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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
March 26, 2019
MIKE FORD: Thank you so much for joining us following an exciting announcement on the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule. We're here with Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's executive vice president and chief racing development officer, who was integral in building this 2020 schedule.
Steve, to that end, I know a lot went into it, a lot of people went into it. Can you take us behind the curtain a little bit and tell us what it was like building this exciting schedule.
STEVE O'DONNELL: Thanks for joining us.
From our perspective, I think a lot of work was done by Ben Kennedy, which is great to see him lean in and continue to do more with the sanctioning body. Was a huge asset in getting this done.
I think the biggest compliment is to the racetracks. We have agreements with all of our existing tracks to stay at those venues through 2020, and also an agreement that we could not move a race unless they signed off on it more than two weeks.
Obviously there are a lot of changes that go outside of that two‑week window. The tracks understood our desire to make some bold changes along with our television partners and fans.
We think we've come up with a schedule that has some unique changes for the fans in terms of some short tracks, road courses, and keeps iconic dates where they belong and sets us up for the future.
MIKE FORD: We'll open it up for questions for Steve.
Q. On the change to the finale, what went into that decision and why the move from Miami Homestead?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, I think first it's important to note Miami Homestead has been a terrific host for the championship, but I think equally as important has put on tremendous racing. Having full confidence that that will continue allowed us to make a change in the championship.
FOX was very interested in having Miami as part of their schedule of events as well. We're really able to enhance the spring portion of our schedule, also rotate the championship, more driven from a competitive standpoint.
Going to the same tracks year in and year out could potentially favor certain drivers. We wanted to take a look if we had the opportunity to go to another venue, what would that be. Obviously a ton of investment has gone into ISM Raceway. We thought it was natural for us to make that rotation this year and see how it plays out, also put Miami in a date that works for them, as well.
Q. Can you give us any details on how Pocono will work? Could you do a road course one day and the oval the next?
STEVE O'DONNELL: On the second one, the answer to that is I'm not sure if you could, but we're not going to. I think a lot of details still to work out. I think you'll see all of our national series running there. Kind of a doubleheader Saturday, probably Truck, Cup, doubleheader Sunday, Xfinity, Cup, most likely ARCA that will go on. A ton of racing. A huge camping market.
We'll obviously work through some of the aspects of qualifying, backup cars, that sort of thing. All things that have been done before in other forms of motorsports, but confident it will be a huge weekend for the fans with another announcement to come very shortly in terms of the format for that entire weekend.
Q. It seems maybe one of the biggest changes being talked about is the fact of taking Daytona off its traditional date and putting Indy there. Did you have any qualms about changing a traditional race, going back to Indy when it's hot only about five weeks removed from Indy 500?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think it's hot in Daytona on July 4th. A bit of a myth to say it's hot in a certain market.
A couple things when you look at it. Daytona, in terms of traditional dates, Daytona is a traditional venue that drivers want to win on, want to race, want to race there when the most important factors are on the line.
When we talked to the industry, the industry, really drivers and teams, wanted Daytona to end the regular season. They thought that was the best date to open up the season with the Daytona 500, then end the regular season with that last chance to get into the Playoffs.
Everyone felt Daytona belonged there and that track deserved to potentially be in that date. That kind of started the thinking.
Then as you look at July 4th being a traditional weekend around NASCAR in general, obviously needed an iconic venue to fill that slot. You don't have to look far to say that Indianapolis can easily fill that from a track standpoint, an iconic track for us, a great celebration of July 4th. I think we'll have some good things to report in what this weekend will look like around July 4th and 5th.
Q. There's been a lot of talk about trying to tighten the schedule and end even sooner. What was the consideration in terms of the Clash, moving that into the week of the Daytona 500, and also the same thing with the All‑Star weekend with the 600, which potentially could have given you a couple of weekends there to further tighten the schedule?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Well, I think it starts with what are your television partners want. The desire from NBC specifically was they wanted to end on Veterans Day weekend, which was a big match for NASCAR, how we play in with the military, that celebration, celebrate our troops in terms of our year‑long effort.
To end on Veterans Day, NBC specifically asked for that. If you're going to end on that day, it becomes hard to condense the schedule by three or four weeks.
The other factor is a request by NBC to go off for two weeks because of the Olympics, which we were able to do. We felt like that was important for our television partner to do that. We can showcase our Xfinity and Truck Series during those two weeks. We also have a huge event in England during that weekend where hopefully a couple drivers will go over.
We also fully expect some of our drivers to participate in a lot of the things that go on around the Olympics as well, help promote NASCAR.
Some will take some time off. We felt like this schedule allows for a bit of a break in there, also allows us to showcase our other series.
Q. With moving the race to ISM Raceway for the finale, is that something you're looking at for the next few years? Are you looking to further rotate that race and other Playoff races beyond this season?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, I think our hope would be to stay there for a little while. I can't say how long. I think with any venue, you want to see it have a chance and grow a little bit, see how that works. We'll certainly take a look at it as we look at 2021 and beyond, see what's on the table in terms of venues.
But this wasn't a decision we said, Hey, let's go there for a year and rotate it. Our intent is to stay for a few years and see how we net out.
Q. Are you setting the table next year, 2021? Is this the appetizer before the main course?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think that's a good question. I think some of the moves were made thinking ahead. We still have a lot to look at for 2021. I think a lot of the tracks with kind of the iconic dates or if we move some of those, we want to try to stick with as much as possible.
We did make some of these moves in anticipation of where could we be in the future, for sure.
Q. Regarding Daytona, that was the only place you could put that race, right, to take it off the 4th of July weekend, to make it something special as the regular‑season finale?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, I can say with full confidence we could not have made that move unless we were going to the regular‑season finale. We thought for the track and for the industry, while I love July 4th and the tradition, it's not sold out, it's been a challenge from a weather standpoint, and are we really showcasing that track and all that's gone into it as much as we should.
I think we all felt as an industry that the regular‑season finale at Daytona would do just that. That was why that move was made. It would not have been made just to kind of move it a week or two off of July 4th.
Q. I know you mentioned the plan is to keep Phoenix as the site of the championship for a number of years. Is there a potential that eventually we could see a similar rotating pattern in 2021? It's a bit of a projection, with the All‑Star Race to accomplish the same thing, not want to give any drivers a specific advantage?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Great question. I think we've talked to Marcus and the group at SMI. I think there is a desire to do something similar with the All‑Star Race.
Obviously we've got a great race to takes place at Charlotte. We were really excited about the All‑Star Race this past year. If we're going to do that, we need to make sure it works for both Charlotte and a potential new venue. That is something we've had discussions on.
I think Marcus is aware of both of our desires, and we'll see where we end up. Still a little premature for 2021.
Q. Can you talk more about the Pocono logistics. I imagine this had to be quite complex conversations. How long did it take for everybody to get on the same page? When did those discussions start?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think it was a lot quicker than you probably think. Our TV partners have wanted to look at the concept of a doubleheader. We obviously talked to a number of our venues to see what may or may not work.
Nick Igdalsky was very willing to take a shot at this. We thought it was a terrific venue to pull this off in terms of the number of folks that not only attend that race, but go and camp, make a three‑day weekend out of it. If we could provide some more content, we thought it would be great.
NBC was really onboard with the concept, as well. Some details to work out in terms of what the best format will be for the race fans. Those are all logistics that we're confident we can work through with the industry.
Q. You said there's still more to come. Is it two separate cars? Would you expect some to use the same car multiple days? How will that work?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Like I said, those are some details we're going to work through with the teams. They will be two separate point races, just like you'd see working through the mile. Obviously we want to make this as efficient as we can for the race teams.
This is done worldwide with other forms of motorsports, so we'll take the best learnings from some of them, try to tweak a few things that are unique to NASCAR and make this an incredible weekend.
Q. Ending at Phoenix, (indiscernible) less seats in the press box, is there going to be an additional build‑out at Phoenix or are you comfortable with it? Is that something you looked at with those numbers being so different than what Homestead had, the issue with no press box from the media to see over the race?
STEVE O'DONNELL: No, I actually think what ISM has done, invested in their facility, is on par with a number of new pro sports venues. Not even a consideration. We are 100% love what ISM has done, think it's a destination for fans that they all thought was terrific.
We're more than happy with what's been done at ISM.
Q. On Texas Motor Speedway, obviously this gets them off the opening day of hunting season. Any advance projections of what this could do for the attendance for their second date?
STEVE O'DONNELL: We'll have to obviously wait and see. We're hopeful that we're going to do our best obviously coming in this weekend to continue to tweak the race product and hopefully put on some good shows for Eddie. Hopefully that results in some great turnouts at the facility, as well.
Q. The off weekends, has there been any discussion looking in 2021 about leaving those as they are for possible rain date makeups or have a break that part of the season?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Really good question. It's somewhat new to us. We had all kinds of schedules. That got introduced fairly late in the game for us. We took a pause kind of thinking about it initially. I know there's some thought does it challenge momentum. At the end of the day we thought this was a good thing for the sport, especially around the Olympics. We'll see how that plays out.
If you talk to the industry, they'll say for the most part this is terrific, a nice break before we head into the Playoffs. We'll have to manage that with potential attendance and ratings and really take a hard look at it for 2021.
I can't say for sure. It's one of those unknowns until we see how it plays out.
Q. What was the reason for the push to do it now as opposed to waiting until next year when the track agreements have wrapped up?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think we've heard from a lot of the fans in terms of we want to see some changes. Obviously we're never going to please everyone. Half the fans will love it, half of them won't like it. We understand that.
But we also felt like it was time for a change and we could continue to wait, but I think the tracks were very willing to make a move. Our TV partners certainly helped push us along, as well. It was one of those things that the timing was right from an industry standpoint to try some things knowing that these may not be the be all, end all for 2021 and beyond. We could have some good learnings through 2020 and hopefully build on some of the things that we thought worked for the fans.
Q. Talking about the two off weekends, with NBC having other obligations, what were the options that you had? Had you said, Look, I realize you have something else going on, but it really doesn't work for us, what kind of options did you look at?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, no, we could certainly race. The difference would have been our race fans are very loud when they can't get their NASCAR on television. We potentially would have been looking at a CNBC or USA Network for races, which we're confident NBC would have done the best job. Is that really the best position for our sport to be in during that time of the year.
When we stepped back, we thought it wasn't. We also looked at it as an opportunity to showcase some of our other series in terms of standalone events, showcase some of our international platforms. It also gives us an opportunity to do some of the things we've wanted to do maybe in a December through February. This gives us some other options to take a look at some different races and showcase them.
Q. Did you have any deep conversations about midweek races when putting together the 2020 schedule?
STEVE O'DONNELL: We did have a lot of conversations about midweek races. The challenge there I think, as you know, our fans come from fairly long distances, a lot of them make a three‑day weekend out of it, a camping event, unlike some of the other sports. The idea of moving kind of an existing Saturday or Sunday race to a Wednesday became a real challenge for a racetrack.
As we look forward, I think you could look at the potential for maybe that doubleheader concept. Could you do a Wednesday‑Sunday at a market, a potential new market, I think became better options for us to look at as we look at 2021 and beyond.
Q. Are there any things in the 2020 schedule you really are looking at to see if it works to do more in 2021?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think the doubleheader certainly will be new, something unique to the sport. That's something we put on there for a reason, to take a look at it. That is a unique aspect of what we do. We just have one of those per year or something we want to build on. That's probably the biggest one we'll look at for 2020.
Q. Did NASCAR give any concession to Pocono as far as sanction fee or anything, have skin in the game as far as economics to get that done?
STEVE O'DONNELL: We're not going to talk about agreements between NASCAR and the racetracks other than to say they were a willing partner. On our end, we're going to over‑deliver in terms of that weekend as far as what we bring to the table, our television partners, give it the best chance to succeed. We think it will be a huge success, hopefully something we can build on.
Q. With the schedule coming out for the Cup Series, any timetable for the Xfinity/Truck schedules to come out?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, most of the work has been done there. We have one or two dates to wrap up. I don't want to get yelled at by Mike Ford here, but hoping in the next week or so to get both of those out.
Q. You mentioned how you had worked with NBC, ending the schedule on Veterans Day, working around the Olympics. Did FOX have any conditions or specific asks that you tried to accommodate as well?
STEVE O'DONNELL: Yeah, I should have said both television partners. A lot of the feedback we received from both of them in terms of wanting as many Sundays as we could on the FOX portion, so you see the Richmond race moved to Sunday. I think FOX really liked the move from Daytona to Vegas, which will be big in terms of two big markets going back‑to‑back from the West Coast.
Tried to accommodate the asks across all of our television partners, but also make sure they worked for the tracks, as well.
Q. How nervous are you and the gang going into 2020? How fluid will the 2021 schedule be based on what you see next year? The doubleheader is not till June. If it's successful or not successful, next year will we be having this conversation about the same timeframe or will it remain up in the air?
STEVE O'DONNELL: I think just in terms of the mood, if you asked everyone internally at NASCAR, we're really excited. First and foremost, we're all race fans. I think someone asked earlier why the changes in '20 versus waiting on '21. A lot of that is a product of Jim France, wanting to make some bold moves, wanting to make moves quickly, trying to answer some of the questions or some of the asks of the fans. We feel like we were able to do that.
A fair question on 2021. Some of the things may be unknowns. I don't want to put everything on 2021. This won't be we just pull different levers each year. This will be a gradual change. In my 25 years at NASCAR, this is the biggest change we've had in the schedule that I can remember. I think as you go, it's important to look at '21, '22, '23, what are different opportunities we want to take advantage of, then what are tracks and events that are really working for us.
We're confident in the partners we have now with our tracks. They did a lot to make this happen this year. I'm excited about everybody kind of rowing together and saying we're all in on this and we believe in it, really excited for the 2020 schedule.
MIKE FORD: Thank you to all the media that hopped on. Great turnout. A lot of excitement on our side as well. Hopefully you share that sentiment, and the fans do as well. Thank you again, as always, for your coverage.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports