CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- It's time to get off the NASCAR president's back.
It's time to give the man some room to do the work that needs to be done, a task no less challenging than turning a battleship in a bathtub. It's time to stop acting like the man gripping the steering wheel of stock car racing is a disconnected suit who doesn't know what real racing is. It's time to stop punishing the present leader for the sins of NASCAR's past and time to begin recognizing him for what he is: the man whom the founding royal bloodline of the sanctioning body believes can lead their sport back from the depths it has trolled during so many recent days.
Yes, it is time to appreciate Steve Phelps. If only he would sit still long enough to let us do it.
High atop the skyscraping NASCAR Tower in uptown Charlotte, the NASCAR president has settled into a chair in a room that has been described as his office, but is instead a monument to transit. There are no photos of his wife and kids on the desk. Those are in his other offices. Here, there is only a half-eaten lunch from Panera Bread -- or, wait, he says, that might be breakfast -- and a small stack of unopened white dress shirts. Phelps has blown into this room from a meeting, and as soon as this conversation is finished he will streak to the airport for a flight to NASCAR HQ in Daytona, where he will attend a meeting the next morning and then return back to Charlotte for another meeting, back in this building less than 24 hours from now. Then it's off to another racetrack for the weekend.
Steve Phelps says he sleeps fine. That might be true. It's just difficult to figure out when he's doing it.
"I still have an office in New York and I still have a place here in Charlotte, but these days I'm in Daytona most of all," the 57-year old explains, with a shrug and a grin that owns up to how insane his schedule sounds. He catches himself and laughs. "Honestly, I don't let myself start listing everything that I need to do aloud, because when I do, it sounds impossible. But somehow, we make it work. You keep moving forward. That's the only way you make it work."
That might as well be his job description.
This is not the drive of a man who doesn't really care about or understand stock car racing. Nor is it the effort of one who lacks focus, cranking out goofy ideas to slap Band-Aids on bigger issues. Yet, that's how Steve Phelps is often viewed and described by so many who consume and criticize the sport he is now charged with saving.
If one knows which window of this empty office to peer out of, they can look southwest, toward the airport where Phelps will soon bolt. Next to that airport is a dirt trucking lot where, almost 70 years to the day of this conversation, NASCAR held its first Strictly Stock race. That event was overseen by Bill France Sr., still referred to in the hallways of this silver Charlotte tower as The Founder. Big Bill was NASCAR's first president. Phelps is only its fifth. On that dusty day in June 1949, France portrayed a public air of confidence, but on the inside, he was riddled with stress, anxious that his new racing organization might not make it out of that weekend alive.
All these years later, Phelps feels a deep connection to that pressure.
"I have been here for 15 years now. I have been fortunate to hold a lot of big jobs and I have done so many media interviews during that time," says the former NASCAR Senior VP, Chief Marketing Officer, Head of Sales/Marketing and star of one episode of "Undercover Boss." "But now, now it feels different. Now there's something extra added to my everyday."
His hands come off the empty desk and he presses them to his shoulders and chest. "Now, there's a weight to everything. Every decision. Every question. Every meeting. You asked how I sleep. I sleep fine, once I go to sleep. But when I lay down at night, that weight is there. That's when I really feel it. But it's there all of the time.
"Because I want this to work. I care about it. I love it."
He truly does. It's an affection Phelps developed growing up in Burlington, Vermont, attending races with his father at the now-vanished Catamount Speedway. He watched New England short-track legends, rough-hewn dudes like the Dragon Brothers, trade paint on the third-mile oval. Their moves on that track were described by a conga line of future NASCAR broadcasting legends, led by hall of famer Ken Squier, who also owned Catamount. During his formative adult years, even as his career took him out of Burlington and into Manhattan, Phelps never lost that passion for the noise and smell of the racetrack. As he moved up the marketing ladder, he helped turn Guinness from a niche import to an Irish-American beer obsession. He worked 14 years inside the offices of the NFL, earning the confidence of commissioner Paul Tagliabue by landing some of the league's biggest business partners. But he left that indestructible Death Star of professional sports to return to his first love, joining NASCAR in 2004.
Upon arrival he did his time on NASCAR's second executive tier while those above him drove the sport away from its traditional fan base and self-mutilated its roots. He weathered those bad decisions and rode out the economic crash that followed, as did a core executive group who survived with him and alongside whom he still works today. The ladder-climbers who arrived at NASCAR during the boom days looking for a boost into opportunities elsewhere are all gone. So is Brian France, the always-uncomfortable, third-generation stock-car-racing heir who never seemed to actually want the gig. He made an all-too-predictable exit from the public spotlight after a DWI arrest last summer in the Hamptons.
Shortly thereafter, Phelps was put in charge. He and his confidants had chosen to stay during the downturn because they had dreamed of a time when they might finally be able to make the decisions they had always wanted to make.
In the months since being handed the keys, Phelps has been the anti-Brian France. He is constantly at the racetrack. He faces the media without the aid of a nervous PR assistant at his side. When discussing NASCAR's recent seasons of declining ratings and attendance, he has used a word that was never uttered from the mouth of any France of any generation: "mistake." He almost overapologizes to fans for the sport abandoning its roots and is working hard to unscramble the bad eggs those fans were served for too long. He holds perpetual open dialogues with drivers, owners, racetracks, manufacturers and whomever else has his phone number. And everyone has his phone number.
"Any given day, I hear from pretty much everyone, from the biggest stars we have to crew guys wanting to go on a bike ride at the track," he explains. "But they all know that when one phone number rings in, I am taking that call and will get back to them back later."
And what number is that?
That's right. The Son of The Founder calls Phelps. So does the granddaughter of The Founder, Lesa France Kennedy. Jim is the new NASCAR CEO. Lesa is chairperson of the NASCAR board of directors. They call a lot. No major decision is made or even contemplated until Phelps and Jim France talk it out. So, for all of those who think NASCAR's current decision-makers will never live up to how it used to be with Big Bill or Bill Jr. handing down their dictatorship decrees, you can rest assured that while Jim will never utilize his father and brother's legendary scare tactics to change NASCAR policy, nary a one of today's rules changes or scheduling decisions will be made without a France's approval.
"I know a lot of people want it to go back to the way that it was under the first two presidents, but that's also not the world we live in now," Phelps explains. "This is a world where people expect to be able to collaborate. And we do. We just had a meeting with the drivers about the complaints that there is no longer a Driver Council. We told them that now everyone has a voice. But it's my job to take all of these voices and, with the counsel of Jim and others, to make the final decision that feels like that right one."
People don't have to agree with those decisions. Many of them won't and never will. Many of the ideas probably won't work. Many will. But people need to stop with questioning the motives behind those decisions. Pass or fail, the intent behind them is pure.
The fifth NASCAR president is a smart man who truly loves the sport, staying on the payroll long after others chose to bail when the gig suddenly got tough. He has been so dedicated to the cause of saving stock car racing that, admittedly, his roles as husband and father have often been sacrificed. He has the ear and the confidence of The Son of The Founder. He is honest when he explains his reasoning and he is openly apologetic about missteps made along the way.
Steve Phelps knows there is so much work to be done. He reads the same "NASCAR is dying" stories that we all do. He knows that he needs to make big moves to make those stories go away, even if he is often too handcuffed to make them as quickly as anyone -- especially he -- would like (see: the 2021 Cup Series schedule and the upcoming Generation 7 car).
But you know what? He also isn't afraid to take the heat that comes with being the guy who does that work. He isn't afraid of feeling that weight. And quietly, there has been improvement, much-needed stability before the bigger moves that lie ahead. Amid criticism of the current aero and engine packages, the 2019 racing has been good and several finishes have been great. While no one in the garage is happy with the numbers, attendance and TV ratings appear to have slowed their freefall.
"This pressure is a pleasure," Phelps said. "It's an honor. To think about a kid in the stands of the Catamount Speedway being in this job today, it's a dream. A really difficult dream sometimes, but it's a dream. Even if people don't agree on a decision, I hope they appreciate the work that went into it. We aren't just making stuff up. And I really hope they understand the love for the sport that is behind every decision we make."
"In the end, I'm a race fan, too."
Steve Phelps doesn't want to be anywhere else but exactly where he is right now. Even if that means never sitting still.