It was a racing season like no other in NASCAR.
The stock car racing governing body in 2020 had to overcome a deadly pandemic, banned the Confederate flag from its tracks, bid farewell to a popular seven-time series champion (Jimmie Johnson) and crowned a popular new one (Chase Elliott) after switching the site of its national championship race to the desert outside of Phoenix.
Steve Phelps was proud of all of that.
Shortly before the cars took the green flag at the season-opening Daytona 500, the NASCAR president took a look back at one of the most compelling seasons in NASCAR history and spoke about the challenges of moving on from it during a Zoom call with reporters:
Q: How do you feel the COVID protocols worked last year? What was the process like for implementing them for this year?
A: I thought they worked very well. Nothing’s perfect. We did have some cases, a couple high-profile drivers. But all in all, I think if you look at our protocols relative to other sports … I think our competitors felt safe. We have some competitive advantages (over other sports). Drivers, they have their firesuits, their helmets, gloves. Same with the crew members, our officials. It’s different than (some) other sports. It’s outdoors.
Q: Why do you think NASCAR believes its place is to publicly address and act on social justice and racism issues?
A: It was a moment in time for us back in June that seemed the right time to act. I think it was the right time for our country. I think it was the right time for our sport. The response was fantastic. What we do in the areas of social justice and diversity equity inclusion is going to be authentic to who we are. I made a promise that when people walked into the Daytona 500, into that garage, every single one of them would be trained in sensitivity. I can say that happened. That was important.
Q: Last year NASCAR said it wanted to have more variety on its 2021 schedule, more road courses. Are you pleased with the schedule for this year?
A: I’m thrilled with the schedule. The fans said they want more road courses. The (manufacturers) said they wanted more road courses. Our broadcast partners said they wanted more road courses. I think having stock cars on road courses works well. They’re slipping and sliding, they get into each other. It puts on great racing. As we think about ‘22, will we continue to have schedule variation, additional changes? I think the answer to that is yes.
Q: Your TV deal is coming up soon and streaming services are taking off. What is the likelihood that Cup Series races will end up on exclusive streaming services?
A: Do I envision a time when NASCAR Cup Series races are being streamed, and that’s the only place you can get them? I would say right now that’s not something that’s on our radar. Do I think there is a role for streaming services within NASCAR? The answer is yes. Different content that we can put through a streaming service is important. I think that with funding going in that direction, that can work out very well.
Q: Any parting words about the 2021 season?
A: In the words of the Fox promo, I think this is going to be our best season ever.