Execs, Insiders, And Drivers Talk Top 5 Things Nascar Is Doing To Change

After speaking with over a half-dozen key figures within the sport, it’s clear that Nascar is at a key moment in the sanctioning body’s history, in which change has been designed to foster growth.

A focus on diversity in the Next Gen car development, flexibility with the schedule, and changes with social justice initiatives have been implemented to put new teams on the grid as well as new demographics in the stands and watching on television.

From top executives such as Ben Kennedy the senior VP of Racing Development and Strategy at Nascar; to team owners Tad Geschicker of JTG Daughtery Racing and Justin Marks of Trackhouse Racing; to David Wilson, President of Toyota Racing Development, and Paul Doleshal, Head of Toyota Motorsports, North America; to Jill Gregory, the executive VP of Sonoma Raceway; to drivers Autin Dillion and Tyler Reddick, all paint a picture of Nascar as no longer the largely southern “good-old-boy” form of auto racing it once was.

As a key indicator of how the sport has gone from regional to national, Nascar’s largest fan base is not based in the south but instead counts California as its largest and most diverse fan base. Changes in the economics of the sport have brought in Michael Jordan and rapper Pitbull. Pit crews have seen an incredible increase in the number of Black members. Leadership sees more women than most stick-and-ball leagues, and diversity growth with Black, Hispanic, and younger fans is seeing a surge.

Here are the five biggest changes in the sport:

1 – Changes In The Car Designed To Create More Parity

One of the biggest changes for Nascar’s Cup Series has been the introduction of the Next Gen car, known as the Gen-7, designed to create more parity in the race standings. Just as IndyCar did in 2012, Nascar made the bold move to have much of the car be “spec.” Instead of the cars being custom with design parameters, certain parts would come by way of vendors, including much of the chassis. On top of that, the OEMs – Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet – had a big hand in having a say on body design to more closely resemble the consumer cars they are to mimic. Instead of welding sheet metal to the chassis and adding a decal design to “look” like a particular car, now Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Ford Mustang GT
GT
and Toyota Camry TRD look as intended.

“The challenge for us — particularly early on — was managing the balance between building a spec car versus building something that had some spec components but still allowed us to have areas where we can develop” said David Wilson, President of Toyota Racing Development.

Still, Wilson saw that staying the course would ultimately be Nascar’s undoing saying that the sanctioning body fully acknowledged that doing nothing was not an option and that the sport was in serious jeopardy adding that the model was “simply not sustainable with the exception of a handful of organizations with deeper pockets than the rest of the paddock.”

That change in the model was echoed by Justin Marks, who co-owns Trackhouse Racing with Pitbull. Trackhouse has come on the scene and been extremely competitive winning three races early in the season, the last being the Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel.

“I do believe that theoretically, once we get more time and really figure this Next Gen car out and how to run, it is going to bring the costs down, but it hasn’t yet,” said Marks.

He looked at how changes in Major League Baseball were designed to try and bring parity to the league saying they “are playing Moneyball a little bit at Trackhouse.”

Marks said that he has a lot of conviction about what really is really working for the team which has racked up three wins in the season. Marks believes that older legacy teams are “not exactly scared of this new model for Nascar” but rather they’ve been used to engaging in a “financial arms race.”

If there’s been an issue with the Gen-7 car, it’s been how fast it came online for the teams as development has occurred. In other words, development is still ongoing or “building the plane as it’s being flown.”

“At early juncture, my biggest fear and concern was that we didn’t have a car with enough reps on it from a development perspective and that we would be fighting a lot of issues and fixing a lot of things,” said Ben Kennedy, a former racer turned senior VP of Racing Development and Strategy at Nascar.

Talking to Austin Dillion at the Sonoma road course race, he said that the car is developing across superspeedways, short tracks, and road courses, but one type of racing seems to be developing a bit faster.

“The car seems to be getting stronger on road courses,” he said. “Having an aero package under the car and aspects like sequential shifting makes the car feel like it’s heading out of the stone age. And the cars under braking is a real change. Just feels like it’s built for a road course.”

Dillion’s teammate, Tyler Reddick with Richard Childress Racing said the teams are getting feedback from the drivers that are helping move the development along.

“The team is always getting feedback from us drivers,” Reddick said. “But feedback early in the testing we had was very important. That early testing and feedback have given us a big jump in performance over the course of the season.”

2 – Nascar Merger And Privatization Allowing For Bold Strokes With The Schedule

One of the lesser-known, but no less impactful issues facing motorsports are the charters between tracks and sanctioning bodies that can lock in schedules for multiple years. While not the sole reason for it, in 2019, Nascar merged with International Speedway Corp (ISC). While not all the tracks that Cup series races are hosted on, the merger saw the majority of them now under central control. Throw in that the other tracks used for the Cup series owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc went private in 2017 and it’s allowed for additional flexibility.

“I can tell you as we’re going through the 85 versions of the schedule in 2020, the person that was in the office right next to me was over all the tracks and I could literally walk over and within 30 seconds we can make a quick decision on moving a date based off some of the feedback that we’ve gotten,” said Kennedy. “I think more than anything, it’s given us the ability to be flexible and nimble.”

3 – Exhibition Race In LA Coliseum Is A Proof Of Concept To Take More Races Inside Stadiums

In tandem with schedule flexibility, Nascar has looked to showcase its racing product in forms that few thought possible. From turning Martinsville into a dirt track, the moving the Busch Light Clash race from Daytona Motor Speedway to the LA Coliseum as an exhibition.

To that, Nascar has already announced plans to return to the LA Coliseum, but according to Kennedy, the possibility of doing more with stadiums could occur.

“Think about the history of it,” Kennedy said mentioning that Nascar broke ground on the ¼-mile oval at the historic venue it 100 years to the day that they broke ground on the Coliseum.

The event created significant buzz in and out of auto racing circles and according to Kennedy 70% of those in attendance were new fans. The event drew robust numbers on television, as well for FOX with an average of 4.28 million viewers.

Kennedy added that part of the reason they did the LA Coliseum event was proof of concept with Nascar looking at soccer, football and Olympic stadiums that are scattered around the world.

“There is an opportunity for us to take a concept like that and move it to other locations,” Kennedy said. “Whether that’s with one of our national series or the series we run in Canada, Mexico, and Europe, it’s being discussed. For some of our emerging series, we have an opportunity to go into these major metro areas that have a ton of history and themes. The exhibition format that we did with great success in the LA Coliseum allows us to figure out a model that makes sense. It opens up the door to enter a lot of markets.”

4 – Diversity And Inclusion Is Growing Business For Nascar

A key change for Nascar has been its strong stance on diversity and inclusion. It started with banning the Confederate flag at events and increased during 2020 as increased social awareness came front and center. Across the spectrum of those interviewed, all pointed to how these changes have not only been the right thing to do but good for business within the sport and for sponsors that are critical to the lifeblood of racing. From the top-down, it’s clear that the change is not some “flavor of the month” issue, but rather core to accepting as many fans as possible to the sport.

“I think we made a deliberate effort to focus on evolving our fan base we want to get younger and more diverse,” said Jill Gregory, executive VP, and general manager of Sonoma Raceway who served as executive VP and Chief Marketing and Content Officer at Nascar prior. “We want to make sure all of our core fans or avid fans get what they want out of Nascar. But we had a very stated goal to get younger and more diverse; make sure that our audiences looked like the general population.”

Gregory add that growing that exposure was a long a slow build starting with Nascar’s Drive For Diversity program that predated her time at Nascar.

Gregory and others at Nascar said that terms of growing the fan base they also took a deliberate effort probably in recent years to market to a new fans and that Nascar is open and welcoming to all.

Tad Geschicker of JTG Daughtery Racing was one of the earliest owners to partner with a Black co-owner in former NBA star, Brad Daughtery so he understands how the change is important.

“One thing we need to be is inclusive,” Geschicker said. “I don’t think we were as inclusive as we needed to be before Nascar took a stand on those issues and see a lot more diversity in the grandstands that we didn’t before. So to keep our fan base growing, we need to need to be diverse.”

Paul Doleshal who is the head of Toyota Motorsports, North America sits on Nascar’s Diversity Council, so he’s seen how the new approach has affected ownership growth and fan base diversity.

“I think Michael Jordan becoming part of team owners put MASCAR into a different level of ownership acceptability,” said Doleshal. “Now you’ve got a lot of different guys coming in and wanting to buy teams or buying parts of teams and just to be involved in it.”

Doleshal mentioned that while the diversity effort straddles a host of areas within Nascar. Whether that’s the driver program, reaching out to new team owners, and certainly with fans and that “it’s about everything inclusion.”

That would make sense for any business, but with hundreds of sponsor partners, Nascar understands that they are seeking to have customers in every demographic and in every lifestyle choice.

“We want them all to feel safe and readily available to come to any races they want,” added Doleshal.

“I think the thing that makes me most proud is we said we were going to make changes around diversity and inclusion, we’re now backing ourselves up with action,” said Ben Kennedy.

5 – Where Nascar Goes From Here

In speaking with all the sources for this story, everyone was asked to gaze into the future to try and see where Nascar may be in five or ten years. On the technical side, going greener seems near-certain with some form of hybrid energy recapture with the engine. On the schedule, the idea of ​​more bold race types seems possible. More than one added street racing into the diversity of circuit types. And continuing to make Nascar as accessible as possible will continue.

“I would say, Nascar – as a company and a sport – is probably stronger than it’s been in a really long time,” said Kennedy. “I think a big part of that has been with our leadership and challenging everyone to think bold and think differently. And you know, it’s okay for us to go out and fail a couple of times. Because if we don’t go out and try it, we’re not going to learn. So, I think we’ve seen a lot of progress over the past couple of years and certainly, a lot of important projects, initiatives as a company, especially as we think about the next two or three years.”

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