An Interview with: Ben Kennedy
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for joining us today to discuss the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series schedules. We’re joined by Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of strategy and innovation.
Ben, to get us started, top line, some of the new highlights of the 2022 schedules, what people can expect next year.
BEN KENNEDY: Thank you. First and foremost, appreciate all of you taking your time. Again, really appreciate it. Great to see a good turnout today and appreciate you continuing to cover our sport even in the midst of everything going on in today’s world. Thank you guys for taking the time.
To your point, excited to announce Xfinity and Truck Series schedule today on the heels of the Cup schedule a couple weeks ago. I think another great process that we’ve had both internally at NASCAR as well as working alongside our broadcast partners, OEMs, teams, tracks, and a handful of other stakeholders to get to where we’re at today and release the schedule.
A few highlights I’d like to share with you. Starting on the Xfinity Series, obviously I think the big kind of storyline event that we’re adding to the ’22 schedule is the addition of Portland International Raceway to the schedule. 22 years it will be since we’ve been in the Pacific Northwest with NASCAR.
It’s been an important part of our country that we felt like is important for us to be in. We’ve seen a lot of growth from a fan perspective in the Pacific Northwest. It’s important for us to get back there and do it in a meaningful way with Green Savoree Production and the rest of the teams out there.
On the Truck Series schedule, an addition, one new event to the schedule, going from 22 to 23 events. A lot of this is really a product from both our fans wanted to see some more Camping World Truck Series content and action. I think our Truck Series racing puts on some of the best racing we see in our sport. It was important to keep it at a really good number.
On top of that, too, we had a lot of teams reach out to us looking for additional content and additional weekends that we could have Truck Series racing. Wanted to add that 23rd race to the Truck schedule.
We’ll also see a few new venues as a part of that, one of those being Mid-Ohio where we’ve seen great racing with the Xfinity Series over the past eight years. Excited to bring the Truck Series there for the very first time ever next year on the July 9th weekend.
We’ll see the Camping World Truck Series go to Sonoma, as well. This has really been in collaboration with SMI and Jill Gregory and the team out in Sonoma to bring additional content and national series racing to that weekend, really make it a special weekend for all the fans coming out to northern California, make it a special weekend for FOX, too.
Lastly on the new venue front, I think one our fans are really looking forward to and have been asking for, for a long time, is Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. An iconic short track. We’ve obviously been there in the past with the Xfinity Series and the Truck Series. Excited to go to the 3.7 mile short track.
It will be on IMS weekend, so we’ll be there on Friday night, Xfinity and Cup on the big track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Really excited to go there. First race of the Playoffs next year. I know it’s put on some great racing in the past, in 2011 and before that. But know the Truck Series will put on a great show there, as well.
Last but certainly not least, didn’t want to leave this one open-ended, but wanted to address Canadian Tire. Unfortunately won’t be going back there in the ’22 season. A big reason for that is because of the current COVID restrictions and a lot of the planning, logistics and lead time that are required for our teams and our industry to travel outside of the country. We felt like it was in our collective best interests to go ahead and not have Canadian Tire on the schedule.
That said we’ve got great partners with Miles, Ron, the entire team up in Canadian Tire. Look forward to continuing to have conversations with them about what the future may look like.
A lot to look forward to on the Xfinity and Truck schedule. Certainly a lot to look forward to on the Cup schedule as well. Looking forward to answering some of your questions and talking about this.
THE MODERATOR: Questions, please.
Can you talk about the characteristic of Xfinity and Truck? When you make plans for a schedule, how do you look at it differently than, say, Cup? For example, Portland, is it an area that you want to try, a test, or it’s not?
BEN KENNEDY: I think the neat thing about the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, to your point, it’s the ability to not only bring some great racing to a lot of our Cup Series weekends and create a lot of those companion events but have some standalone weekends, too.
Mid-Ohio, Knoxville, Lucas Oil are all great examples of that. I think it gives us the ability to go to some of these tracks we wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to. It also gives us an opportunity, to your point, to test out some of these markets as we look at future iterations of the schedule. Excited about a lot of these new ones that we’re introducing in ’22.
Obviously we’ll be getting a lot of data and fan feedback coming out of those events and continue to look towards what the future of the schedule looks like based on how they all go.
I understand what you were saying about Canada, the uncertainty there. Why not schedule it and then, if you have to change, change like you did this year? What precluded you from doing it that way?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it’s really some of the recent restrictions that went into place to get across the border. I think from a planning perspective, a lot of our teams like to get out front as soon as they can of these events. Canada takes an extra lead time. We felt like it was our collective kind of best decision to go ahead and not have Canadian Tire as a part of the schedule rather than waiting several months, seeing how restrictions play out, the number of unknowns around COVID, the current landscape of it and everything.
How did you decide upon Portland International Raceway as opposed to some other alternatives?
BEN KENNEDY: We had an opportunity to go out there, get a small group to go out to the Pacific Northwest over this summer. Looked at a number of different options.
I think both from the perspective of having a relationship with Green Savoree Productions and the Mid-Ohio space with the Xfinity Series, but also the opportunity to go out to a track that’s race-ready in 2022, has put on some great racing, if you look at the Camping World Truck Series back in the day. I think it will be a really good addition to the schedule.
We looked at a number of different options both in the Portland area and the Seattle area. Ultimately we narrowed it down to that. I think they’re in close proximity of each other.
Again, we’ve got a really growing fan base in that part of the country and we wanted to get there as soon as we can.
The Truck Series schedule overall, it seems to be a little bit more front loaded. Is that by design because of FOX Sports, it helps them out a little bit?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it is naturally how the schedule came into play. I think every now and then we’ll have a schedule that’s a little more back heavy, some years it will be a little more front heavy.
Naturally a lot of it is dependent on where are those new venues that we’re going to, what makes sense from a scheduling perspective. To your point, it is working with our broadcast partners, looking at different TV windows, where might make the most sense to schedule a lot of those races.
It seems we’re going in the direction or the trend seems to be hit a bunch of different markets rather than concentrate on going places twice, especially Michigan, Pocono, in the summer, it was one right on top of the other. One venue that keeps coming up is North Wilkesboro. If they get things back up to speed there, could we potentially be looking at returning to such an iconic track?
BEN KENNEDY: I think it’s a great question. I know there’s been a field of thoughts and questions around a handful of those historic venues.
What I will say is that’s something we’ll constantly continue to look at both in terms of does it make sense from a strategic point of view for the future of the schedule? Is it a market that we feel like is important to us and is not oversaturated? Is the facility in the condition that we feel like would put on a great race and be a great fan experience for our fans as well?
I think North Wilkesboro and a handful of other venues that have been mentioned are something that we continue to look at. Lucas Oil I will say is one that a lot of our fans have reached out to us over the past couple years, them really hoping to see that as a part of the future iteration of the Truck Series schedule. Excited to deliver that one.
Regarding Sonoma, was the reason is that the Cup rookies struggle there and also you’re adding another event for the Trucks? What was the reason for getting a race for the Trucks at Sonoma?
BEN KENNEDY: I think this is really working, again, with SMI and Jill Gregory. I think Sonoma is a great part of our country that we race in. Obviously a lot of corporate interests and opportunities to host them out there.
I think we have a ton of fans that come out to that race weekend, as well. We felt like it was important for us to add additional content onto that weekend. It’s a big weekend for FOX as they close out their portion of the Cup Series schedule. Wanted to add the Truck Series out there, as well.
I think you bring up a good point, that having more of these experiences on some of these road courses and venues that the Truck and Xfinity Series go to, especially with the Trucks and Xfinity Series really being the breath of the future generation of NASCAR drivers, I think it gives them the ability to get a lot of experience at these tracks before they go Cup racing.
A lot of factors certainly went into that decision, but excited to be going out there with the Trucks. I think it will be a great part of the schedule.
Folks in Indianapolis are excited to have Lucas Oil back on the schedule. There’s been clamoring about IRP getting back on the schedule for some time. Questions about infrastructure issues and so forth. What ultimately pushed you over the top and provided an agreement for ’22?
BEN KENNEDY: That’s a great question. I think to your point, Lucas Oil is something actually we’ve been looking at for a while now. Ultimately a lot of those conversations kind of came to a head over the summer. We felt like the timing made a lot of sense.
Obviously working with Doug Boles and the team out at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well to make sure from a scheduling perspective that it made sense and that we can create a really special week-long schedule of events for the fans that are coming out for racing at Indianapolis.
I think from a timing perspective really all the stars aligned between working with NHRA, IMS on the scheduling side, working with their broadcast partners in FOX, and ultimately making that happen.
Looking forward to it. I know working with the track they certainly want to continue to make enhancements to that track, make sure that it’s a Camping World Truck Series facility. I know that they’ll be ready come July next year.
Pretty significant changes in the Playoff schedule, Gateway, Darlington, Vegas and Martinsville are off, Lucas Oil, Richmond, Kansas and Miami on. You could look at some of those tracks and say they’re fairly easy to identify by one replacing the other. Your perspective on the significant changes in the Playoff structure there?
BEN KENNEDY: To your point, definitely some changes to the Playoff structure. Pocono will be the regular-season cutoff, then we’ll have Lucas Oil, Richmond, Kansas, Bristol, Talladega, Miami. Ultimately all three of our series will be at Phoenix for the championship finale, which will be fantastic.
I think ultimately a lot of that came down to the process of scheduling, obviously trying to make sure that the schedule makes sense from a team perspective, make sense from a broadcast perspective. But then also we have a lot of exciting tracks within our Playoff schedule, too.
I think having two short tracks with Lucas Oil and Richmond, along with a mile-and-a-half track, will bring some diversity to that first portion of the Playoffs. Then going from Bristol to Talladega to Miami, which always puts on a fantastic race, I think it will be a really great and interesting part of that next round of Playoffs before we go to the championship at Phoenix.
There seemed to be a lot of enjoyment with the Olympic break this year. Was there consideration given to the June 18th race at Knoxville not being held that weekend so the entire sport could have a week off?
BEN KENNEDY: Something we took a look at in scheduling that Knoxville race. Kind of the pieces of the puzzle fell together from a scheduling perspective, ultimately Knoxville did move up a couple weeks. Part of that was really making sure that from a time-of-year standpoint, especially with the weather and the sensitivity to track prep and the dirt, we looked at a handful of dates and ultimately ended up landing on June 18th. Hopefully we’ll put on a good show for the fans.
With Pocono having lost one of its Cup dates, talk about the importance of making sure they still had an Xfinity and a Truck Series race, the fact that Pocono. The Truck race is going to be the final race of the regular season, any kind of a consolation for them losing one of the Cup dates?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, Nick Igdalsky and the team up at Pocono, they continue to do a great job there. Even though they are going down to one Cup weekend, I know they want to make that weekend special. Coming out of this year’s event, I think a lot of positive buzz around that.
That said, they want to create, continue to create, an elevated experience for a lot of their fans with some great racing content throughout the weekend. It was important for us to get the Truck and Xfinity Series there.
I think on top of that, too, having that as a cutoff race to the regular season for the Truck Series, naturally how it fell, I think it will be an exciting race for us all to watch, too.
Nick and the entire Mattioli family, they continue to be great partners of ours. Looking forward to being with them long-term in the future.
Why did it take 20 years for you guys to come back to Portland? The last time the Truck races were at PIR was ’99 or 2000.
BEN KENNEDY: I think you’re right. ’99 and 2000 with the Truck Series.
I think we really started this scheduling journey and process with the NextGen schedule as part of the 2022 schedule. That was our biggest and boldest schedule in terms of new venues that we’ve had in over five decades of our sport. We saw a lot of those changes.
Pacific Northwest, especially when we started that process, is a part of the country where frankly we haven’t had any racing action at all, to your point, for over two decades. It felt like it was an important part of the country for us to get back to in some way, shape or form.
Ultimately Portland rose to the top in terms of options. Naturally from a timing perspective, 2022 made the most sense. I think kind of second year of our NextGen schedules, glad to have them on there.
I want to ask about Watkins Glen. You still want to return to those tracks you reintroduced in ’21. Got positive looks on the Truck side, but not on the schedule. Any considerations to return? What track is it being replaced specifically by?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, can’t really get into which track it’s specifically being replaced by just because there’s so many moving parts and pieces in the schedule.
I think Watkins Glen obviously is an important part of the schedule. It always puts on a great race with our Cup Series and Xfinity Series. I think one of the considerations we had there is we have a lot of great content on that weekend and didn’t want to oversaturate that weekend with a ton of content.
I think naturally with some of these new venues coming on to the schedule, ultimately the shifts kind of have to come from somewhere. Unfortunately for Watkins Glen, the Camping World Truck Series race did come from there. That said I know we’ll have some exciting racing with Xfinity and Cup there on that weekend, a packed schedule as always.
I’m from the Michigan area. Going into there, I know they lost a race last year in the ’21 schedule. How important is that area, the metro Detroit area, and are there talks about possibly moving the Cup weekend out of there? Reassure people around here that they will have it.
BEN KENNEDY: Michigan is always an important part of our country. The Midwest in particular is another really important part. I think part of that speaks to the reasoning for why we’re going to St. Louis and why we’re bringing the Trucks to Lucas Oil Raceway, as well.
That said, Michigan certainly falls into that territory. We feel like it’s important for us to continue to be there. We have a couple of our OEM partners that are just down the street in Detroit, as well. They certainly love coming out to Michigan.
I think frankly, if you look at the race this year, it put on a fantastic show for our fans as well. Really exciting from a racing product perspective and something that we’ll continue to look at in the future.
Going from Mid-Ohio hosting the Xfinity Series to the Trucks, why put the Trucks there over the Xfinity Series? Obviously Xfinity now going to Portland, but the Trucks going to Mid-Ohio.
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think it was kind of a win-win situation for us. Gave us the opportunity and ability to bring the Xfinity Series out to Portland. Frankly it was a natural shift having the same promoters with Kevin Savoree and the team there. Made that shift on the Xfinity side.
That said, we wanted to continue to have racing at Mid-Ohio, and in Ohio in particular. It’s put on some great racing action with the Xfinity Series over the past eight years. Wanted to continue to have a presence at Mid-Ohio with NASCAR racing. We felt like it made a lot of sense to bring the Truck Series there.
Can you give us any insight on how much practice and qualifying there will be for Xfinity and Trucks next year?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, nothing to share yet today. What we can say is there will be some sort of practice and qualifying next year. Still working on the details of what exactly that will look like for those series. We’ll share more at a later date.
At what point do you balance how good a product is at a certain market, perhaps not just the oversaturation of that market because you have to balance or juggle relationships with people, long relationships, but at some point different venues behave better, put on better shows. The decision for IRP, to go back to grassroots. Hell, I was at the first Truck race and it was quite a race at that track. Doesn’t that need to be some of the reason to do make these decisions moving forward?
BEN KENNEDY: It absolutely is. It’s a big part of the reason that we are going back to Lucas Oil Raceway next year. To your point, if you look at some of the old videos, the sizzle video that the track put out today, there was some exciting racing at Lucas Oil. It always put on a great show for our fans. Naturally having it on the same weekend as our racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway made a lot of sense, too.
With that said, the racing product is something that we continue to look at and will continue to look at in the future. That said, there are a handful of different kind of variables that go into each one of our decisions, whether it’s the market, the facility itself, to your point the racing product, the timing of year, and then just overall efficiency for the industry, too.
Certainly a handful of things that go into Xfinity or Truck Series scheduling. Even more so on the Cup side, too. But the racing product is certainly one of a handful of different considerations we take a look at on these new tracks and markets.
Does it seem to be moving up the list in priority? Seems like there’s a push from TV to prioritize the entertainment value.
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think that’s for sure. To that end you look at some of these racetracks we go to, and they have consistently a great racing product. You look at others, and sometimes you’ll have a fantastic race, sometimes you might have an average race.
That said, there’s a ton of variables to look at in terms of what qualifies as a good racer, but what fans view as a good race in their lens.
It’s something that we look at. To that end I will say it’s probably higher on the priority list. That said, there’s still a number of different things we definitely take a look at.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Ben. Appreciate everybody joining us for the call today to talk about the schedule. Some great stuff, great content to look forward to. Thanks to our media for joining. We’ll talk to you all soon.
BEN KENNEDY: Thank you, guys. Appreciate it.
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