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Phelps Vows Better Communication with Drivers on Safety

The NASCAR president also said fans should care about team profitability.


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NASCAR president Steve Phelps fielded questions from Marty Snider, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a segment on the NBC Sports pre-race show in advance of Sunday's Cup Series race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.

There, he expressed sympathy for both the drivers in the push for safety advancements to the Next Gen car and the teams recent public advocacy for a better deal from the sanctioning body ahead of the next television rights agreement.

Regarding safety, Phelps said the meeting with drivers on Saturday was beneficial and conceded it should have happened sooner. Phelps and director of safety engineering John Patalak engaged with driver in an open conversation and presented 20 slides to them before practice and qualifying.

As a result of that open dialogue, Phelps says the sanctioning body will begin meeting weekly with drivers as it begins implementing changes to the rear of the car during this coming off-season. Specifically, NASCAR is developing a modified rear clip, bumper structure and center clip.

"Safety is the single most important thing for NASCAR," Phelps said on the air. "We have a two-decade history that would suggest that is a true statement. Are there things that we need to do to this race car that make it safer? Yes, particularly in the rear of the car.

"But, there are things in this car that are safer than the last car. We are going to continue working with our drivers.

"Yesterday, we had an all-driver meeting which was terrific. We have another group that gets together with the drivers, it’s called the Driver Advisory Council. It’s got a great executive director who happens to be Jeff Burton, but, there are seven Cup drivers on there and we talk about all kinds of different things.

"That group has a number of different things it talks about, including safety. With that said, as good as the Driver Advisory Council has been, there’s nothing as good as an all-driver meeting. And we probably should have had one, months ago to try to deal with the safety issues and what drivers were feeling in the race car. So, that’s on me.

"With that said, we are going to have all-driver meetings, for the rest of the year. We’re going to do them on a weekly basis. I thought the meeting was incredibly productive. The drivers were candid. We showed them a path forward on, for example, the rear of the car to take out some of the stiffness. A bigger crush panel.

We want to hear what they have to say. We care about what they say and we’re going to continue to make the car safer."

NASCAR executed a test crash this past week at a facility in Ohio, a test that drivers say will make rear impacts better for drivers, but still worse than the previous generation of car. Three drivers will miss the Cup Series race on the Roval this weekend, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman with concussion like symptoms and Cody Shane Ware with a broken ankle.

Phelps said NASCAR will continue seeking changes to make the rear impacts even better.

"We want to make sure that when we get to the Clash at the Coliseum that the drivers know this car is going to be successful and that we have made changes to the vehicle that are going to soften the blows they’re taking," he added.

Regarding the media briefing called by the Race Team Alliance on Friday morning, in which a subcommittee of team executives warned that layoffs and closures were possible without a significant shift in the business model under the next charter agreement, Phelps conceded it’s something fans should care about.

And while he didn’t get into specifics, Phelps said he was committed to working with the teams on cost cutting, revenue sharing and expenses.

"Race fans probably don’t care about team profitability," Phelps said. "I’m telling you, fans should care about team profitability. Because it creates better competition on the race track. That’s what fans care about.

"If teams don’t have the money to be able to compete on the race track, we’re not going to have as good of racing. As the sanctioning body, we’re moving forward. Having discussions with the teams that would suggest we’re going to give the teams more money from a revenue perspective.

"But, we also need to work with the teams on the expense side as well. There’s a balance there. Like an good business, revenue in, expenses and look at the profitability on the bottom line."

Teams say, after the development and implementation of a spec car this season, that there is nowhere else to cut expenses except mass layoffs. The teams have indicated that they want a larger share of the television rights agreement and to have a partnership with the sanctioning body not too different than those seen in other sports.

The current 10-year, $8.2 billion broadcast rights revenue is split 65 percent to the tracks, 25 percent to race teams and 10 percent to the sanctioning body.

"We’re not going to talk about the negotiations but I’m excited about what they future is going to look like with our race teams. NASCAR and our teams coming together, that’s a better thing in order to help promote the sport."

Ultimately, Phelps is optimistic about the state of the sport approaching the end of the season. He believes the new car has created parity and competition -- the exact kind of product fans want to see.

At the same time, it has been exposed on short tracks and road courses, producing too much grip and downforce, and there will need to be changes implemented on that front too.

"The car has done everything it’s supposed to do from a competition point," Phelps said. "We’ve had more green flag passes for the lead then we’ve ever had in the history of the sport, since we’ve been doing loop data. Passes throughout the field, the most we’ve had through 31 races so we’re going to break that record too.

"It’s exciting. We had a meeting yesterday with one of our race teams, who some people would consider to be kinda, 'the back of the grid.' This principal said, 'Every single time I go to a race track, I believe we can win. I’ve never felt that before this Next Gen car.'

"Isn’t that what we want? That the underdog can come in here and win?"