When NASCAR began the 2020 season, no one could have imagined what the road ahead would be for anyone in the industry, let alone on the massive tracks where the brand has grown over the years.
Now looking back on the past eleven months since the auto racing world descended on Daytona International Speedway, it’s hard to find any property that matches the pivoting, the digital and gaming innovation, the cause initiatives and, most importantly, the resilience that the circuit showed under NASCAR President Steve Phelps and his team. As a result, NASCAR is positioned to take its best practices and accelerate even faster into 2022.
“If you look back 20 years from now on 2020, our seminal growth will probably be centered around all we did in mid-June,” Phelps told Sports Business Journal this week. “We are probably more important to our media partners (Fox and NBC) now more than ever because of the moves we made and where we are going.”
Phelps pointed out three pillars for success for 2021: Safety, Driving Marketshare and Building Diversity & Inclusion.
However, before the first checkered flag comes into focus, we have to remain prepared for another flag to be thrown: the yellow caution.
Some tracks, but not all, are prepped and ready for return to racing with limited fans in the stands. Daytona International Speedway expects to be at 30,000 fans for the Daytona 500 (the track officially holds 101,500) and, as the season progresses, NASCAR will work with state and local officials to slowly begin welcoming fans back to all its races. While the tracks benefit from being large, open-air facilities to be able to bring fans back, monitoring things like mask wearing, social distancing and even tailgating will be a challenge, one that all track presidents are taking very seriously.
As the season begins with tonight’s NASCAR Cup Series Busch Clash on FS1—and don’t forget to kick-off your Valentine’s Day date plans with the Daytona 500‘s 1:30pm CT start this Sunday—the sport looks to ramp back up, what areas should we be watching for NASCAR 2021? Here are five:
NASCAR continues to drive value for brands invested in the sport. The circuit will enter year two of its newly introduced “Premier Sponsorship” model, with blue-chip brands Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, GEICO and Comcast on board.
Key growth initiatives are offering new opportunities for partners to engage fans, while opening the door to new brands entering the sport. Team sponsorship is thriving with new brands entering the sport including Dr. Pepper, Columbia, Adrenaline Shoc, TikTok and Kohler.
Check The Schedule
NASCAR’s revamped schedule will bring the sport to new tracks, new media markets, and new fans. The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule includes the introduction of three new racetracks – and new layouts at two iconic venues. Not since 1969 has NASCAR added this many new venues to its premier series schedule. NASCAR Cup Series will race at Nashville Superspeedway, Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wis.), and Circuit of the Americas (Austin, Texas), plus the track will also race on dirt at the iconic Bristol Motor Speedway, and run the road course at Daytona.
NASCAR is introducing new and diverse team owners to the sport. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin created global news by introducing 23XI Racing with Bubba Wallace driving their No. 23 car. In addition, Justin Marks and Pitbull will debut Trackhouse Racing with Daniel Suarez at the wheel, and Matt Tifft (with BJ McLeod driving) is returning to the sport as one of it’s youngest owners. The demand for NASCAR charters has never been higher, which in turn is helping drive charter values up.
And diversity is proving to be good business. Where are those new sponsors, like Dr. Pepper and Columbia, as well as DoorDash and Root Insurance, becoming primary car sponsors? For a driver of color like Wallace, and doing so alongside with corporate giants such as McDonald’s:
Gamin’ & Gamblin’
Growth initiatives like esports and sports betting are redefining NASCAR fan engagement while connecting the sport with new audiences. After a historic debut season that set the high watermark in viewership for televised esports programming, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series is set to return in 2021.
NASCAR and iRacing jointly announced that a new-look Pro Invitational will see NASCAR Cup Series stars compete virtually in a 10-race schedule that will complement NASCAR’s real-life racing schedule, offering fans a new mid-week competition featuring NASCAR’s top drivers.
Fox Sports, which helped NASCAR and iRacing set viewership records with the inaugural Pro Invitational last season, will broadcast the first five races of the series live in prime time on FS1. NBC Sports will air the final five races of the series.
Do not overlook the fact that this mid-week iRacing format not only extends the fan engagement window, it helps set the stage for race weekend with casual and gaming fans who came to know the sport through the gaming side last year. Now with a taste of stock car racing, new fans can be drawn in by racing on the upcoming weekend’s track. This enhances the chance of them coming back to watch and follow on “real” race day.
Then there are NASCAR’s gambling initiatives led by a multiyear partnership with Genius Sports, which will finally set the tone and the speed for in race gambling this season. Together with another essential advancement—the implementation of 5G at all track facilities—in driving additional fan engagement wither at the track of with broadcast and mobile partners.
And speaking of tech, NASCAR will continue to take steps toward developing its Next Gen Car, a massive industry undertaking that the pandemic pushed back a year and will now make its debut on the track in 2022.
A comprehensive effort is in place to develop the Next Gen machine, inclusive of NASCAR’s OEM’s (Toyota, Ford and Chevy). The new car, the development of which as called “complete” on Feb 1 by NASCAR’s John Probst, promises to introduce new technologies that align with what is being implemented in stock cars available to consumers. Perhaps most importantly to the health of NASCAR, the Next Gen Car promises to provide major cost efficiencies that will open the sport to not just new car manufacturers, but new owners.
“When we look back over the past year we see the efforts that Steve Phelps and NASCAR made in areas like gaming and diversity and inclusion are some of the best practices that will stick for all of sports,” added Jim O’Connell, President, A1 Partners and longtime sports business thought leader at places like NASCAR and the NFL. “The organization has been aggressively and proactively taking on issues and innovating for years now, and as someone who has been around the property for some time, I think they will continue to be a place where we will all be able to look for leadership and innovative thought from their drivers, their partners, their teams and from their leaders at the helm.”
Let the engines—and the innovation—roar.
UPDATED Feb 10: clarified Next Gen Car development.