Transcript: 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Preseason Thunder Testing at Daytona
January 21, 2011
An Interview With
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome here to the media center at Daytona International Speedway. We're excited about the 53th running of the Daytona 500, and joining us here today we have NASCAR President Mike Helton, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Managing Director of Competition John Darby, and NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.
I appreciate your attendance today. At this time I'll call on Mike, he has a few comments, and then we'll open it up for questions.
MIKE HELTON: Just very quickly, welcome to 2011 and welcome to Daytona. After our 2010 season and the conclusion and the competition that took place on the racetrack, we've got a lot of hope and excitement going into 2011, and we're very excited about the confidence level and the enthusiasm that I think the drivers have got right now about being eager and anxious to get back to what they were doing.
And you couple that with what we saw on the racetracks last year and the conclusion of the season, and we feel very good about the start of 2011 here at Daytona for the Daytona 500 and all of Speedweeks with all of our national series.
So we're eager to get going, I guess I could say in just a few words.
You know, there's headlines and topics and things that I suspect we'll go over as many of them as we can today. We'll answer them as precisely as we can and be open and candid about ones that we may not have final answers on.
Obviously we're in the middle of a lot of stakeholder meetings, the most obvious ones are the ones with the team owners and the drivers, and during the off-season and as the season progresses and we make a list of things and have conversations about topics that we may look at making changes to, the off-season gives us an opportunity to focus specifically on those, and after the holidays we can get busy talking to the proper stakeholders and go over in some cases our conclusion, our decision, and in some cases it's a function of a collaborative effort with the racetracks and particularly with the drivers and the owners and coming up with some finality to our process.
So we're in the middle of that, and it should be wrapped up by next week, and we'll be eager to get the season going.
Having said that, the one topic I think that has enough finality to it to go ahead and put it out on the table, and I'm sure there will be questions about it, but it is the fact is -- the fact is the 2011 driver applications went out in the mail to the drivers. It had in it a paragraph and a point where you would declare which national series you would collect points -- championship points in as a driver, and you could only pick one of those.
And so we can get into more answers around the questions you may have about that, but that is one topic I think that's out there that'll probably be safe to say will be talked about a little bit today.
But having said that, again, I want to thank you and welcome you to Daytona. This is the 53rd annual Daytona 500, but after 30-some years in this business, I still get excited to pull inside this tunnel, and walking through the garage area and even talking to the guys in the meetings, the owners and the drivers in particular and, quite frankly, a group of drivers that represent NASCAR's future, there's still a high level of energy and enthusiasm to get the season started but more importantly to do it in Daytona in the Speedweeks environment.
The surface this year I think adds some mystique to that in some ways, but adds a lot of other levels of energy to it, as well.
With that, are we ready?
Q: Whoever it's most appropriate for, John, could you address the transition process, the next step in your career and where that whole new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director position is at, please?
JOHN DARBY: Yeah, I think so. Our plans haven't changed, although we've been so busy, especially in working on last season, the development of the car, the change-over from wings to spoilers, the new nose, everything that's new, and you see for this year as well as working real hard on just our base competition not only in the Cup Series but all three national series, it was more of a priority shift, I guess.
The plan for movement is still alive and well. I think we're still actively seeking a replacement as a Cup director to which will ultimately allow me to move to my new position.
But for the meantime right now we've just kind of folded that all into one. Racing is what we do, and the priority became to manage the Cup Series and do what we could for the '10 season, and we did that and will continue to do that until the timing is right.
I think even last January on the initial announcement of the promotion we were quick and repeatedly said that the timeline wasn't as important as finding the right person and making that transition smoothly. I'm still happy doing what I'm doing, and I'll be happy to do the next step.
MIKE HELTON: The only thing I'd add to that quickly is John was spot on on everything he said, and fortunately for NASCAR, there's not a hole or a void, so there's not an emergency-type situation. It was our desire this time last year to be much further along than we were in that process of succession, but we do enjoy the benefit of a lot of great talent in our sport that can move around and do things.
And John, we've probably -- as John said, we focused more on the urgent issues than maybe we should have focused on searching for the Cup Series director. But that is ongoing. It is high on our list to accomplish sooner than later.
Q: My question involves selecting which series you're going to compete for the championship in. Nationwide, the title sponsor of that series, expressed a preference for some sort of sunset provision that would have allowed perhaps Carl and Brad to compete for the title this year. Was that considered, and why ultimately was that not incorporated in the change?
MIKE HELTON: It was considered, and Nationwide had expressed that to us as well as some of the drivers, that particularly Carl and Brad had expressed, okay, can you just give me one more year. We stuck to the decision once we made it that there -- and felt like it was better for everybody concerned, the whole industry, to go ahead and draw the line and not have any lingering effects to it. And we've done that with other decisions we've made. We've also made advanced decisions and put a timeline out there to reach.
But on this particular one, and we've been talking about this topic for a few seasons, that we decided that it's in the best interest for the industry, even though there were some that get caught up in it, but it's the best overall decision to go ahead and make that call and go ahead and draw the line and say, no, it starts and stops right here.
Q: Can you give us an update on where you stand with Rookies of the Year? Yesterday the Wood Brothers announced that Trevor Bayne would be running somewhere 17 races or so. Will that make him eligible for that program this season?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: You know, as we continue our talks with all the teams and the stakeholders, picking a series has been one of the topics, we know that we'll have to make some adjustments to the Rookie of the Year and their eligibility. We're talking to some of the parties that that directly affects, and I believe that we'll make some adjustments to that that won't hurt a rookie coming forward that wants to move up into the Cup Series and run for Rookie of the Year.
But we're in the middle of the talks for that.
Q: There's been a lot of talk about a potential change for the points system, and even if you are not at the stage of announcing that today, the 1 to 43 points have been discussed a lot. And I wonder if you can talk about, even if you can't announce it today, what merit something like that would have, put some perspective on that thought, perhaps, and change or no change; how much really changing things big-time would shake the fans up or not?
MIKE HELTON: In regards to the points, I think where we're at today is, again, we're in the middle of the conversations, actually telling the competitors where our mind is. And the goal was and has been for several years, but the goal is to have a more simple points system. If you look at all of motorsports and even or sports, as well, it sometimes is complicated. Even for us we have to occasionally go to the rule book and look at what position got what points.
So the goal for some time has been to create a points system that is easy to understand, easy to explain, easy to be talked about, but also be credible at the end of the season. And so it's a function of taking the current one that establishes the criteria for the credibility because of its length of time we've used it more than anything and come up with one that you can set and have a conversation with someone and say, well, what do you think about this, and they sit there and say, well, that's pretty simple.
The main goal is to get one that's just easier to understand and simpler, but you have to do that with credibility around the championship.
And we're close to -- and we're getting a lot of great input from the drivers about the tweaks that would go along with something like that, so it's actually been fun to work on.
Q: Obviously for years there's been talk about Cup drivers and the Nationwide series. Why did you choose this rule over others, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
MIKE HELTON: Well, the most important element was for NASCAR to maintain its open policy for anybody that wants to compete and has the credentials to compete can compete in any series that they want to compete in. We don't restrict a Cup driver from participating in another form of racing, including other forms of NASCAR racing. And so we -- the desire was to protect that. But at the same time there's also a desire for the Truck Series, the Nationwide Series to have a more specific identity of its own and not be confused with the Cup Series or vice versa.
But the strength of all three national series now at different levels gives us the option to look at new programs, and this is the one that we landed on. And the hope for this is that in the Truck Series when you have Cup drivers participating in it, which we still will, and the Nationwide Series when you have Cup drivers participating in it, which we hope and we think still will, there is a level of focus and a level of exposure offered to younger drivers who have personalities that deserve to get attention and be developed along the way, as well.
Q: Mike, at the end of last season Brian was talking about how he wanted to put more emphasis on winning than ever. It seems like with this proposed point change it goes back to putting it more on consistency. Can you explain what led you to the system you're looking at right now and what are going to be the advantages of this beyond being simple?
MIKE HELTON: Well, our goal was to make it simple, so we start there. We feel like we have a model or actually several that accomplish that. But we get to the one that makes it simple.
We can continue enhancing the attention to and the appetite to win with bonus points and how we apply those to a basic simple structure to start with. You can also do things with the events themselves, the field that goes into the Chase, the Chase events to continue to encourage and put a high appetite on winning races. But the points models start off with a simple system, but we can accomplish the attention to winning with bonus points and other pieces.
Q: I understand that NASCAR has a very short off-season to make these decisions, and I don't know if this analogy really fits here, but baseball, for example, you don't go to preseason and not know if you're going to use the DH this year. Is there any risk of NASCAR's credibility being compromised or questioned because you're so close to the start of the season and the teams and the drivers don't know yet what the rules are going to be?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I think we have a better understanding than what the rules are going to be than maybe the general public does to start with because we've been having conversations with drivers and car owners since last summer about some of the changes that we're getting very close to and that you're hearing about in our conversations.
And I think the credibility of our final decision is actually better because of the collaborative effort that we put into it today as opposed to what might have happened in the past to get to the final decision so that when the final decision is confirmed and NASCAR, who's the governing body and responsible for making the final decisions, right, wrong or indifferent, our appetite and our desire is to do it correctly and have one that makes sense and not one just for the sake of changing things.
So we've spent a good deal of time having conversations, and I actually think that helps our credibility particularly in the garage area. And if you have it there, then that transfers out a lot quicker, a lot better.
And so the -- but the other piece of the -- the start off of your question that I would remind everybody is that one of the things unique to NASCAR is that we've got 45 or 46 independent teams out here. We've got a host of independent track operators. Where the other leagues have -- they can get everybody together because the league owns the sport, and they all make decisions collectively together.
We're a little more unique. We've got independent stakeholders, and I think in us wanting to do our job right and be good stewards of the sport and make good decisions for the entire industry, it takes us longer to go through the system and weigh out the balances between a conversation with it might be a series sponsor or it might be a group -- it might be the racetracks, the promoters, or it might be the broadcast partners, and certainly it's important to be hooked closely with the owners and the drivers because they're the ones that -- the other part of the delivery of our races on racetracks. So it takes us more time.
Our system is just different, I think. The most important part is that it ultimately works and has credibility. And I believe the way we do it now, the last two or three seasons, is more credible than us making a decision telling the drivers before we walk in here and announce it and say here's what we're going to do, and they have no opportunity to ask us why we did it or any input in it.
I think today's system works much better for everybody.
Q: Is there enough time for the fans to digest it? @!MIKE HELTON: Well, as an older guy in this business, things move a whole lot quicker than they used to, and I think everybody's habits are a lot different than they might have been ten years ago. So I think people digest things quicker, they get through the process of debate off things quicker and they absorb them quicker and they go on. The biggest thing is for us to make the correct decision that everybody in the garage area and everybody in the grandstand understands that everybody has the same opportunity and are operating under the same rules, and that's I think the biggest step that we must take.
And if it's a -- I guess if the more time we leave a topic out there to be debated and discussed, the longer it takes to have a final answer. So there's a balance of getting the right answer as quickly as possible and going ahead and putting it out there other than putting it out there for debate for six or seven months, I guess.
But I think that our fans, as long as we maintain the core elements of the sport, tweaking the points, tweaking the Chase, tweaking different components in the sport, they're quick studies. And by the time we announce our final decisions and the time Speed Week opens up, in today's world with all the opportunity to debate it and discuss it and to wash it out between all of our stakeholders, I think the season will start off with, okay, let's go.
Q: Two tracks, Martinsville and Pocono, both announced they're switching qualifying to Saturdays, and it sounds like other tracks are considering that. Are you considering qualifying being on Saturdays for the majority of 2011? What's the impetus for that, and will those become now impound races the way they were when qualifying was Saturday?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: You know, the effort is put forth to actually get a better show, better ticket for the fans that are there at the racetracks on Saturday. I don't think we are anticipating all the tracks moving to that.
As far as the impound goes, more than likely it will be a qualifying session and it won't be an impound. The guys will get the cars back and will be able to work on them and put race setups under them like we do many times this year or last year.
It's something that we're working with the tracks and really just trying to get a little bit better show for everybody on Saturday afternoon, a little more content.
Q: Mike, can you reflect a little bit, a more bigger-picture question on where you were with safety ten years ago versus where you are now, and do you think the needle would have moved as quickly as it did if not for the unfortunate events that happened with the death of Dale Earnhardt?
MIKE HELTON: Well, it's -- I will remind everybody that one of the key legs of the stool that encouraged Bill Sr. to create NASCAR and found NASCAR was driver and spectator safety. He felt very compelled to be sure that something he loved doing was better off for the competitors and the stakeholders, so every day since 1947 we've worked on safety.
But certainly as time goes on and you have the opportunity to capitalize on technology and synergy, then you can advance. And there has been a lot of advancements that I think have happened over -- actually, the way I look at it, it's actually since 2000 when we had the unfortunate string between Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper, and, oh, by the way, led a lot of businesses, a lot of people, a lot of individuals, a lot of companies to want to do better.
And with the development of the R & D Center and with the different levels of opportunities that we have able to be the nucleus of a lot of energy, then all motorsports I think has improved vastly over the last ten years.
Q: I realize some of this is still in flux, but can you talk about possible changes to the Chase, and might one of those be some drivers qualifying based strictly on wins versus points?
MIKE HELTON: We do have models around the Chase that -- and I would say models, I'd say a couple, that we're tweaking through these conversations that again goes back to the earlier question about focusing on wins and how do you enhance the importance of winning that would be reflective in setting the Chase field.
Q: You've talked a lot about credibility with the points changes and what you guys are looking at doing. Was there any concern if -- like Carl Edwards said yesterday his current plan is to run the whole series anyway. What if he goes out and wins ten races, if he does win the whole -- if he does run the whole season, wins ten races hypothetically? Is there any concern about credibility there if the champion were to, say, win one?
MIKE HELTON: No, because, A, whoever's car he's driving is going to be in good shape. But it also goes back, I think, to the driving force behind this is to force more exposure and attention to drivers that are developing in that series. Same thing could happen in either trucks or in the Nationwide, Camping World or Nationwide Series.
So the effort is worth it to get more attention paid and exposure to the developing personalities that are coming into the sport, oh, by the way, while they're competing against the legendary names of the sport.
And you can debate and argue that, okay, if I win 10 or 12 races and don't win the championship, what's the championship worth? Well, it's still the championship. It's still a big old trophy, still a nice check, still a guy who went out there and competed against 43 teams and became the champion of that series.
So I think it's still a NASCAR national series championship which I think is valuable and credible.
Q: Robin, you guys went to a smaller plate after the Goodyear test. Are you satisfied with the speeds after yesterday, and do you think they'll get right back up there again? I guess, is there a number you don't want these guys to cross in terms of speed?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, we're pretty satisfied. Only four cars drafted yesterday, and they were very close to where we were on the Goodyear tire test. I think the speeds will even be higher this afternoon if we get to run or tomorrow. You know, there's still some margin in there, and I think taking the drivers' input there's still a lot of -- there's a lot of grip. Track is smooth, and, you know, we're happy with where we're at right now and maybe even a little bit quicker, so we've got some margins built in there.
Q: Robin, earlier I asked Jeff Gordon a question about his fans kind of challenged me to go on about change. I was kind of surprised, there are a lot of fans out there that I found were content with what NASCAR does. I thought I was going to get a lot of flak specifically from Jeff Gordon's fans. Do you find that when you go out and try to find -- get fan input that you have to work a little bit at it?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: You get fan input whether you want it or not. You know, and everybody is particular to fans that -- first off, what's good for their driver, and that type of driver may attract a certain type of fan. You know, you may have a fan of a driver that's very aggressive, and all they want to do is base things on wins and throw out DNFs and set the Chase in a different way versus a driver like a Jeff Gordon. With all the experience he's got, he's a champion, and he may attract a fan that is more about consistency week in and week out and you can still win a championship and win one or two races.
You know, if you look for it, you can find the answer that you want if you look hard enough, and everybody has got different opinions out there. And, quite frankly, it's what makes it a lot of fun, especially riding to work in the morning and listening to the fandom on SIRIUS Radio and hearing all of that. You can get what you need out there.
MIKE HELTON: One of the things we might have overlooked for a while is that we're all fans. Everybody in this room in some form or fashion is a fan of NASCAR, and not NASCAR as a company but NASCAR as a lifestyle or a sport. The guys in the garage area are fans. They got in it because they like to be competitive, whether it's a driver or a crew member or a guy on Pit Road that's changing tires. They're energized to get into it from being a fan.
Now, everybody in this room and everybody on the garage area makes a living in this sport, and so that sometimes maybe distracts us from the facts that we're fans.
But the origination of the Fan Council nearly three years ago helps us to communicate directly with fans that don't have the opportunity to make a living at it, but, oh, by the way, provides us the opportunity to make a living in it. But it also reminds us that it's a fun business.
It catches your moment to drive through the tunnel of the Daytona International Speedway because you know you're pulling into a place that your heroes, past, present and future, it could be Richard Petty and David Pearson, or it could be Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., it could be Joey Logano or some kid we haven't heard about yet. Their ambition to win the Daytona 500 is what inspires the start of the season. And we sometimes forget we're all fans.
So when you talk to fans, and most of our conversations face-to-face are at the racetrack, so those are real fans. But even through the Fan Council, those that get to participate at the racetrack but also follow it on television and have opinions of it, it helps us be reminded of the fact of our responsibility.
But the fun part about it, it also reminds us why we're fans and why we're in this business, and that's fun.
Q: Is there a timeline for fuel injection yet? Do you expect to see it this year? And starting times for races, are they going to remain 1:00, 3:00, 7:30 this year?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: We're working through our fuel injection program right now. We've made some great strides in the last 60 days or so. We don't anticipate any points races this year or races with fuel injection. It'll be a year dedicated to fine-tuning and getting the process down, whether it be inspection or the team side of it with building engines.
That's going along quite well.
MIKE HELTON: The start times last year we adjusted to earlier start times and tried to format them to where it was consistent. One of the things that we have learned or reminded us, we knew it for some time, that we have a very long season, and so what we're looking at for 2011 is trying to be consistent with start times but also the fact that we have a very long season, is there a little bit of tweaking along the way that fits better into that long season. So we're still working on that.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our sport in 2011? And maybe it's something that we are not aware of or something that was left over from last year, say TV ratings or whatever. And how have you addressed that and how do you plan to address what you feel is the biggest challenge going forward?
MIKE HELTON: Well, we address things on a routine basis. And I think by doing that, we can't always look around corners or we can't always see what the next step holds. But we certainly all have a huge appetite to try to figure those things out as they come.
Obviously the whole world, and particularly the United States and some marketplaces that we go race in or more so than others are still burdened with the economy, and that's something I think that not just our sport but all sports, all forms of entertainment, a lot of businesses, different categories of businesses have had to struggle with creating new models of how they do their business and how you adapt to the current times.
And in our industry in particular, in NASCAR, we've got so many layers of different categories of businesses, from the sponsorship level or the businesses inside the sport that make the sport work, like racetracks and team owners and NASCAR itself that has stepped up to the table and has looked at its business models to keep the sport going and then help it get back on a growth pattern.
That's what I started out with in part is the confidence that we've got that our race cars and our race car drivers on racetracks are exciting. They're doing their job. Our drivers and our team owners and their crew members are doing their job for us, and now the rest of us can take that with hope and energy and apply it to all the new models that exist out there from a business level and make NASCAR work pretty well.
Q: Mike, just to get into the sort of technical apparatus of the points, if a driver is racing for the Cup championship but runs in Nationwide or Truck, does he get points? Is he going to show in the weekly roundup of the point standings in the other two series? And the other thing is, if there is an NFL lockout this year, do you see that as a benefit for NASCAR?
MIKE HELTON: Well, first of all, on the points piece, the race results would show the finishing position and the points for that finishing position would go to the car owner and not the driver. So a series of driver points wouldn't show up for a Cup driver that was running another national series.
You know, I think there's a lot of headlines out there in all other sports, and they look at us, we look at them, we look at other entertainment businesses, whether it's concerts or movies or whatever, and we all kind of look at each other. None of them want any other one to have a bad run.
And in our case, I think our best effort is spent on delivering the absolute best races at the best facilities that we can. So if someone doesn't have an opportunity to participate in some other form of entertainment and they choose us to participate for that moment, that we capture them and they say, I enjoyed that, I liked that, I may go back, I think that's where our effort is every day for any reason.
Q: Mike, analysts are saying that gas prices are going to reach $4 a gallon by this summer, could rise to $5 a gallon by next year. What steps are NASCAR taking to counteract that rising fuel cost both for the fan and for the sport itself?
MIKE HELTON: Well, I wish we had enough influence to influence fuel prices, but we don't. But on a serious note, I think the things we look at and the steps we take, we announced last year the move to ethanol as part of our international series. We're looking at other forms of alternative energy that can be used in our different forms of racing from GRAND-AM to the regional programs and even in the national series in the future.
So we're addressing the topics to be, A, a good partner in our country and in our environment, and we're also working hard to be sure that we deliver correctly for the NASCAR community, the fans and the truck operators, the automobile manufacturers, the sponsors, and that's not a single answer. There's no one replacement for what we've grown accustomed to using when it comes to driving our car down an interstate. It's a lot of different pieces.
But we're committed to be relevant in that environment and be relevant to that topic and be the good players in all that and be conscientious, and in doing so, part of that is the messaging to the fans of the sport to be of that same mindset.
And then just do the best we can when the -- if the prices of fuel have impacts, we have to be mindful of that. But I think the bigger topic in the meantime is for us to be working object our own efforts to be relevant to the whole scheme of things.
Q: Assuming if you do change the point system, would that be for all three series?
MIKE HELTON: Yes.
Q: Can you talk about where we stand with the 2013 model, and, also, how has the response been from going E15 this week, what changes have we made, what changes will we see going forward with the setup in the garage?
JOHN DARBY: The 2013 model stock car I think is just beginning. We've had some preliminary meetings that have had a tremendous amount of input from the four participating manufacturers, and their eagerness to get the project going. Through the years we've kind of come full circle in understanding how to blend the aerodynamic matching of the vehicles and what parts really matter and where we've got the luxury to move and bend as it relates to the design of race cars.
And if you would look at the car we left before our current race car, that was that everybody had the same templates and walked through that process of the new Cup car that's currently on the racetrack and then the transition to the new Nationwide car where we started to apply some of the techniques in letting the manufacturers have some real estate back, if you will, and the appearance of the new Nationwide cars that jumps out at you, and with the 13 Car for Cup we're working very hard on even giving more of that real estate back to the manufacturers.
And I think that's a lot of where the new excitement and energy comes in helping develop a new body. Be mindful of the fact we're talking about a body change, we're not talking about a whole new race car here. But the end product I think will be pleasing to not only the competitors that are driving them but to the fans that are watching them on the racetrack, and most importantly the manufacturers that are helping support and promote those models of vehicles in our sport.
The second part with the fueling, the biggest change I think is the physical components that you see, the addition of the components on the fueling cans that the teams use in the garage and will use up and down Pit Road that is more of a closed-loop system. Sunoco has done a really nice job on developing a vapor recovery system, much like if you have filled your cars in California you understand the nozzle and the pump panel are just not the same.
So it's a lot of those changes that are not only helping us with the fuel problems that exist in America but they've brought us into the ethanol world, which is helpful. Engines love it. The transition from leaded fuel to unleaded fuel was a much larger project than this transition because once the fuel was dry, became dry, the lack of lead, as the new fuel is, it's just a blending difference with the addition of the ethanol.
But ethanol is good for horsepower, so the engine builders' transition was small. The bigger one is what's going on in the physical areas of putting the fuel in the car, the environmental benefits of capturing those vapors and creating a safer environment at the fuel pumps.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, we appreciate your time and interest in NASCAR. Thank you.