Steve O'Donnell, who was named NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations in June 2006. O'Donnell, 41, oversees competition administration, at-track operations and strategic planning. He spoke recently with Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith.
CFB: It's been a tough few years for most everyone in the entertainment business, and there have been some empty seats at NASCAR races. Is NASCAR holding its own?
CFB: I seldom hear this question asked about other sports like the NFL, NBA, pro golf or tennis or other sports, but constantly I hear the question: Has NASCAR peaked? How do you respond to that?
A lot of writers and sportscasters — and this includes me — grew up with a "stick and ball" mentality, and weren't exposed to NASCAR at an early age like they probably were to other sports. So when NASCAR really exploded in the early 1980s, up through the new TV deal in 2000, there was constant growth. And no sport can maintain that constant growth every year. With all of them, there are ebbs and flows. When you look at all the data points — ratings, attendance, amount of sponsors involved — I think we have a pretty good story to tell when you grade us against the other sports out there.
CFB: Where do you see the growth coming from in NASCAR's future?
One area that is a little but overlooked is our North American expansion, into Canada and Mexico. We have touring series that run in both countries. The series in Mexico had its first night race two weeks ago, and 20,000 people attended. They're averaging about 25,000 per race, and they have a good car count with 30 to 33 fully sponsored cars. We're starting to see come of the drivers come up through the ranks there and hopefully have a shot at one of our national series here, and with that, grow our Hispanic fan base. Same with Canada — behind hockey, we're the number two sport in Canada. We are really trying to grow our grass-roots racing program there. We have the viewership, but we want to make sure the fans become engaged more and more in the races in the U.S. Look outside the borders, and we have a long way to go internationally. You look at China and India and all the automotive growth in those countries, there's a big opportunity for us to … introduce the sport to different cultures.
CFB: There's a growing "green" emphasis in motorsports — NASCAR is talking about fuel injection and ethanol in the next year or two -— anything beyond that?
I think that's the first step. We'll use our research and development center beyond that as a proving ground.
CFB: More than in any other sport, sponsors drive NASCAR. How is that side of the business looking for the immediate future?
The good news for us is they've continued to stay with us. The reason for that is that our fans still understand, more so than in any other sport, what's on the side of that race car is what is allowing that team to compete, so they're still the most loyal in any type of sport. I think that's the big differentiator for NASCAR, and what's taken us to where we are today.