NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell and Senior Vice President of Racing Development and Racing Strategy Ben Kennedy met with the media following Sunday’s Grant Park 200 at the Chicago Street Course to discuss a variety of topics around the event. Following is the transcript of that event:
THE MODERATOR: We’ll continue our post-race media availability before our winner joins us. Wanted to have a couple of members from the NASCAR leadership team who are integral in this historic weekend. We’re joined by chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell and senior vice president of racing development and racing strategy Ben Kennedy.
Steve, Ben, just your general feelings now that the checkered flag has flown on Sunday about this historic weekend.
BEN KENNEDY: I think certainly a remarkable weekend, a historic weekend for us. We talked about this a lot, first in 75 years to celebrate a special year for us, obviously cap that with a special moment.
I would say first of all a huge thank you to the city of Chicago. The city showed up so well today from the backdrop on NBC to the energy among the fans in the city and the crowds. It was certainly remarkable to see.
Really appreciate the collaboration with the city, the various departments, obviously choose Chicago, the sports commission, everyone involved. A lot of credit to the entire team, so Julie Giese and the entire team here in Chicago that have been working on this every single day since we announced on July 19 of last year getting this event ready for this weekend and Four leaf Production, as well.
Certainly a neat event. Good to see a first-time winner in Shane, and as a fan, it was a lot of fun to watch.
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I would echo what Ben said, and also incredibly proud of our industry. A lot of questions raised, especially to this guy to my right, of what is NASCAR doing on a street course. I think our drivers performed incredibly today.
One of the best events I’ve seen, a testament to the drivers out there, the crew members, getting these cars ready across the board, Xfinity Series, Cup Series. What that garage group went through to put on a show for the deserving fans in Chicago who turned out, were excited, got everybody in the industry excited. I think you could all see that, as well.
A proud moment for all of us in the industry to be in Chicago, as well as Ben said, an incredible welcome mat rolled out for us, and hopefully we delivered for the fans, as well.
Q. Can you describe the emotions you had to go through from, you know, looks like yesterday everything is going great, then all of a sudden the weather comes, and even into today it looks kind of grim for a while and then it turns out you can race and it’s a great race? What was that like for both of you?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I think I’ll start from yesterday. We did everything in our power to be able to get that going and have something, but we wanted it to be safe.
We kind of turned the page to today. We started at 6:00 a.m. with a meeting, what are we going to do, what’s it look like. We met, I think, every half hour throughout the day, all the way up until that last caution when we declared the race would be 75 laps. We had to wait to see just how long.
When we started the Cup race we were very hopeful. If we went green, which I knew is unprecedented, but we could get all 100 in. Constant meetings, constant communication. Again, applaud the industry, all of our folks. Not trying to pat ourselves on the back, it’s more the cooperation we had with the City. The assets that they brought to the event, as well, to be able to get the track ready was incredible.
Just proud of the work that everybody kind of put their egos aside and was able to just focus on hey, what can we do to get this in for the fans.
BEN KENNEDY: I’d echo Steve, too, I think from yesterday through to today, a number of meetings and communications certainly with the folks in race control and the city, as well, and the collaboration certainly throughout the day has been really well.
A testament to everyone coming together to help them make that happen. Certainly this is brand new to us. This is the first time we’ve done something like this. Naturally we’ll have a lot of learnings out of this as we think about the future.
But really good collaboration today. Proud of the team from competition to the city to the folks on the event side. Everyone really worked together well.
Q. Can you guys take us through around 4:00 it looked like you guys were thinking about starting today. Was that kind of the plan, and what kind of caused you guys to back off that at some point?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, we actually weren’t thinking about starting at 4:00. What we wanted to do was get all the things that needed to happen to be able to fire the engines and get us going taken care of so that when we knew, hey, the track is ready to go, we’re not going through the anthem and driver introductions and those sort of things.
So I think a little confusion that was put out by some folks of, I can’t believe NASCAR is going green. We were never going to go green under those circumstances. We wanted to get all that stuff in place so that the window we saw kind of starting at 5:00, 5:30 where we’d be able to race — we didn’t want to have to go through all the pre-race stuff if we could get that out of the way was the thinking.
Q. There’s thousands of fans filing out of here, and not one of them when I asked what they thought said a negative word about anything that they saw today. Does that help secure any negotiations about coming back and in other cities to show that we can do this?
BEN KENNEDY: Sure, yeah, and I think to your point, at first blush I had the opportunity to go down to Victory Lane and congratulate Shane and Justin and the team, and certainly a lot of fans down there still. A lot of people seemed like they were having a really good time.
Obviously we’re going to have a very deep dive postmortem after this event. A lot of surveys will go out collecting a lot of feedback. Of course there were a lot of things that went according to plan; there were some things that didn’t go according to plan obviously with the weather.
We’re going to have a lot of takeaways from this weekend, which I think will be really good, but from what I’ve seen so far, certainly from the fans and from a lot of folks in the industry has been positive.
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I would just one add-on, also. Also Jeremy, you were over in Le Mans, right, with Garage 56, and I think Shane winning this race and the fans that he’s bringing in and Project91 with Justin for us really showcases, again, being in a big city, having a big moment, but also having that international presence and a driver and a series that we have a lot of respect for.
We’ve spent time over there, as well. I think contributed to the enthusiasm you saw from the winners. That’s contagious with the fans, as well.
Q. I don’t need to run through some of the criticism thrown NASCAR’s way about just bringing this race here and the criticism, what could go wrong and just doing it here. Can you share anything about how this event did go off? Was there things we don’t know about? Did any of that happen that people were worried about, or how did this all play out?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, I think it played out really well if you look at today. Obviously I think if you run the clock back to yesterday morning all the way up until we had the hold, I think obviously a lot of energy, a lot of fans, a lot of people that have followed our sport for a long time, but a lot of new fans, as well.
And then naturally I think as we progressed through today, as soon as we got the cars started, a lot of people started to file in.
As we said going through the scheduling process, this is a journey. We announced a lot of things in our 2021 schedule, we went to new markets. Next evolution of that for us, naturally the Coliseum. This is kind of the next iteration of that.
And as we go through it, we’re by no means saying that everything is going to be perfect from day one. But you don’t know unless you try, and we gave it a really good effort today, and certainly proud of all the work that everyone has done.
I think the city showed so well, certainly on broadcast today, and then the energy around the field and around the park today was palpable.
Q. This might not be a question either one of you can answer, but competition-wise, the decision to end the race early, there’s a lot of upset crew chiefs that got caught on the strategy. Is there anything you can share about making that decision, when it was made? Because again, some got lucky with the strategy having already pitted and others felt that that decision should have been made sooner before that happened.
STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I would say there was a lot of thought put into that decision. At the time we made it, we waited as long as possible to see if we could get all 100 laps in. When we knew that wasn’t possible, we waited, we closed pit road. We wanted to make sure everybody knew what the race distance was going to be. Everyone had a chance to come in, pit the car, get fuel. We wanted to take fuel mileage out of it.
I think we’ve had conversations with some who may have thought it was unfair who pitted on the same lap that the leader did and won.
I think we’re more than comfortable with the way the decision was made in this case. Certainly it can be second-guessed anytime you have to do this, but I feel like the process played out well. Would have liked to get all 100, but we wanted to be as fair as possible for the fans and also not put ourselves in a position where we’re getting questions of why are you racing in the dark.
Q. Ben, what did it mean to have Mayor Johnson here? Obviously this deal was done with the previous mayor, and previously before the election, Mayor Johnson had been a little bit skeptical or on the edge, not sure which way to go on that. To have him here, what did it mean? What do you feel like you were able to show him? How many politicians did you have here in this area to show them what this event can be?
BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, first of all, we had a chance — I know Julie and the team was the first folks to meet with the mayor, and this was certainly early on in him taking office.
We had the opportunity to spend some time with him this week, as well. Super gracious. Welcomed us to the city with open arms and has been fantastic ever since.
Certainly he came to the race today. Had the chance to speak at the drivers’ meeting, as well. The relationship with the Johnson administration has certainly been strong as well as his staff, and then I’d say to add on to that, the relationship with Choose Chicago and the sports commission, Kara Bachman and everyone on that team. If you go back two or three years of us trying to put this event together and the planning process, a lot of folks were here today that were with us from the very start in some of those early conversations.
It was neat to see them. Some of them were actually down in Victory Lane kind of taking in the moment and soaking it all in, because I know NASCAR and the industry put a lot of effort in, but the city certainly put a lot of effort into this event, and it showed.
Q. You have an international driver win today. It’s certainly been expressed about interest internationally. Australia and New Zealand, the Supercars Series probably is closer to what this car races than anywhere else in the world, but I know obviously the distance in trying to do something there is probably more difficult than Europe. Beyond North America, where does this Australia/New Zealand market rank? What can you take advantage of with Shane’s win? Or is it still more realistic beyond North America that it’s probably going to have to be Europe when NASCAR expands further?
STEVE O’DONNELL: Very fair question, and a lot of folks don’t know that one of the kind of genesis points for our Next-Gen car was the Australian V-8 series. We were encouraged to go over, visit, we spent a lot of time with the race teams who were incredibly generous. If you have not seen the racing there, it’s fantastic, and you couldn’t be more welcomed when you go over and watch it.
We’ve had a close relationship throughout in terms of dialogue, competition. I would never rule out the potential for an event.
What’s great about this is NASCAR has huge interest globally right now. We saw it in Garage 56. Ben and I had a number of meetings with a number of different countries and a number of different continents wanting races.
Good problem to have for us, but we want to do what’s right for our fans, take the product to where we think it’s going to resonate. To us, this was perfect. Applaud Ben for having the vision on this.
We’re more of Chicago Bears type fan base, and I think we delivered that today, and the fans that showed up hopefully felt that with us, as well. So we’ve got to balance that as to where we go next.
Q. Do you think you could get the Cup Series to Europe or beyond North America within three years?
STEVE O’DONNELL: I’m not going to put a timetable on it, but I think we’re all confident at NASCAR that we could take the Cup Series anywhere we want, and we do that with the industry, and I think — I don’t think, I know the race we put on today would sell and would be embraced globally for sure.
THE MODERATOR: Ben, Steve, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on a great weekend, and have a safe flight home.
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