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NASCAR Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  NASCAR

NASCAR Media Conference

Mike Helton
November 15, 2013


KERRY THARP: We thought we'd kick things off here on a Friday and let you visit with our NASCAR President Mike Helton. Mike, thanks for stopping.
MIKE HELTON: It's hard to believe that we're already back at Homestead and it's a bit of a milestone. I don't know what's happened the last 10 years that moved us along so fast, but celebrating the 10th Chase, and I would tell you that from NASCAR's perspective the Chase has delivered on what we had hoped it would do, to create extraordinary moments and a conclusion of our season and develop what we feel like is the most competitive and challenging championship, certainly in motorsports, but I think we could sustain an argument that it's one of the most challenging championships in all of sports.
But it's still feels funny that we're already back at Homestead again. These years go by so quickly. But it's exciting to be here and settle up on our national championships, and over the course of this evening, tomorrow and Sunday, one thing we do know is that all of our three national series championships will not be repeats from 2012 but will be unique champions for 2013.
I think that kind of speaks to the competition level of all three of our national series, and we're very proud of that.
On the Cup side, obviously the most visible element in 2013 was the Gen‑6 race car, and we're very pleased with its roll‑out early in '13, but we're also very pleased with the results on the racetrack as it's evolved throughout the season, and of course Homestead Sunday being the final event of its inaugural year.
The in‑race passing elevated. We had 16 different winners. Many were winners that you would expect to win like the 48, the 20 and the 29, but I think we also had some moments that we were all pretty proud of with the 38 in Talladega and the 55 winning in New Hampshire. So we're very pleased with the rollout of the Gen‑6 on the Cup side.
The one other thing we've learned again and are reminded of in 2013 is that it's a dangerous sport. Our drivers are human, and other than Tony Stewart‑‑ I think we're all very anxious or the most anxious to have Tony back in the Cup garage real soon and certainly hope his rehabilitation and his healing goes as well as it has been going.
On the Nationwide side, we celebrated our 1,000th race in that series this year. We had some interesting races. Certainly the battle between Sam Hornish and Austin Dillon is an example of how competitive that series still is and has become. Kyle Larson on the verge of being the Rookie of the Year speaks to our diversity program and the interest that NASCAR has tried to build throughout its programs to attract young and future talent, and Kyle is a very big face of that.
We also talked earlier this year about Nationwide's future involvement with the series. As we talked about, they will stay in the sport, probably increase their involvement in the sport, which we're very glad for and proud of. They've been great partners in this series. '14 will be their last year as the entitlement sponsor, and as things progress and we're able to get to the point where we talk about who that next entitlement program is, we'll be excited to do that. In the meantime we're very encouraged and excited about the interest level that that series has, a lot of it due to the growth of it, the strength of the program itself, a lot of which ESPN and Nationwide has helped us build over the last several years. So the activity around the next entitlement name on that series is very promising, and we're very excited about it and look forward to being able to talk about that sometime in '14.
In the truck garage, I think one of the highlights of '13 will be the Eldora race with Austin Dillon winning it, but it was a bit of a‑‑ not a bit, it was an opportunity for NASCAR to be a bit nostalgic and at the same time have a lot of fun and remind many of us how much fun this sport is and can be. We look forward to going back to Eldora. It was certainly a great moment, I think, for NASCAR in general but certainly for the Camping World Truck Series.
The victory lane in the Truck Series I think is an indication of the future driving category, or the drivers' category for our sport, which is very promising. When you have drivers like Kyle Larson, certainly Darrell Wallace Jr.'s win in Martinsville, Eric Jones, Chase Elliott, you see that young crop of very talented, very personable, very exciting style come into the sport, that's promising for the future of all are our programs. The Truck Series has certainly delivered once again for NASCAR in 2013. It appears that Matt Crafton is poised to be our 2013 champion, and we're proud of that because Matt has been a big asset to NASCAR and particularly in the Camping World Truck Series. But very excited about him being our champion for 2013 as well as Duke and Rhonda Thorson, ThorSport's first win or first championship I should say, and that's the headlines we like to see and like to bank on, particularly as we look down the road.
So our three national series are something that we're very proud of.
Go back for just a bit if I can on the Gen‑6 car. What that taught us, the benefits of it, the outcome of it, the high praise and excitement and acceptance, the visibility of our race cars has showed us what we can do collectively at NASCAR with the OEMs, with the race teams and other folks in the sport were able to grow a very popular product and build some strong relationships, and to that point, I would tell you that in '12 and particularly continuing into '13, NASCAR continues to build relationships with the teams, certainly the drivers, the tracks, but its partners, whether it's Sprint or Nationwide or Camping World or Goodyear, Sunoco, Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, to make the sport better. That's why NASCAR, I think, has a reputation and is known for throughout its history is to continue to work on its product, and next to making it safe, the next biggest topic we've got is making sure it's competitive, and we'll continue to do that.
Along the way we've learned more how to do that, and I think the Gen‑6 is a big symbol of the cooperation of everybody in the industry and the result of that cooperation.
We talked earlier this year about the investments and the evolution that's going on on our competition and our R&D side of our business. That's up and running. It's not completely through a cycle yet, but it's well on its way. It includes more dialogue with race teams and different layers of a race team, more internal layers to work on, everything from parts approval to the rule book to the enforcement and regulations and how we use technology and innovation to make the sport better, to do our job better, to make the sport more interactive and more enjoyable and more attractive, particularly to a generation that expects that.
And that's requiring a good deal of effort and a good deal of investment, and we're willing to do that. The industry is helping us do that, and we feel like we've got a lot of good things to come in the future because of that.
You're well aware of the test on the Cup side that we did after the Charlotte race in October. Our group will go back with several teams December 9 and 10 and do some more work on intermediate car packages in an effort to make the intermediate racing more exciting. We're proud of the product we've got right now, but we also know that if you sit still, you're going to get run over. So we're not willing to wait, and we're actually working hard and investing more to be able to act quicker and better and stronger, and the industry is helping us do that. It's coming together collectively well, and we'll see results of that, I think, pretty quick.
Another big headline in '13 was the announcement of our extended relationship with FOX as well as with NBC on the second half of the season. That takes our three national series covered through 2024, which is a big asset for NASCAR, for the teams and the tracks to build its business model and its competition around. That's a very important topic for us.
The tracks continue to invest in their facilities. They'll continue to do that. I think the biggest and the strongest and most visible example of that, when you get to Daytona for Speedweeks in '14 you'll see a lot of new stuff around the back of the grandstand and what we expect‑‑ or a bit of a teaser if you will to what we expect to see Daytona look like when it's all done in 2016. But that, I think, is very symbolic of the investment that the entire industry is making to make our sport strong and give it the opportunity to grow.
So with that, Kerry, want to open it up to questions?

Q. Congratulations on an excellent season. You touched on the young drivers coming up. You've been around the sport quite a while. Have you ever seen such a deep and talented crop of young drivers as we have right now?
MIKE HELTON: I can't remember seeing one, and I haven't lost any of my memory, or I don't think I have. But I can't remember seeing‑‑ and I think a lot of that is the fact that we, NASCAR, have put a good deal of effort into working very diligently on a feeder program over the last 15 or 20 years, and I think we're beginning to see results of that.
If you've followed us along the last two or three years, we've done different things with age restrictions and different things to help promote that because we've always had issue with the fact that you can go by an elementary or a high school and you're not going to see a racetrack but you'll see a basketball court or a baseball field or a football field. So the industry itself, not just NASCAR but the industry itself, had to work on that, and it's done that, and it's given more chances and more opportunities to more younger drivers and wannabe drivers.
So our feeder system I think was important, and I think we're beginning to see results of that. But it's really encouraging to see them progress so quickly and be so talented and so good so quickly, and when you‑‑ the names that I mentioned and you see Jeb Burton, Hunter Nemechek, that makes you feel good, Larry McReynolds' son. That makes you feel good to see familiar names in another generation that helped build your sport continue to grow the sport.
I suspect the more senior drivers are looking over their shoulders saying, man, I know this bunch is going to want my seat pretty soon, so that makes them a little bit better driver, too, I think.

Q. We used to joke about NASCAR being a benevolent dictatorship, and it seems of late there's been more dialogue between the sanctioning body and the competitors. What started that change in the philosophy of the sport? I guess two weeks ago there was a meeting at the Tech Center, and everybody who came out of it said it was the best meeting that they had ever been in in NASCAR, that what was exchanged between the competition as well as the competition department was just very valuable and beneficial to everybody. What changed the philosophy at NASCAR?
MIKE HELTON: Well, the meeting that you're speaking of is a result of the changes that we made this year. The changes we made this year are a result of strategic thinking. That's not new to NASCAR, but I think the last cycle that we're seeing that makes it more open is a result of the things that we've learned that we can do, like the Gen‑6 car, if we bring in more of the industry to help us figure it out.
I'd go back, and you can look at the timeline of NASCAR, and I'm a product of it quite frankly, when Bill and Jim France decided 12 or 13 years ago, 14 years ago now, that the leadership at NASCAR needed to be spread out more. I had the opportunity to be senior VP, chief operating officer, then the president in that cycle, and Brian France and Jim and Lesa and the board of NASCAR tried to look around the corner and say, okay, what's the best form of leadership in NASCAR to serve the industry, and what does that include.
So you've seen over the last few years a broadening of our leadership and then more engagement of Robin Pemberton and Steve O'Donnell and Brett Jewkes and Steve Phelps and Joe Gregory, where the business of NASCAR has more people involved in it to help the industry be better, and the meeting in Concord that you spoke of I think is indicative of meetings that other groups in our business, marketing, licensing, operations, have grown to do, and we're now catching up with it on the competition side so that we can get results quicker and better for the whole industry, and the buy‑in is engaged‑‑ there's equity in the decisions that way, and I think it works better for NASCAR going forward.

Q. You mentioned earlier about developing the young drivers and looking at the Nationwide champion at this point, whether it's Austin or Sam. They have one victory between them, obviously with the dynamics of the Cup guys getting in the mix. Moving forward are you considering any changes in how that dynamic works out with allowing the Cup drivers to compete semi‑regularly in the circuit?
MIKE HELTON: Well, obviously‑‑ or not obviously, I should tell you that we look at everything a lot. I think as we open up our dialogue with the rest of the industry you'll learn more about the things that actually we put on the table and think about.
But to your point, we believe that it's in NASCAR's best interest currently to have an open model for its three national series and not restrict who participates in them. But what we have done recently if you'll remember in the last couple years is we created a program where a driver has to declare what series he collects points in. So that's a step in allowing the truck or the Nationwide drivers to be dominant or predominant when it comes to the championship.
But it still keeps our philosophy of having the open series so whoever wants to participate in them can. But as we go forward we always look at what's next as far as possibilities are concerned. But our general philosophy is to make our products be competitive and open, and we want to have the best competition if it's for 400 miles or 300 miles and the guy who ends up in victory lane is the guy who deserves to be there, or if it's for 33 races in the Nationwide. If the guy that wins the championship deserves to be the champion, whether he has a win or not, the emphasis was on him earning the championship as opposed to earning a win.
We also have many programs and will continue to develop programs to encourage winning because that's the nature of NASCAR racing.

Q. It's been 10 weeks since the MWR scandal and the fallout. What, if any, impact do you think that had on the season or the Chase? Does that leave a stain on the season, or have things kind of moved on to the point that you think the sport has recovered from it?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I think it was a defining moment, and we spoke a lot about it back in Chicago when we were making steps toward what we would do as a league, and I think it was important for us to do that quickly so that we could move on. One of the tough things about our sport is the length of the season, but it's also an asset at times, and so you move on fairly quickly. And I think in the case of Richmond this year in September, I suspect that that moment will be reflected on for many years to come, but the decisions that we made, the reaction in the industry that self‑polices itself is indicative of our environment, and we've kind of moved on from that.
Certainly because of the uniqueness of having a 13th competitor in the Chase, it made a difference on the 2013 Chase format, so to speak, but I think we made the decisions we made after Richmond before we even started the races in Chicago, which was the right thing for us to do. We did it with a lot of thought and engagement by a lot of people in the business to make sure we took the next step correctly to decide what we needed to do and then go on, but I think we've moved on.

Q. With the '15 TV package arriving, we keep hearing talk about possible significant changes in the Cup schedule for '15 and beyond. Can you give us some context of what you guys are thinking about and if indeed there might be some pretty big changes coming?
MIKE HELTON: Well, the one thing we can count on is '14. We put that schedule out. And you can‑‑ from experience it tells you that the previous year kind of establishes the basis for what goes next. I would also‑‑ I'm from old school and we think a lot further down the road than we used to, but we're concluding '13, we've announced '14, and constantly think about '15, '16, '17 all the way out, but the decisions around what may or may not happen in '15 have not been formalized. Certainly it takes a lot of dialogue with racetracks and the industry, the TV partner, as well, particularly in '15 since FOX is continuing but NBC is coming back, and they're very interested in what their product looks like. But they're invested in what they saw and see in '13 and '14 is what they invested in.
But we're always anxious, as well as some of the promoters are anxious to mix it up, if you will, to make it work better. You see a little bit of that this year. We still have a realignment policy where a promoter can come to us and ask to flip a couple of dates that doesn't affect anybody but them and the fans that attend those events, and we take a look at those.
But as we go forward I couldn't sit here and tell you what '15 definitely would look like other than to take '13 and '14 as a basis and then see what happens.
I would also say 10 years ago, just because it's the 10th year of the Chase, when we first started the Chase, we said that we weren't going to change the schedule to fit the Chase, but that was 10 years ago. Things change, and you never know what may or may not happen. But certainly I think the expectations of the entire schedule is something the industry relies on, and it goes back to the conversation I had earlier about having the full industry to weigh in, and while we may not think it needs to be tweaked or changed, others have influence on our decision to make it better. And certainly we keep an open mind of that.

Q. I wanted to follow up on the question about Richmond and the fallout from that. I believe you said that the decisions that NASCAR made were the right decisions, so looking back, you're confident you would not change anything in the way NASCAR handled that situation?
MIKE HELTON: That's correct. We're confident in what we did.

Q. Now, in the whole 100 percent rule and the monitoring or taking the scanners, the banning of digital radios, have you found that NASCAR has had to police that? I know you called the garage a self‑policing garage, but do you know that that has taken care of the issue and that this is not a problem going forward and won't be this weekend or in the future?
MIKE HELTON: Well, certainly it's an issue that we have to continue to monitor as well as the industry, but I think for some time the incident itself and our reaction to it and the industry's reaction to it, whether it's through the fans or sponsors or what have you, creates such a huge awareness around it that I think teams will actually for some time be more careful, which is the purpose of penalties anyway is to eliminate it from happening again, so to speak.
But I would also tell you that we're experienced enough to know that it's on us to continue to monitor it and to find new ways through technology or steps that we may take to be sure that the garage area is reminded that someone is still concerned with this topic and we'll continue to keep after it and watch after it.
But I think since we made the announcements we made in Chicago to the group privately and then to the public, it's been reacted to very respectfully, and we'll continue to look at ways that we can continue to remind them that we don't want to do that again.

Q. Dario Franchitti announced yesterday that he will not race again because of the risk of future serious injuries. Do you look at that decision as a validation of your decision for impact testing for next year and do you think it will impact the opinions pro or con of the doubting drivers of your implementing that policy?
MIKE HELTON: I don't know what effect it might have on that. I think it has a huge effect on all of the motorsports industry when a caliber of driver like Dario says he's not going to get back in the car. And that's fairly final. We heard from one of our more significant participants last year when Dale Jr. said I'm going to take myself out for the rest of the season or for part of the rest of the season for safety's sake, and those moments are huge in the industry.
I think that it‑‑ I won't use the term that it validates motorsports interest in safety or medical steps or things that we do to protect our drivers and our fans and our team members, but I think it is certainly a reminder that our sport is still dangerous and the effort around safety across the board should never be given up on.
Dario is a very significant motorsports figure. We enjoyed him when he was in NASCAR. He's not only a talented race car driver, he's just a talented individual and a very personable person. The good thing is he was able to do this in his own terms, so to speak, and we wish him the best and hope we see him at some of our races sitting on Ganassi's box or wherever he wants to sit.
But I think at the end of it all, it's a reminder that our sport still has danger attached to it.

Q. Can you expand on the unprecedented investment in our sport, be it PR team members or marketing technology, the NASCAR Fan and Media Engagement Center? Was that to right the ship or things that maybe should have been done maybe a bit earlier for the sport, and then can you expand on the Fan and Media Engagement Center, what you're finding out about the fans of NASCAR?
MIKE HELTON: To your first question, I think it's just a function of a good business decision, the decision to be relevant and modern. I think along the way, I think the 65‑year history of our sport, you can go back and you can look at big decisions that are made by Bill Sr., by Bill France and Brian France, and they were key decisions that were made for the next band of years, if you will.
And so I think the investment in the competition and R&D around innovation and technology is one of those major moments that Brian says that this is 2013, and we have business relationships now with major stakeholders through 2024. And so what does our world look like in that stretch of 11 years? And so from that comes the decision to invest in one of the most visible pieces of our business, which is the sporting event, which is the races at the racetrack. So I think that's more what drove NASCAR's decision to do what we're doing.
You're going to have to help me remember your second question. The FAME Center, yeah. I'm glad you brought that up because I missed touching on that. The Fan and Media Engagement Center is on the eighth floor of our Charlotte office. Hewlett‑Packard is our partner in the center, but Brett Jewkes and his folks created a very technologically‑driven center that gives us the ability to monitor our fans and our industry 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In today's world that's critical because things happen so very quickly, and reaction to those things are important, and I think that's what you see NASCAR doing.
But it starts with the ability to have a good understanding of what's going on around you, and then in a digital social media world, that center is paramount to helping us understand what's going on around us, and so it helps us make decisions.

Q. What have you learned about the fans?
MIKE HELTON: That they're loyal and they're very opinionated, and that's a good thing.

Q. This year NASCAR has had to penalize multiple drivers for comments or things that they've made in regards to special media in regards to slurs or stereotypes, and I want to ask you, what is NASCAR's responsibility in dealing with this in the sense of stopping this before it happens? I mention that because I think other sports kind of have symposiums or what have you with younger drivers kind of going over the ins and outs of things as they come into the sport, and you talked about how there's so many younger drivers coming into the sport, the age has been reduced. This is probably an issue that's not going to go away. What is NASCAR's responsibility in doing this, and why not a symposium to address this before you have to penalize somebody in the future?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I think the whole industry has a responsibility to that, and one of the big assets of NASCAR is so many stakeholders involved, and from a driver's perspective he has a relationship obviously with NASCAR. He has a relationship with the team owner. He has a relationship with the team members, the team sponsors, and he has a relationship with the fans. It's universal for all of us to have a role in helping a driver understand what's okay and what's not okay.
As it comes to new drivers that come along that may lack the experience of understanding the ramifications of things like that, NASCAR began a rookie symposium, '14 will be our fourth year of our rookie symposium, and part of that was to lay out the minefield that you're getting into beyond the racetrack itself. And very specifically, and I'm sure '14 will address it even more as we see the progression of social media being such a part of our everyday lives, of the ramifications and the expectations from NASCAR as well as there are other stakeholders to be aware of this type of thing.

Q. You've been doing this 35 years. You've seen the greatest of all time and the greatest moments of their time. What do you see out of Jimmie Johnson? How would you describe his Cup Series career over the last 12 years?
MIKE HELTON: I don't know that there's a definition for it yet. Those that have been around in the sport for a long time have seen the evolution of the definition of the greatest driver and the greatest moments, which is what sports is. I mean, sports is the only true reality show that exists, and so it has those moments. That's what makes sports sports and so entertaining.
The first thing you want to do is you want to compare Jimmie to a driver that preceded him based on statistics or what have you. The fact of the matter, though, is I think Jimmie‑‑ the definition of Jimmie Johnson as a driver is yet to be determined. But certainly every season he participates adds to that definition.
I think the history books are more kind to you than current moments are, but nobody can dispute the talent that he's got and the organization and the continuity of that organization. I don't know if we've ever had, and Gary and his guys can‑‑ I can't recall a driver and a crew chief that have stayed aligned, other than Dale Inman and Richard Petty, for so long, so many events under so much pressure and continue to perform at the level they have. And I think it goes both ways. I think it complements their performance, but their performance complements their relationship.
So it's a long answer to a short‑‑ really what should have been short. I just don't think the definition of Jimmie Johnson has been completely capsulized yet.
KERRY THARP: Mike, as always, we appreciate you coming in. It was good hearing from you. Everybody have a good weekend.



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