NASCAR president Steve Phelps looks at the final four contenders heading into Sunday’s Cup Series playoff finale in Glendale, Arizona, and nods his head with satisfaction.
Each of the four — Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Kyle Larson — is under the age of 31, representing the youngest group of final race participants in the playoff’s history.
“Three guys [Bell, Blaney and Byron] going for their first championship, one guy [Larson] going for his second,” Phelps said.
Phelps is paid to promote so of course he’s going to say the championship race is great, but there is something to the ages of the drivers that fits with NASCAR’s efforts at drawing in a younger and more diverse set of fans.
Age — and their social media — help with relatability, but it’s their skill that still works for established fans that NASCAR is hellbent on serving as well. In his four years atop NASCAR, Phelps has tried to make everything old new again and everything new old again.
It’s how you have a season featuring a street race in downtown Chicago, the Los Angeles Coliseum turning into a racing oval and the resurrection of North Wilkesboro Speedway, the classic North Carolina venue, hosting to the 2023 All-Star. Once a two-stop per year track in the heart of the sport’s tobacco road roots, North Wilkesboro hadn’t seen a NASCAR Cup event since 1996.
“At the Chicago race, eight out of 10 fans were attending their first ever NASCAR event,” Phelps said. “At North Wilkesboro, it might have been less than 1 percent who hadn’t been to a race.”
Every sport — every business really — is looking to grow its base, especially with younger converts who can become long-term customers. The challenge for NASCAR has long been fraught with danger.
This isn’t a classic team stick-and-ball league. It can’t rely on geography to naturally market the product to area fans the way someone who grows up in Wisconsin has the Green Bay Packers ingrained into their lives.
It also can’t count on that fandom to last for decades, because while a NASCAR fan might start rooting for a certain driver, said driver is eventually going to retire, requiring that same fan to find a new person to support. It’s easier to just keep rooting for the same team from childhood on.
The sport is in constant transition, old fans needing something new to hook onto and motivate them to get out to races, tune in for hours and buy merchandise. Golf, tennis, boxing and MMA have similar challenges which can lead to boom and bust cycles.
I loved Tiger. I loved Tyson. Now I don’t watch as much.
Maybe more than any of those sports, being a NASCAR fan — and certainly attending a NASCAR race — is as much a way of life as an entertainment activity. Established fans are wary of a tricked-up product, being if not ignored, then not prioritized.
“Every brand would like to get younger, that’s what you need to continue to shine, but sometimes bringing in new fans means you lose existing fans and that is not the case with NASCAR,” Phelps said. “We can serve both.”
Which goes back to this final four. The old guard is gone or going. Forty-seven-year-old former Cup champion Kevin Harvick will race for the final time Sunday, following Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and others into retirement.
The new guard has to carry the sport, but just marketing them via Netflix or social media isn’t enough. They have to be able to race — to appeal to the new and especially the old — and Bell, Blaney, Byron and Larson certainly can.
NASCAR is as challenging as ever, at least with the diversity of venues used across the season and the cut-throat playoffs.
“We raced on dirt, asphalt and concrete,” Phelps said. “We had street races, road courses and our speedways.” Those alone vary from .526 miles around [Martinsville] to 2.6 miles [Talladega].
“Whoever wins this championship is more than deserving, no one in the world has this.”
In essence, the more the younger guy's talent shines and they start winning tangible prizes, the more it makes sense to push their stories and personalities and hope to hook fans.
It’s never easy, but that’s the task.
For now, Phelps said Phoenix is sold out, he’s optimistic NASCAR will get a “good result” in upcoming media rights deal and a new generation is pushing forward.