NASCAR Media Conference
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
An Interview with: Ben Kennedy
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. Appreciate you jumping on the line today to discuss the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule. As you see, we’re joined today by Ben Kennedy, our senior vice president of strategy and innovation.
I’m just going to lob out a question, then we’ll get into the questions from everyone on the call.
Ben, talk about the process of coming up with the 2022 schedule, sort of how this all came to light, maybe what some of the key highlights are that we’ve all seen.
BEN KENNEDY: First and foremost, thank you for the time today and thank you for all that you guys do for our sport. Really appreciate you guys continuing to follow our sport.
A special day for us in NASCAR as we release the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule, which I would call the third evolution of the NextGen schedules that we’ve had. Saw some changes in 2020, new tracks added to the schedule in 2021. A lot of exciting announcements today as part of the 2022 schedule.
I think it is a testament to the entire industry coming together, obviously a collaboration with our broadcast partners, getting a lot of feedback from our teams and OEM partners, and from our fans as well to ultimately create what we think is the best Cup Series schedule that we’ve had so far.
A few changes that you will see in the schedule. One, which has already been announced, L.A. Coliseum, which we announced yesterday, last night, the Clash, which has historically been at Daytona on the oval, which moved to the road course this year. It will be moving to Los Angeles, our No. 1 market for NASCAR fans, No. 2 market for viewership, at an iconic and historic venue.
You think of the number of Olympics they’ve had there with two, a number of Super Bowls, Rams games, Chargers games, USC Trojans have played there since 1923. They are coming up on their hundredth year anniversary. We will be the first big event they will have there as part of that. Looking forward to that. Looking forward to seeing the Clash on February 6th next year.
I am also in St. Louis today. We also had the opportunity to announce that World Wide Technology Raceway will be joining the 2022 Cup Series schedule on June 5th next year. A testament to the job that Curtis and the entire team does out here.
We’ve seen some great racing with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for the past two decades. I think the Cup Series with the NextGen cars will not disappoint. We’ve got a ton of great fans in the St. Louis area, really looking forward to that.
Outside of that, a few additional changes to the schedule that we’ve made as well. Bristol dirt will be moving to Easter Sunday, on primetime. A decision that we made. I think in the spirit of this year’s event, we learned that it’s important for us to make sure that that dirt event is into the evening or under the lights. We were able to secure that prime time window on FOX that evening.
When you think about all the other sports leagues with NFL on Thanksgiving, NBA on Christmas, this is our opportunity to run on Easter Sunday and drive a lot of momentum for our fans that are watching at home through FOX’s season and NBC’s season from start to finish.
Outside of that, a small shake-up to the Playoff schedule that we’re going to have a few movements with Kansas, Las Vegas, Texas, and then introducing Homestead-Miami Speedway to the Playoff schedule. Something that we’ve heard from our fans for a while now is they love the racing action at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Of the mile-and-a-half tracks we go to, probably one of the better mile-and-a-half tracks we go to from a racing product.
Being that time of year in October, a lot of our fans love to vacation in South Florida. A lot of potential new fans are down there as well. I think a great opportunity to introduce that to the Playoff slate as well.
Finally we’ll have our championship at Phoenix again next year. Really looking forward to heading back out to the West Coast. Always puts on a great show, a great market for us.
A lot of big changes to the ’22 schedule. Looking forward to talking about it here.
Matt, I’ll flip it over to you if anyone has any questions.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, Ben.
We’ll open it up to media now.
When I talked to you way before the schedule was released, we talked about bold decisions. You promised bold. What do you think was the most bold decision or several of them that took the most conversation for you to make your mind up on?
BEN KENNEDY: I don’t know if it took the most conversation because it was a difficult decision, but I would say the L.A. Coliseum. It’s something we frankly have never done before in our sport’s history. We had Soldier Field back in 1956 as a statement event, but we’ve never actually constructed a temporary quarter-mile short track inside a stadium before.
I think a lot of internal conversations as you think about logistics, design development of the track, just what that event is truly going to be like. It’s been an opportunity for us to think differently about what that event is going to look like. A lot of good thoughts and feedback that we’ve received both internally and with our partners since the announcement yesterday.
I would say that’s probably been one of the biggest ones that we’ve been looking at.
I’d like to defer to a fan. He asks, why did they put the fall Kansas race on the Sunday afternoon on the first Sunday of the NFL season when they could have run it on the Saturday night and avoided the conflict, similar to what fall Richmond was this year?
BEN KENNEDY: I think on that one, we moved Kansas a little bit later in the Playoffs as a part of the new Playoff schedule that we had in 2020 and 2021. We felt like it was important to move Kansas a little bit earlier into the season to help from a weather standpoint.
To answer your question on Saturday night versus Sunday, I would say a lot of our fans, myself included, are accustomed to turning racing on, NASCAR racing in particular, on Sunday afternoon. I think we all have that habit. Certainly helped us kind of drive the decision to move that there.
For the last couple decades there’s been certain parts of the schedule that have been considered unmovable, whether it’s not racing on Mother’s Day, Easter, the July 4th Daytona tradition, starting the season at Daytona, even two races a year at Dover, Michigan. Those things have changed in a short amount of time. What is the thinking about now being the time to be flexible with that and say we don’t have to do that kind of thing?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it really speaks to a lot of the changes that we’ve made in the schedule, whether that’s the new venues that we go to, some of the reconfigurations that we’ve seen like the Indy road course or Bristol dirt, or to your point running on Mother’s Day and Easter weekend. I think it was part of us being bold and innovative with the schedule, but also being very measured, too.
A lot of these decisions that we’re making obviously come with a lot of consulting with our broadcast partners, getting feedback from the industry, and then doing a ton of research on our fans, our avid fans, casual fans, new fans for what they would like to see as far as racing goes and what time of year.
That ultimately led to the decision to move Darlington to Mother’s Day weekend, like we did this year in 2021. Then ultimately Bristol dirt to Easter Sunday.
There was some positive feedback this year about the two-week Olympic break. There’s only one off weekend for 2022. What has the feedback been from industry people to you about only having one off weekend throughout next year?
BEN KENNEDY: It’s something that we’re certainly looking at. It’s nice to have the two week off period with the Olympic break. I think it was a natural break for our season this year.
That said, if you look at our schedule kind of overall, starting on Presidents’ Day weekend as we traditionally have with the Daytona 500 and ending our season at Phoenix with the championship race, by the time you lay out the entire schedule, really ultimately it leads to only one off week if we’re running on Sundays and on weekends.
With that said, we felt like it was important, especially for our fans that are sitting at home watching the event or coming out to a race, to have a lot of momentum from the start of our season at Daytona, the Daytona 500, all the way to Sonoma where FOX will close their portion of the season, and then from Nashville Superspeedway where NBC picks us up all the way to the championship race at Phoenix. Wanted to drive a lot of momentum.
We know we only have one off week between FOX and NBC. Like I said, that will drive a lot of momentum for our sport and fans. Something we will continually look at as future iterations of the schedule where those off weeks are and where they’re located.
You kind of mentioned the fan perspective. A bit of a different reaction down here today. Fans unanimously are disappointed losing the Clash. What would you say to the fan who is saying this is kind of the start of our Speedweeks? What do you say to that fan that is pretty angry today that they’re losing a race down here?
BEN KENNEDY: The Daytona 500 has always been and will always be our biggest event of the season. Having that on Presidents’ Day weekend is the pinnacle of our season. Then you think about the other events that have led up to that weekend, to your point, one of them being the Clash.
The Duels, Truck, ARCA, Xfinity, a lot of exciting content that I think we’ve provided for the fans and something that we want to not only continue to deliver going forward but we want to continue to elevate moving forward, whether that’s from a fan experience standpoint, the amount of content that we have in and around Daytona, but always a critically important week to our part of the schedule, the most part of the week, and something that we’ll continue to look at going forward.
Is there a chance the Clash could return to Daytona in the future?
BEN KENNEDY: It’s something that we’ll continue to look at. I think we saw a good race on the road course this year. It was fun to shake it up and see some road course racing at Daytona and on Tuesday night leading into the 500.
That said, we made a pretty big shift in moving it over to Los Angeles and the Coliseum a week before the Super Bowl and two weeks before the Daytona 500. I think and hope that will drive even more momentum into the biggest event of our season, Daytona.
To answer your question, it will be something that we’ll continue to look at for sure.
It seems that we’re moving into more urban markets, so to speak, with L.A., Gateway, a five-minute drive to downtown St. Louis. Has there been a push to bring the product to the masses rather than waiting for the masses to come to us?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it’s a good question. To your point, exactly. I’m sitting in downtown St. Louis right now. I’m only a five-minute drive from World Wide Technology Raceway. I think to your point, it’s an opportunity to bring the racing action to our fans and to bring some new fans out to the track to sample our sport and sample the Cup Series that haven’t had the opportunity to do so before. I think that’s part of the calculus.
On top of that, as well, going to the Los Angeles market, we’re excited to be back out in Fontana Auto Club Speedway again in late February of next year, but also going to downtown Los Angeles, which is another five- to 10-minute drive from the Los Angeles Coliseum.
I think it brings an opportunity to really bring the racing action to the fans that are in these larger markets where you have a lot of fans and give them the opportunity to not only come out and experience the race but also come out for the first time to even see what it’s like.
Is it fair to say when you look at potential track owners, someone of the nature of Curtis Francois went over and beyond what he needed to do to prove where they were I guess deserving of getting a race date, whether it was what their community activity was, their philanthropic activity? Did that all play a role in Gateway securing a date for next year?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, it certainly did. Curtis has been a great partner of ours throughout the past several years with the Camping World Truck Series being in St. Louis. That was certainly a big part of the reason. His leadership, the entire World Wide Technology Raceway team. Then the amount of local and community involvement that is around that as well.
As I’ve said, this morning we had the mayor of St. Louis there, several different individuals and stakeholders from the Cardinals and Blues. A lot of local leaders, World Wide Technology. It’s great to see the local support and camaraderie around it. I think and know that the fans will come around it for sure in June next year.
Regarding Pocono, one notable change, first time it’s not going to have two dates since the early ’80s. What went into that for Pocono to lose a date?
BEN KENNEDY: I think on the Pocono front, similar to the rest of our schedule, we’re always looking at both our existing tracks and our new tracks. As we shifted over to St. Louis, ultimately those shifts come from somewhere. Last year Chicagoland and Kentucky came off the schedule.
What I will tell you is we do have great racing out in Pocono. The Mattioli and Nick Igdalsky, the entire family, have been great partners of us for several decades and they’ll continue to be partners of ours going into the future as well.
Want to continue that relationship, partnership. The Northeast is an important area for us to be in. Only a couple hours from another very large market in New York. Really important for us to continue to be there and continue to work with the team up there.
Was there any financial considerations given to Pocono or make good to ease the fact they’re losing a date, the income that comes from the TV side of things?
BEN KENNEDY: Can’t get into any of the details or share more on that. Again, what I can tell you is we have a great relationship with the Mattiolis and Nick Igdalsky and the entire team. Look forward to having them on the schedule in 2022.
The Clash going to Los Angeles, is this something that could start a bit of a trend of holding races, exhibition races, on ‘unconventional courses’ or do you plan to stick in L.A. for the long-term?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it’s a great question. It will be interesting to see not only the feedback coming out of the February event next year, but what that type of racing could look like in general.
If you overlay Bowman Gray Stadium on top of the track surface we have at the L.A. Coliseum, it’s almost identical. We’ve seen some great racing at Bowman Gray Stadium from a racing standpoint, the Coliseum will not disappoint.
I think to also answer your question, as we think about kind of new markets, in particular for some of our international series, I think it opens the door to explore new cities and new markets, emerging markets, that we haven’t been to before. Something that we’re definitely looking at.
I think part of the reasoning behind moving to the Coliseum with the multitude of others is really proof of concept: proof of concept for the track, the event, the format, the supporting events, all the things that really go around that weekend.
Another absence on this schedule is the Daytona road course. Could you envision NASCAR’s national series returning to Daytona’s road course or is that tabled for the time being?
BEN KENNEDY: For 2022 it is tabled. It is something that we’ll definitely take a look at. Again, I think there’s a ton of history on the road course at Daytona. When you think about the 24 Hours At Daytona, I had the opportunity to go there and always knew it was a really special event not only to IMSA but to the entire Daytona Beach and Florida area as well.
Something that we’ll definitely continue to take a look at as we think about future schedules, but know our fans love to see road course racing. It was neat to see them on the road course this year.
In regards to the Bristol dirt race being held on Easter Sunday, I know you mentioned Thanksgiving for the NFL, Christmas Day, but Easter, as you understand, is a rather solemn religious holiday. When you made the decision to put that race on Easter Sunday, was there any concern over people in the industry about going out and working on a day where a lot of people like to spend at church and with their families?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, we put a lot of consideration into that. I think to that end, having it later in the day, and on prime time on Sunday, we want to make sure that for fans, families, team members, drivers, that they have the opportunity to celebrate earlier on in the day. Then for fans that may be tuning in at night or coming out to the track that evening, the ability to come out there and continue to be together and watch NASCAR racing we felt like was important.
A big part of the calculus of that decision was making sure that that event was later on in the evening on that day.
In regards to Gateway gaining a date, Pocono losing a date, in terms of markets, is there any concern now that the Midwest getting another race makes that market over-served, and as a consequence the Northeast market becomes under-served?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it’s a great question. To your point, we saw a shift from Dover to Nashville Superspeedway, which is a big market for us. Now with the addition of World Wide Technology Raceway to the schedule, something that we’ve seen in particular in St. Louis, but the Midwest region as well. A lot of fans are based out of there. It’s growing, as well.
If you think about the number of local short tracks that we have and dirt tracks throughout the Midwest region, we have a ton of fans in this area and we feel like it was deserving of bringing another race here.
That said, the Northeast is still a critical place for us to be. We have a ton of fans, especially in that New York, New Jersey area, and as you think about New Hampshire, Pocono, Dover. It’s important that we continue to have a presence there and continue to race there because that is another critical part of the country.
Now that we’ve been through almost a full season with all the changes, COTA, the road courses, new venues, what has been the biggest takeaway or lessons learned and whether it was a benefit?
BEN KENNEDY: I think the biggest takeaway that we’ve seen is in particular with some of these new venues that we’ve introduced to the schedule, some of the changes in the schedule, is the amount of excitement and engagement we have for a lot of these new tracks.
Take Nashville Superspeedway as an example in the 2021 season. To have a sold-out crowd, so much energy around that event, I think it really speaks to the decisions that were made, again, how many fans we have in that Nashville area. Same thing goes for Road America, as an example. A ton of great fans out there.
I don’t know if it is eye-opening, but one of the neatest things to see is kind of the reception we’ve had from the fan base and from the industry for a lot of these changes we’ve made within the schedule.
Does that offer less risk? Are you more likely now to look toward changes that you did get some of that positive feedback?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think that’s fair. As we looked at the 2021 schedule, there’s a lot of tracks that we felt like were feasible but very strategic for us as we thought about that schedule.
As we looked to 2022, the L.A. Coliseum and a concept like that is a little bit out of the box for us. Again, we’ve never done anything like that before in our sport’s history. To be able to do that and pull something like that off I think will continue to give us options as we look forward into the future.
That said, we want to be very measured and calculated as we make a lot of these decisions. Again, a ton of data and insight that the scheduling team at NASCAR takes a look at to make sure we’re making decision that are in the best interest of the sport.
- A little bit more about Pocono. Did the decision have anything to do with the doubleheader weekend, maybe NASCAR wasn’t happy with it, didn’t go off as they expected maybe?
BEN KENNEDY: No, I don’t think so. We had the opportunity last year during the pandemic, seeing that we had to get all of our events in in a relatively short period of time, to test out midweek racing, to test out doubleheaders.
I think doubleheaders in general, not pointing to Pocono in particular, but doubleheaders in general, I think from a fan perspective our fans, again, are accustomed to tuning in on Sunday afternoon and seeing NASCAR Cup Series racing. For a fan going out there to the track, to have the biggest event of the weekend on that Sunday afternoon I think gives them something to look forward to and builds anticipation around the weekend.
Again, the Mattiolis and the entire family up there have been great partners. We look forward to continuing to have racing at Pocono Raceway.
I realize those schedules aren’t out yet, but is Pocono going to continue to have an Xfinity Series and Truck Series race?
BEN KENNEDY: We’ll share more on the Xfinity and Truck Series schedule in the next few weeks. We’re finalizing a few details on that as we speak. We’ll share more about what those weekend schedules look like.
You mentioned if you put Bowman Gray Stadium over the track that you’re going to race on in L.A., it’s virtually identical. If they’re identical, why not just take the Clash to Bowman Gray Stadium, a permanent track where you don’t have to build something temporarily?
BEN KENNEDY: That’s a great question. I think the biggest reasoning behind it is going to the Los Angeles market a week before the Super Bowl, two weeks before Daytona 500. If you look at the schedule today for that exhibition event, the only place we could realistically put it at was ahead of the Daytona 500 and ahead of our season given all the back-to-back racing, making sure we have that off week within the season.
I think on top of that, as I mentioned earlier, a huge market that we have in Los Angeles, No. 1 market for a number of NASCAR fans, No. 2 for viewership, and No. 1 for 18- to 34-year-olds.
We know we haven’t been running in L.A. for the past few years with the pandemic and everything going on, and we felt like it was important for us to get back to the Southern California market in a special way with the Coliseum and with the 25th anniversary out at Fontana, so…
When you look at Watkins Glen and Daytona, back-to-back weeks to conclude the regular season, what went into that decision to move Watkins Glen back a couple weeks?
BEN KENNEDY: It’s a good question. Glad you noticed that.
Something that we took a look at in particular was the end of the regular season with Richmond, Watkins Glen, leading into Daytona as our cutoff for the regular season. We felt like it was important to really have some of our exciting tracks lead into the end of our regular season.
Watkins Glen has been one of them. They always put on a great show at Watkins Glen. It’s always great being up in the New York area. Wanted to have that leading into Daytona. We know we moved it back a week or two for this year, but I think it will be a welcome part of the schedule.
We talk about saturation in the Midwest, maybe not so much in the Northeast now. There’s a lot of fans in the Pacific Northwest that have been clamoring for a race for a long time. Have you internalized conversations about going there?
BEN KENNEDY: Thanks for the question.
I think the Northeast, again, huge market for us. We talk about L.A. being the No. 1 market. That New York area is the No. 2 market that we have in the United States. It’s an important market for us. It’s important that we be there, too. It’s something that we’ve always been taking a look at, as well.
Nothing to announce on the ’22 schedule. As we look forwards to future schedules, that will be an important area that we take a look at.
A very broad question. Historically NASCAR’s history has been ovals. There’s a lot of diversity in this schedule, a little bit of everything featuring a car inspired by road racing. Broadly, what would you tell fans NASCAR’s identity is moving forward with NextGen with this car and this schedule?
BEN KENNEDY: First and foremost, the NextGen car is not only going to bring a lot of relevance back to our vehicles, but it’s also going to create what I think is going to be the best racing product we’ll have in our sport’s history.
The cars look fantastic. In seeing some of the data and research they’ve done, the racing product will be better than ever.
I think as it speaks to the schedule, and we have several charts that we look at of the evolution of where we were in 2020, the mixture of intermediates, road courses, superspeedways, to where we’re at today, the dirt race on the schedule. You have a handful of superspeedways, you have a handful of intermediates, a handful of short tracks, a little bit of everything.
I think with that diversity in the schedule, it really means that whoever’s going to be that regular-season champion, ultimately the NASCAR Cup Series champion, is the best driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, and I would say probably one of the best drivers in the world, too.
THE MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, everybody. That’s all the time we have.
Ben, really appreciate your time. I know you put a lot of hard work in on that schedule. Congratulations on this 2022 version. Media, appreciate you joining us. Thanks for all your hard work as well and your continued coverage of the sport. We will see you in Bristol.
BEN KENNEDY: Thank you.
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