AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR president Steve Phelps addressed several topics — including the sport’s COVID-19 vaccination rate, schedule changes and the origins of “Let’s go, Brandon” — Friday at Phoenix Raceway during his annual state of the sport press conference.
The one-mile track is hosting NASCAR’s championship weekend for the second consecutive year, with the Truck Series race Friday, the Xfinity Series race Saturday and culminating in the Cup Series’ finale on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC).
Originating in NASCAR last month, the phrase “Let’s go, Brandon” quickly became code around the country for “[Expletive] Joe Biden.” And NASCAR president Steve Phelps isn’t thrilled about it, calling it an “unfortunate situation.”
At Talladega Superspeedway in early October, driver Brandon Brown won his first Xfinity Series race. During his on-track interview immediately afterward, the crowd in the grandstands was chanting. Although NBC Sports initially said the fans were chanting, “Let’s go, Brandon!” it was explicitly clear they were actually chanting, “[Expletive] Joe Biden!”
“I feel for Brandon,” Phelps said. “I think unfortunately it speaks to the state of where we are as a country. … Do we like the fact that it kind of started with NASCAR and then is gaining ground elsewhere? No, we’re not happy about that. But we will continue to make sure that we have respect for the office of the president.”
Here are five other key takeaways from Phelps’ press conference:
“Open to rotation”
From 2002 to 2019, Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted NASCAR’s championship weekend. But in 2020, the season finale moved to Phoenix Raceway, which is also playing host this weekend and in 2022, intensifying discussions among drivers about where the title race should be held.
“The move from Miami to here was an important one after 20 years, and I think thus far, it’s worked out very well,” Phelps said.
“The community here has embraced us. I think you see that. The question to me is really more about the competition, right? So we’ve been embraced by this community. Would we be embraced by other communities? I suggest we probably would be.”
Some drivers — including Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick — would prefer the championship weekend to rotate around different markets in the country, not only to switch things up but also to expose different fans to NASCAR. They suggest not necessarily moving the finale every year but maybe every few.
“We’d be open to rotation,” Phelps continued. “I would say that every single option out there, we look at. And I think you’ve seen that over the last 18 months, that we are going to not be afraid to maximize the opportunity to create the best racing that we can, in the best market we can and at the best race tracks that we can.”
NASCAR’s COVID-19 vaccination rate “not high enough”
While NASCAR has encouraged its drivers to get the COVID-19 vaccination, it’s not required to compete. When Phelps was asked about the sport’s vaccination rate, he didn’t provide specific numbers, but he said “it’s not high enough.”
Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace, William Byron and Tyler Reddick are the only top-tier drivers to publicly confirm they’ve been vaccinated, per NBC Sports.
“We have seen a significant increase from where we were in the spring [in] the garage,” Phelps said. “And I think, to me, there’s a responsibility that individuals have to each other. That’s my opinion. Do I think the vaccination rate is going to climb significantly from here? I don’t know. But I do think it’s important.
“As I said, I think there’s a responsibility that we each have to each other to make sure we’re staying safe. If you are someone who doesn’t believe in vaccinations, then making sure that you’re masked and socially distanced, and making sure you’re taking the precautions necessary in order to have people stay safe is our responsibility.”
“Calculated risks” with NASCAR’s schedule
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule got a huge facelift compared with previous seasons, and some of the biggest changes included more road courses, new tracks, like Nashville Superspeedway, and the conversion of Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track for the spring race.
“Schedule variation is critical for the success of this sport,” Phelps said. “I think you saw really strong results from schedule variation, whether you’re talking about COTA, you’re talking about Road America, you’re talking about even format changes like Bristol dirt, right, which might as well have been a new venue.”
Phelps described this season’s changes as the “most aggressive schedule we’ve had in 50 years,” adding he thought it was an overall success.
There are more updates to come in 2022, like the addition of World Wide Technology Raceway and The Clash, a preseason exhibition race, moving from Daytona International Speedway to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“Going to the L.A. Coliseum to kick off our debut with our Next Gen car as a proof point, frankly, to we’re going to be bold in what we’re doing — whether it’s the schedule or the car, all of it,” Phelps said. “We’re going to take calculated risks. …
“I don’t know what the ’23 schedule is going to look like, but I know it’s not going to look like the ’22 schedule.”
Sponsors in NASCAR embroiled in sexual assault scandals
Among the many sponsors involved in NASCAR, two have recently been embroiled in sexual assault allegations and scandals: Liberty University and Barstool Sports.
In October, ProPublica published an in-depth story about Liberty discouraging students from reporting sexual assault and silencing them when they did, along with the lawsuits stemming from that. The school is a sponsor of William Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet, and 10 days before the ProPublica story dropped, Hendrick Motorsports announced a five-year extension for the partnership through 2026.
“They’re great people up there. They’ll get it worked out,” team owner Rick Hendrick said Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.
“I don’t know a lot about that situation,” Phelps said when For The Win asked how teams and tracks should respond when sponsors are involved with sexual assault scandals. “And where that goes in the future and what happens because of the allegations, I think that would probably determine where [the sponsorship] actually ends up, versus where things are from an allegation standpoint.”
Similarly, Phelps danced around saying anything definitive when speaking about Barstool Sports, which Penn National Gaming bought in 2020. Although NASCAR said its media and marketing relationship with Barstool ended in October 2020, Penn National’s Barstool Sportsbook is the exclusive sportsbook of Phoenix Raceway, a track owned by NASCAR.
“The Barstool relationship, and sports betting specifically, is an important part of where I think all sports are going, including ours,” Phelps said. “But, again, I think where Penn is in the relationship with Barstool, because they own them, that will be their decision about what they do.”
When pressed to speak more generally about what he believes NASCAR, its teams and tracks should do when sexual violence allegations involve a sponsor, Phelps said: “We need to be very thoughtful about what we do because we want to represent what’s best of this sport. And if there are things that drag it down or that negatively associate with our sport, it’s not something we’d be interested in.”
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NASCAR “in discussions” for docuseries
The success of Netflix’s documentary series “Drive to Survive” has led to a spike in Formula 1’s popularity in the United States. NASCAR announced in July plans for its own docuseries, “Race for the Championship” — which some fans hope will be similar to Drive to Survive.
Part of the motivation behind this project, Phelps said, is “to showcase our sport in a different way to a different audience.”
Asked about the status of that project with USA Network — which will replace NBC Sports Network for NASCAR broadcasts in 2022 — Phelps said NASCAR is “in discussions” with NBC, and “things look very positive.”
“If we’re able to get a few contracts signed in the next couple weeks, they will begin production in December,” Phelps said. “They will be at the L.A. Coliseum, and there’s a decent possibility that they will not just look at us as a segmented period of time like they were going to do in the playoffs, but they’ll extend it to the broader part of or potentially even the entire season.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASCAR president addresses 2022 schedule, COVID vaccines, sponsorships