An Interview with NASCAR President Mike Helton
I'll turn it over to Mike Helton.
MIKE HELTON: Thank you.
I want to make sure that it doesn't get lost in all this talk about traffic. We were very pleased and excited about the overall support that fans showed the inaugural Sprint Cup race in Kentucky last week. It was impressive. Don't want that to get overshadowed.
We wanted to address this topic early today and assure folks that as we go through the balance of the season, particularly starting with this weekend in New Hampshire, that this topic doesn't get lost in the shuffle.
We take what happened last weekend very seriously. Immediately conversations opened up between NASCAR, the track, Speedway Motorsports, from the highest of levels on the NASCAR side and the highest of levels on Speedway Motorsports side, Jim France, Brian France, Lesa Kennedy, Bruton Smith, Marcus, everybody is engaged in this topic. The intent is to find out exactly what happened so that a cure or fix can be determined. We will not rest until we have figured that out.
As you know, we're in that time of year when we are working on the next season's calendar, so the timing of this is very important. It was very unfortunate that it happened. We're sorry for the fans that were touched by that unfortunate episode. We will not let this fall to the wayside until we get resolution to it.
So with that, we'll open it up for questions.
Q. What role does NASCAR play in making sure everything is okay at a track? Did you see this coming at all?
MIKE HELTON: Well, NASCAR is unique to other sports in that the NASCAR model works by the independent relationships between NASCAR as a sanctioning body, the tracks as the hosts of the events, and the teams and drivers being the competitors. We all work together to put the events and the season on. There's responsibility in each group's world that needs to happen correctly to make the events go smoothly.
In advance of the inaugural Sprint Cup race in Kentucky, there were a lot of meetings at the racetrack, inside the organizations, but even with the racetrack and with NASCAR in preparation for the inaugural Sprint Cup race.
I'll remind everybody that NASCAR had been racing at Kentucky Speedway for several years with Nationwide and Truck, so it's not like a brand-new construction or a brand-new location in general, but it was the inaugural Sprint Cup race, which in some regards takes it to a different level. There were a lot of planning meetings, a lot of sessions that took place. Our role in those is to have dialogue and have some types of assurances that the promoters of the event are experienced and are on the right track.
When Speedway Motorsports bought Kentucky Speedway, obviously that facility inherited a lot of experience. Speedway Motorsports has a lot of experience promoting races and has shown over the history that they have the ability to host Cup races. The planning for this inaugural event there tracked true to the course.
What was happening was a lot of construction, a lot of new work, some of which took place after the ownership change before we went back for Nationwide and Truck races last year. But a lot happened between last races and this inaugural race for the Sprint Cup. We tracked those along the way.
That kind of is a reliance by the NASCAR community on the promoter to host the events. There was a lot of planning that was exhibited to us and to fans. I know on one trip up there myself, in the lobby of the office complex, there was material there that showed very well thought out, very nice, presentable piece, full color page of the traffic ingress, and then there was another page of traffic egress that was, according to the track folks, being mailed to the ticket buyers and was available to everybody to pick up.
I think part of what we want to know now is, was that plan followed correctly or what might have interfered with the preparation that went into the event that caused what happened.
Q. You mentioned that you had seen the traffic plan that was available. What about the parking situation there? Any early indications that that might have been the primary culprit? Any theories of what might have been the main cause of what happened?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I don't want to jump ahead of us finding out the facts and speculate. What we do know, and I think it was obvious to everybody, there was a lot of work done at the racetrack prior to the Cup race moving in last weekend, not just on the racing surface, but in the parking lots. There was a lot of earth being moved out there in preparation to accommodate the Sprint Cup weekend.
How all that came together last Friday and Saturday is what we have an interest in finding out.
Q. You talk about this as the time where you're talking about sanctions for next year. Are you confident that Kentucky will have a Cup race next year or is that in question?
MIKE HELTON: I don't want to speculate on that type of thing. I can't help but think, you look at the history of our sport, we've had issues that happen, and we generally figure out how to work through them. I think what we're after right now is to figure out what happened in Sparta and figure out what the cure is for it. Outside of that, I don't have an opinion at this point. But we're working toward a resolution.
Q. Mike, several people have proffered explanations or comparisons, talking about the first race at Texas and so forth. Is it fair to say that what transpired at Kentucky last weekend went beyond opening-night snafus? Was it a bigger deal than something related to somebody's first event? Seemed a little bit more widespread.
MIKE HELTON: Well, I try not to offer opinions or speculate. There's two things. One is we have had inaugural occurrences, like Texas and Vegas and others, that I wouldn't define as acceptable, but we have had them as experience. The other point is that this was not our first race at Kentucky Speedway. We have had several years of Nationwide and Truck races there. I grant you the physical layout of the surrounding area outside the racetrack was under significant changes.
So what I think we have an interest in is in finding out exactly what happened Saturday night, did all those changes contribute to that and did it really maybe compound the situation. Was there overconfidence from the fact they had raced there for 10 years and not taken in full consideration of the physical changes that were taking place. Those are the kind of questions we'll have to get to the bottom of to figure out the solution.
Q. At the halfway point in the season, could you talk about competition, and with respect to your decision to go to the wild card this year, how happy you are with that decision.
MIKE HELTON: I think we like what we see. I think we like the energy or emphasis around what the wild card has placed on winning, and the caveat that winning races may apply when it gets closer to setting the Chase because of the wild card factor. I think that's all developing into an interesting story.
Q. This is about fan expectations and experience. It's not analogous to Indy's tire issues. But when fans get disappointed, we've seen a drop-off of attendance at Indy that may or may not be related to the tire issues of a couple years back. How much influence does NASCAR have on the tracks to make sure the fans are satisfied, whether it be a refund, other tickets, to make sure the fans keep coming back?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I think we all - when I say 'we all' I'm talking about NASCAR, teams, tracks - we all work together in a unified goal of delivering a very appealing product for fans. On occasion you have interruptions to that. I think the interruptions are all unique as to what impact they may have. But I know that we all work on a common goal of making the experience for race fans and the appealing part of what we do for race fans paramount. Along the way, we have hiccups. But then we need to collectively get together and figure it out so we can press on.
Q. This is a political issue in Kentucky, too. Have you talked to the governor or politicians? It's a black eye on Kentucky as well as NASCAR.
MIKE HELTON: I've not had any conversations with any public officials since the Saturday afternoon.
Q. Mike, here in the coming days there are a couple drivers who are going to be in court, Kyle Busch over a speeding situation, and Mike Annett over his situation in February. I know with Kyle NASCAR didn't do anything, and with Mike you set him on probation, have him evaluated by a certified substance abuse professional. Based on what happens when those cases are closed, would NASCAR look at any additional penalties or does NASCAR see these cases closed in its mind?
MIKE HELTON: I would say that we'll have to watch and see how things unfold and see if it does translate into what we do. But I'd also remind everybody, I think it's important for NASCAR to recognize its authority as a sports sanctioning body. We're not a local or state vehicular regulatory body. We're a sports league sanctioning body. Now, I'm not saying that those two wouldn't ever overlap. But I think what we try to do is be very respectful of the fact that our realm is regulating - our realm of responsibility - NASCAR as a sport and letting the proper jurisdictions regulate everything outside the sport.
On occasion they overlap, but it's rare. On occasion they could overlap, and that's when we would have to consider what we have to do.
Q. The NFL certainly has done some things like that where they've taken a look at off-field penalties and penalized guys. Because it's a contractor situation, does that make it different for NASCAR? The NFL started to do this. Why doesn't NASCAR step in a little bit more on stuff like that? Does that make sense?
MIKE HELTON: I think so. Let me see if this answers that. I think every sporting body from amateur, professional, Olympics, whatever, has to look at its own set of circumstances, its own particulars, and react accordingly. There is a difference between us and football, basketball and baseball where the league and the participants in the league are closely knitted together with different contractual relationship. Our stakeholders are very independent. That has to be considered in the final decision.
I think each league has to look at its actions and its reactions and try to decide which ones are the most proper ones to take.
Q. Back to Kentucky for a second. Obviously the problems with the traffic and parking. What kind of public transportation options were there? What do you think might be the future of public transportation for that venue?
MIKE HELTON: I couldn't sit here and tell you today exactly what was available for that venue. I think some of that will come out as we ask questions of the facility. As to what might be available going forward, our reliance is on the track to figure those things out because they're the host of the event. If that's part of the answer, then I suspect that we'll figure that out. But I couldn't sit here today and tell you what was available or what might be available.
Q. You have one other event at Kentucky coming up later this fall along with the Truck race with the IndyCar. Will you be paying any attention? Are there things you think they may implement or test perhaps that weekend that you'll be keeping an eye on?
MIKE HELTON: I think it's a good opportunity to try stuff.
Q. Curious how you feel like the 'boys have at it' policy has been going the first half of the season. Seemed after the Harvick-Busch episode there are lots of drivers with questions about what's okay and what's not. I was curious if you clarified a lot of that with the drivers and how you think the policy is going in general.
MIKE HELTON: I think the policy is being probably defined every time something happens and the community sees our reaction to it. So it's a never-ending process of defining what all that means. I think the intent a couple years ago, actually three years ago, was to tell the competitors we were going to give back more of what they do, particularly on the racetrack, back in their hands, with limits obviously to it. I think a lot of that comes from us doing our own internal look and maybe feeling like we were too regulatory on some areas. We still have a responsibility to maintain law and order, and we take that very seriously.
In the meantime, I think what's happened over the course of the last couple years is every time something happens and we react to it, the defines a little bit more what we meant by them having more responsibility. That will go on.
The other thing I'd like to mention is over the course of the history of NASCAR we've seen cycles of almost every type of topic you can imagine. But when it comes to the conflicts on the racetrack, every weekend there's 42 guys that want to beat the other 42 guys. So that's an inherent rivalry in our sport.
When it becomes maybe more personal between a couple of them, we watch that and we let it play itself out. We don't necessarily encourage it. What we do encourage is them being racecar drivers on the racetrack and not worrying about looking over their shoulder at us.
That's the environment that I think we were after when we talked about this. I think that's the environment we've got right now.
Q. To what extent does NASCAR try to regulate rivalries in this sport? You've seen things spill over from the track into the garage area. To what extent do you feel that needs regulation?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I think our actions answer that question when something goes beyond what happens on a racetrack, whether it's on pit road or in a garage area. Then our reactions to those I think speak for themselves. Again, I reiterate that what we're after is to encourage the drivers to be drivers on the racetrack and let their own character prevail, while at the same time understanding our responsibility to maintain a reasonable law and order in the environment around the racetrack. I think our actions kind of answer that, I hope.
Q. There's been some sense among the national media and fans that NASCAR is picking up steam in ratings. How much does the glitch at Kentucky affect that just when everything was starting to roll in a positive direction? How much impact do you think it will have?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I'd like to think that we overcome the glitch in Kentucky and that what happened on the racetrack in Kentucky, the teams and the drivers delivered on their end, and they will this weekend. So we go on. We certainly take what happened on the highways trying to get into Kentucky as a very serious issue that we intend to correct. But I think what's happening on the racetrack helps us maintain that momentum that you speak of.
THE MODERATOR: Mike, thank you very much for your time today.
MIKE HELTON: Thank you.