to entry for potential new owners.

“I would say that the charter system, while not perfect, has worked really well,” Phelps said. “You look at enterprise value, which I won’t go into, what charters are aiming for, what they were, but the number right now is a significant multiple of what it was three years ago. We’ve had people out there wanting to get charters that are both in and out of sport that they can’t get now because the teams are holding them. That is your right. Whether we want it or not, we can’t do anything about it.

“… Do I think we’re going to renew the charters? I do. Do I think it’s a good thing for the sport? I do.”

Acting Obstacles

Directing a NASCAR race is far from an easy task, as the live-action pace of the races dictates that key decisions and judgments must be made in real time, rather than being dissected and reviewed during a pause in the action. Of course, this sometimes leads to disparate official decisions, some of which were made this season and then corrected after the fact — most notably in September in Texas, when NASCAR officials admitted they missed a call where William Byron deliberately dumped Denny Hamlin the traffic moved under caution.

O’Donnell acknowledged such mistakes a bit, then spoke about the role of improved technology in ensuring that such situations don’t happen again in the future.

“If we’re missing a camera angle, we have to fix that and make sure we have those things in place,” O’Donnell said. “If you take Texas for example, one of the angles that we should have had in race control, we didn’t. Next week we did it. We got every single car in the car where we could see it.

“We’re going to go back and make sure where we’re making mistakes, what technology do we need to make those decisions really timely because we want to make those on the track versus during the week.”

Another stir came this weekend when NASCAR decided not to penalize Xfinity Series driver Austin Hill after he punched fellow driver Myatt Snider in the pit lane after last Saturday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. While O’Donnell said Hill’s actions crossed the line, he said NASCAR chose not to act because they didn’t issue penalties for similar situations earlier in the year.

O’Donnell then hinted that possible rule changes on that front would be in store for next season in the name of consistency.

“Our job in the off-season will be to talk to the drivers and get their feedback on where that line should be,” O’Donnell said. “It’s still up to us to make the decision but I think you’re going to see a little more consistency in terms of what we might be doing and come back with some sort of penalty for 2023 for what happened last week. “



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