NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell sat with ESPN on Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway to talk about the start of the 2017 season. Here are the highlights of that conversation, with his answers to some of the most pertinent competition issues facing the sport:
With nine drivers, including several big-name drivers, not getting through technical inspection before qualifying on Friday at Texas and therefore not posting a lap, how do you balance wanting to have a qualifying show and keeping everything equitable?
Our No. 1 job is to keep everything equitable, so our job in this is to talk to the teams during the offseason so they were well aware of our expectations of how we were going to inspect this year. The teams have been very vocal in applauding NASCAR and the direction we've taken so far. It is true that we have put it back on the teams more so this year than ever before to bring your cars as correct as possible. We understand that, especially at intermediate tracks, teams are going to push the envelope, but every car has been through the system at least once (before the start of qualifying). We certainly want to see everybody out there qualifying, but we also know that everybody has got to have the same standard. There are those that come through first and pass, and we can't change it up just because somebody may have had trouble the second or the third time around. It is something that we think will get better as we continue throughout the year, but we have to be consistent in how we're inspecting the cars.
Is starting in the back enough of a penalty? Is there a point you would have to up the penalties?
I think we would look at that. We have got a system in place where teams can lose practice time or pit selection based on how many times they have come through and failed. That is in place now as a deterrent, because we want to make it as much about this race weekend as possible. We're hopeful we don't have to take that step.
How would you evaluate the 2017 reduced downforce package?
It is still real early in terms of making a determination. But if you would have told us at the start of the season, even prior to Martinsville, that you would have five different winners for five races, all three OEMs [manufacturers] would have won, all three OEMS would have been competing for stage wins, some of our younger drivers would be competing in the top 10 and in fact leading the points and the stages that we implemented would have been for the most part accepted, I would have said, "We'll take it all day long." Now do we want to continue to evaluate it and see what we can do in the future? Sure? But all in all, I think we like the direction and especially like what we saw in Martinsville. Goodyear has been a big part of that.
So seeing parity right off the bat, you see that as a sign of a good start?
More organizations having at least a chance to go out there and compete -- you're seeing that this year with some different winners. That's certainly an angle we want to see as we go forward.
You want to see more passing for the lead, don't you?
Yeah. The ability to pass is certainly there when you look at drivers having to start in the back and being able to get all the way up through the field. You always want to see more passing for the lead, and that's something we continue to focus on.
As far as stage racing, did you want to high-5 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Martinsville for bumping Kyle Busch at the end of the second stage because that's what you wanted, that's what stage racing is designed for?
What it was designed for was to have more incentives in the race that carried throughout the year. One of the things that you heard from Brad Keselowski, even last year -- you win a race, and does that second win mean much last year? If you asked him this year, he would say, "Absolutely, there is much more incentive." ...You're seeing more moments, we believe you're seeing more urgency. It's still in its infancy. But for the most part, what we've seen is that it has been accepted, it has created a lot of dialogue. We didn't expect everyone to love it coming out of the box, but we like what we're seeing so far.
What about the length of cautions between stages? You had said five minutes prior to the season but it had been 10 minutes, maybe a little shorter at Martinsville?
We're always going to try to make it as quick as possible. What is getting lost a little bit in this is the fans ... on TV are now getting almost 18-20 percent of more green-flag racing that they're able to watch. Yes, the break might be a little bit more extended, but what's coming on the back of that is the ability to see more of the actual race, which we like, but we're always going to look to try to shorten it up and be more efficient if we can.
You are closing pit road, having commercials, opening pit road when the TV network comes back on air, and then have more commercials?
We worked really hard to have a set cadence. ... We're learning as we go as well.
NASCAR Cup cars will qualify and race on the same day at tracks later this year (Pocono in July, Watkins Glen and Martinsville in October). What went into that decision?
Our overall goal is, how do you create a unique weekend at each venue and the best weekend for the fans? In some cases, that may mean you qualify on a Friday, on some that may mean Saturday works best with an Xfinity or Camping World Truck race, and in some cases, we're going to see how it plays out on a Sunday qualifier. A lot of it this year is to experiment a little bit, get some feedback from the fans. Ultimately, this is, how do we partner with the tracks and our TV partners to have the best and biggest impact we can during any given race weekend? You can look at drivers being on track on a Friday, and that may have an impact in a certain marketplace. You could also look at using those drivers to go out around town, do some cool fan fest activities, and that would have a bigger impact.
Would there be impact on public awareness of what's going on -- if you are on track for three days, isn't there more awareness than if you are for two days?
It depends. If you did the same thing you're doing today, yes. If Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. and Kyle Busch were live on the local sports station in-market Friday for a half-hour, would that create more of a buzz than practicing for a half-hour and the news doesn't cover it? Those are the types of things now with social media and the digital space. You can get a lot more news out more quickly, so we're trying to balance all of that.
Did you choose tracks?
We worked with the tracks, and we said, "Here are some options we'd like to explore," and those are the tracks that said, "Hey, we want to take a shot at this."
Is the main concern if a driver wrecks in qualifying whether he has time for the race? What about what teams are used to doing prerace as far as hospitality?
All those things come into play. ... What do fans like to experience on race day? Will that be qualifying and a race? Or do they like being able to go visit all the fan amenities, and they'd rather have it on a Saturday? On inspection, what is the amount of time it takes? We've got some new technology coming for 2018, so we think we can speed up some of those processes. That's why we're having a lot of dialogue with the industry -- what is the ideal weekend that we think can really drive the needle for the fans?
What are the factors to decide on a road course at Charlotte or Indianapolis in the future?
I'll speak to Charlotte. When we look at the opportunities there, it is first and foremost our fans have been pretty bullish on some type of racing in the playoffs. [Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO] Marcus Smith is well aware of that. He approached us with the idea. For us to consider it, obviously, we'd want the ability for our cars to be able to pass and put on a great race. Obviously, safety comes into play as well. The next steps for us would be able to put a test out there with multiple cars in the true track configuration and see what we have.
Since Charlotte's race is a Saturday night race, would you be open to using the lights for the road race?
The working process if we went that route would be a Sunday race.
Beyond Las Vegas getting a race from New Hampshire, are there any other major changes to the 2018 schedule? You are required to notify tracks of their 2018 dates by April 1, correct?
We extended that by two weeks, just like last year. We are still having some kind of final discussions with the tracks and, candidly, with the entire industry. You can expect some tweaks to the schedule. In the next three weeks, we should be out to the public with the announcement.
Midweek all-star race?
Next year? No.
How much have you talked about midweek races? How much does NASCAR want it?
We want to explore what's the best schedule overall. If that happens to be looking at a midweek race, it is certainly something we would do. It's been brought up by our television partners, but it's just been, 'Hey, let's have an initial discussion.' So by no means are we there yet. We are looking at how would that work, if it would work at all. There are a number of campers that come to our events and make a true weekend out of it. It would have to be the right market and make sense for everybody involved.
In some ways, would you have to participate in the costs if it's a flop? Everybody needs to have skin in the game?
We'd always look at it. At this point, I'd say it's just in its infancy discussions. There are some opportunities, as we look at 2019 and beyond, to get everyone together and really look at, is it working the best as it should to maximize the entire schedule across the board? Where do you end in terms of a date? Can we avoid some of those NFL windows? All those things we are taking a hard look at.
NASCAR's rulebook is currently available only to media and NASCAR members online and is not downloadable. Will it be made available to the public?
We would absolutely like the answer to be "yes." Much like you [in the media] have access to it now and you get all the bulletins, the challenge for us is, you are on our system. To create a system that is separate just for the fans is very challenging in terms of having that be accurate and updated daily. The goal is to have that online, for sure, for the fans. But we're trying to figure out the most efficient way to make that happen. It's complex to do. ... The ultimate goal is to do that.
I know you don't like to compare the Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon incidents to the past, but is there anything you want to say more to help people understand why there were no fines compared to some other incidents?
I'd just go back to, each incident is unique. We've got to make a decision based on that incident, what we saw and take all the facts into account and make a call. We don't expect everyone to agree with us. But it's our job to make a decision, and then if we have to adjust going forward, we'll do that. But in those cases, we stand by the calls that we made. Again, I can't find any incidents that were exactly the same in our history.
But the teams were told by Monster Energy that they want drivers to show emotion, so there is a feeling in the industry that Monster's influence has permeated your thinking. Has it?
We make the decisions. Feel free to go talk to anyone at Monster and see if they have had any discussions with us about how we are going to penalize or not penalize a driver, and that's never occurred. They hear about it when you hear about it.
Worth noting: Monster Energy VP of Sports Marketing Mitch Covington, when asked if they had any discussions with NASCAR on penalties, had this to say to ESPN: "Monster had no input whatsoever. To my knowledge, no one at Monster has had any discussion about fines and penalties."