When NASCAR president Steve Phelps oversaw the first restart of a major sport during the pandemic last Sunday, he was not blindly following the advice of NASCAR legend Ricky Bobby from “Talladega Nights” that “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
There was nothing rushed about the plan that Phelps, a native of Burlington, Vt., put in place for The Real Heroes 400 to be run successfully at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and then the Toyota 500 at the same site just three days later.
There was no race among NASCAR, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and PGA to be first.
And while there will be no need to throw any shade at the last league to resume playing, NASCAR will always be remembered for crossing the start line ahead of all others.
“Sunday was an important day for sports in general," said Phelps from Charlotte, N.C., Thursday. "I got a lot of texts and e-mails and well wishes from folks that I know across the sports industry, and there was a general sense of, ‘Hey, somebody needs to be first.'
“I had a conversation three or four weeks ago with [deputy commissioner] Mark Tatum of the NBA and he said, ‘You know, Steve, someone has to go first. Someone needs to be bold and somebody needs to have the courage to go ahead and say we’re going. We’re glad it’s NASCAR and we’re rooting for you.’ "
No fans are attending races, and none are expected at any NASCAR events through at least June 21, pending changes in individual states’ phased guidelines. That still left NASCAR with the task of developing health and safety protocols for the approximately 900 people needed to stage an event.
Staggered arrivals and departures for each crew “pod” were scheduled, with tight restrictions on where workers could physically be during the event.
In addition to that compartmentalization concept and an emphasis on social distancing, Phelps noted that the extensive protective gear worn by those working on the track gives the sport a distinct advantage over others.
“They’re not hazmat suits but they’re the next best thing, which is fantastic for us,” said Phelps.
Everyone entering the speedway property has their temperature checked. If it’s running high, their next stop is with a doctor, who checks for COVID-19 symptoms including heart rate and oxygen levels in the blood.
Note that NASCAR is not testing for the COVID-19 virus itself or its antibodies.
That’s because there are too many false positives and false negatives associated with the antibody test, said Phelps. As far as testing for the virus, results take too long, plus “since this is a leisure activity, should we really be taking test kits away from those who need it? Seems like not the right thing to do.”
The thought process NASCAR is following, said Phelps, “is you essentially think that everyone you come in contact with has the virus — and if you do that, you make sure you do the social distancing, you have the protective gear in place that would allow everyone to stay safe.”
The pandemic has struck with Phelps not even two years into his job since being promoted from chief operating officer in September of 2018.
Phelps, 57, came by his fan status early, attending races as a 5-year-old with his father at the now-defunct Catamount Speedway in Milton, Vt. After graduation from the University of Vermont, Phelps headed to Boston College for his MBA, which eventually led to a job with the NFL for 13 years before he joined NASCAR in 2005.
He’s a Red Sox fan, but he would not commit to his ongoing fan status with the other Boston pro sports teams.
“Um, I can’t comment on that," he said, “because I did work at the NFL. So I’ll let that hang.”
He does believe the Northeast is underrated when it comes to race fans.
“There are some great short tracks in either upstate New York or New England area, and a ton of great fans, and I think that’s kind of an interesting thing,” said Phelps. “People are like, ‘There aren’t a lot of NASCAR fans in the Northeast.’ That’s actually not a true statement.”
Phelps said NASCAR officials plan to speak with New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, in the coming weeks about the Loudon race, which is scheduled for July 19. The conversation will be similar to ones NASCAR has had or will have with the governors in the 16 other states where Cup Series races are scheduled between now and November.
So far, getting signoffs from governors on NASCAR’s health and safety plans has not been a problem.
“Governors have been great," said Phelps. “Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, they have seen our plans, they think the plan is sound, and we’ve had endorsement from pretty much all of them.”
Citing NASCAR’s status as a private company, Phelps did not divulge any numbers when it comes to the economic impact of the two-month layoff for the sport and how much the loss of a gate hurts revenue. He has been pleased with the retention of most sponsors, as well as the enthusiastic appetite of TV rights-holders Fox and NBC to start broadcasting live events again.
Viewership for the first Darlington race last Sunday was way up, said Phelps, with an estimated 12 million viewers, including 3 million of them watching a NASCAR event for the first time this year.
“I believe it was the largest number we’ve done outside of the Daytona 500 for a race since 2016,” said Phelps. “I think there was some pent-up demand there.”
During the layoff, NASCAR was able to make serious headway on its emerging digital content. That means esports, specifically iRacing, which featured real NASCAR drivers competing against each other on virtual racetracks. Viewership, particularly among the prized young-and-male demographic, exceeded expectations.
“I think we averaged about 2 million unique viewers for each of the races, the average per minute was over a million," said Phelps. "The No. 1 esports on television all time were those first six iRaces that we had, which was greater than any other esport, greater than Overwatch or Fortnite.
“That’s pretty impressive, and during that time, we had 2 million new viewers who had never watched a NASCAR race, so how many of those translated when we got back on the track? I don’t know, but it’s a great opportunity for us.”
Much like sports betting, Phelps sees esports as more of an engagement tool than a revenue stream.
“It’s not like we won’t bend over and take a licensing fee and pick up that money," he said, “but it’s really more about embedding, and getting your hooks into someone further by creating another unique opportunity.”
Right now, though, live NASCAR racing is a golden opportunity that shines unlike any other sport.
“We’re just thrilled to be back,” said Phelps. “It was a long journey, and our journey was shorter than anyone else’s.”