Transcripts: Ben Kennedy – Press Conference

HE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Matt Nordby with NASCAR communications. Appreciate you joining us today to discuss the 2024 NASCAR national series schedules.

We’re joined today by NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy, Ben Kennedy, and with that, we’ll go ahead and get things started.

Ben, I’ll kick it off with you and we’ll open up the room to questions. Can you walk us through the highlights of the ’24 schedule? We have another new venue, obviously, that was announced yesterday with Iowa Speedway, but what are some of the other highlights that you can sort of touch on before we get into questions?

BEN KENNEDY: Thank you, Matt. First of all, welcome to everyone. Thank you not only for being here today but for covering our sport throughout the year. Appreciate all that you guys do, day in and day out.

Another exciting day. I know we all have a lot of anticipation in and around schedule announcement day, but an exciting day as we announce the 2024 schedule, and another great blend of some of the new markets that we’re going to be returning to, a new track that a lot of our fans have been asking for for a long time, and then a lot of historic racetracks that we get to celebrate, as well.

First and foremost, on the 2024 schedule, I think the most talked-about one so far is Iowa Speedway. I had the opportunity to go to Des Moines yesterday and meet with Governor Reynolds. Rusty Wallace was there; Brad Keselowski was there; and make the announcement for the first time in what will be our 76-year history we’ll be going to Iowa Speedway.

We’re really excited to be bringing our Cup Series there as well as the Xfinity Series and ARCA Menards Series. It’s been four years since we’ve had the chance to go to Iowa Speedway, I guess five years next year, with one of our national series.

I think it’s going to put on a great racing product. Frankly, I think it’s going to be a good blend between what we’ve seen on short tracks and intermediate-style racing, which has been really strong with the Next-Gen car, and it’s something that our fans have been asking for for a long time.

I think it’s going to look like an amazing crowd. I’m sure camping will be really strong there. It’ll be a great way to kick off NBC’s portion of the season.

In addition to that, we’ve already made a handful of another announcements. We’ll be returning to the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, which will, again, be on big FOX on February 4th.

In addition to that, we’re going to have our NASCAR México Series joining us for the first time at that event, so really excited to see the NASCAR México Series joining us on Sunday, which I think is going to be a great addition, and a lot of crossover between having some of our Mexico drivers come to Los Angeles and be in the spotlight in downtown Los Angeles in a huge market for us. It’ll be great to unofficially kick off our season with an exhibition race at the Clash at the Coliseum.

We’ll be returning to the Chicago Street Race for our second annual year, and unfortunately we had some weather this year. I’m excited about what next year is going to look like. We had a lot of things we unfortunately weren’t able to do this year as it relates to some of the concerts and other activities. Knock on wood, the weather will be a lot better and will look like it does outside today, and be able to get some great racing in.

Obviously a huge staple and tentpole as you think about our 2023 schedule, and will be great to be back here in Chicago.

Then on top of that, we’ll be returning to North Wilkesboro for the All-Star Race, an iconic and historic racetrack. Atlanta will be moving to the second slot for its spring date after the Daytona 500, and then will help kick off our playoffs as the very first race once we go into the playoffs.

Then to that end, a little bit of a shakeup in the playoffs schedule. Now that we’ve seen how the playoffs have shaken out the past couple of years, we wanted to introduce a little bit of variety and innovation to it with introducing Atlanta to that very first race in the playoffs, Watkins Glen right after it, Bristol Night Race in that Round of 16 to help close us out, and then Kansas moving to the Round of 12.

As you think about the Round of 16 and Round of 12 in particular and the variability and diversity of the tracks, we have some of the best drivers in the world, and to be able to see them on short tracks, intermediate tracks, superspeedways and road courses, I can tell you as a fan it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Then last but not least, we’ll be heading to Phoenix Raceway for our championship, again, as we crown all three of our national series champions.

THE MODERATOR: Thanks for the overview, Ben. We’ll now go to the media for questions. As a reminder, please use your hand-raising function within Zoom, and then when you’re called upon, please state your name and your affiliation before asking your questions.

Q. Thanks for being with us. I’m curious, obviously it seemed like that Iowa was a little bit late addition in the sense of that you couldn’t get Montreal done, so I’m curious if that’s accurate, and then B, are you still in pursuit of Montreal, and if you do get that done for future years, what does that do with Iowa?

BEN KENNEDY: Iowa Speedway was something that we’ve talked about for quite a while. This is something that we’ve been hearing from our fans for a long time, and Iowa in particular, that we want to see a Cup race there. Unfortunately had to take a bit of a hiatus over the past few years with COVID for the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, but felt like it was important for us to get back to Iowa Speedway.

Then as we think about international venues in general, we still are bullish about finding our way either north of the border, whether that be in Montreal or Toronto or another market, or south of the border down into Mexico. As we’ve mentioned in the past, we want to bring our NASCAR Cup Series there at some point. We think it’s important for us to get outside of the United States with our series in some way, shape or form, so that’s something we’re going to keep our pulse on as we think about 2025 and beyond.

As we have mentioned in the past, timing is always critical to a lot of these venues, and we want to make sure that the market is ready for the NASCAR Cup Series, that the timing makes sense for the industry and the sport, and hopefully we’ll be able to move in that direction at some point.

Q. I know you talked a little bit about the playoffs and Atlanta opening up, but you’ve got with Atlanta a drafting track, Talladega a drafting tack. In the past you hadn’t put two drafting tracks in the playoffs. That’s certainly 20 percent of the playoffs. Why was Atlanta in there, or was that as much of a carrot to Atlanta to moving its spring date to February date where the weather is a little bit more of a potential issue for its spring event?

BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, so a number of things as we think about the movement of the Atlanta dates. I think for starters, as you think about the spring date, Daytona 500 is our biggest event of the year, and we carry a lot of momentum in the early part of our season.

With seeing how Atlanta has played out over the past couple of years from a racing product perspective, obviously we want to see how it both started and evolved over the repave, and after seeing several races play out in Atlanta felt like it made sense to move it into that second slot after Daytona. It was a natural fit for us seeing that we’re not returning to Auto Club next year.

As we think about heading to the West Coast Swing and Vegas and Phoenix, and then introducing it to the playoffs was kind of a myriad of things. Again, the racing product and what we’ve seen so far, the positive fan sentiment that we’ve seen around what it looks like on track, and then we felt like it was an opportunity to introduce a little bit of variety to the schedule in the playoffs.

Introducing a drafting-style track like Atlanta to the Round of 16, to follow it up with Watkins Glen and then the Bristol Night Race is really going to test the variability of our drivers and their skills as they think about punching their ticket to the Round of 12.

Something we wanted to do that was a little bit different and shake it up a bit.

Q. Also, at one point there was a little bit of rumblings about Rockingham, and things have been building up there. Was there any conversations or any interest or if you put a race in Rockingham, is it going back to the issues 15, 20 years ago, there’s a race in Rockingham, there’s a race in Darlington, there’s a race in Charlotte, that you’re flooding the market, and there really is no place for Rockingham for NASCAR in the future?

BEN KENNEDY: No, I think as we think about a schedule, we have had conversations with all sorts of different track owners, venue promoters, cities around the world. We’ve had conversations with the folks with Rockingham, as well.

It’s something that we certainly keep on the radar, as is a number of other facilities.

It’s something we do want to be mindful of. We have North Wilkesboro, we have a race at Charlotte, we have a couple of races at Darlington and Martinsville. We do have a lot of races in that part of the country. That said, it’s also a really important part of the country for us.

What the future looks like as we think about that region in particular is yet to be seen, but we’re going to keep our pulse on all tracks and venues that are out there.

Q. I had a specific question about the spring date in Bristol. Given the history when it’s been in March with the weather, rain and sometimes even snow being an issue, how much does that history play into it when you’re moving a date back to March?

BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, so it’s a great question. Bristol in particular is something that we have considered quite a bit, it moving off of Easter Sunday and then moving from dirt back to concrete is certainly a big change, but date is also an important element of that.

As you think about our schedule, and if you want to bookend it from Presidents Day Weekend or February 4th for the Clash all the way to our championship race, which is the second week of November now, it is a bit of a challenge as we think about trying to find dates in the February and March windows. Naturally we don’t have a ton of racetracks that we can race at in Florida or the southern part of the country where it’s a little bit warmer in February and March, so we do have to stay mindful of it.

That said, we feel like having Bristol that time of year will make a lot of sense, and coming out of the West Coast Swing heading back to Bristol, Martinsville and then Richmond on Easter, those have always been somewhat close to each other and have some date equity around it, so we didn’t want to move them too far from their current homes.

Q. With Bristol kind of moving back to the two concrete dates, have you guys closed the door entirely on dirt racing as being part of the identity, whether it’s a temporary track or a more permanent track?

BEN KENNEDY: We haven’t, no. We’re certainly open to dirt racing, whether it be with our Cup Series, Xfinity Series or Craftsman Truck Series. Something we’re going to continue to consider.

That said, I think after we’ve seen racing on the dirt at Bristol play out for the past few years and hearing some of the fan feedback, we felt like it was an opportunity for us to shake things up a bit, move back to the concrete surface in the spring, and move back to all asphalt and concrete tracks for ’24.

I think that said, as we think about what the future looks like, dirt racing does have a unique place in motorsports. You think of a lot of our drivers, they came from dirt racing.

You think of some of the best racing that I’ve personally seen, it’s on dirt.

Do I think there’s going to be a dirt race sometime in the future? I think so. What that track looks like or what the time is, we’ll see, but it’s something we’re going to keep our pulse on for sure.

I think similar to some of these unique styles of tracks like street courses, if it does come back on the schedule, I don’t think it’s going to be something where we have 15 different dirt tracks. I think it might be one or two that we’d have throughout the year and really make it something special.

Q. The last two weeks we’ve talked about the wild card round in the playoffs and how treacherous it can be for teams to navigate that, and then next year we’re basically going to have two wild card rounds. Is there any hesitation or reservation towards what that does from like a sporting standpoint?

BEN KENNEDY: No, not really. I think as we think about both the round of — I’m assuming of Round of 16 and Round of 12 that you’re mentioning and Atlanta coming into the playoffs. That’s something that we’ve talked about quite a bit internally, and we’ve debated as a scheduling team, certainly competition has weighed in, and we’ve had conversations with teams around what this could look like.

It’s certainly something that we hold very dear to us is making sure that the quality of the racing product and the parity is really strong.

That said, I do think Atlanta races like a plate track, but you also have a lot of comers and goers, and you need to have a good driver and a fast car to be competitive there, as well.

. I think adding it to the Round of 16 is going to be exciting. Having Watkins Glen there is going to test the drivers’ skill, and then Bristol is an iconic racetrack for us.

Having an Atlanta race in the Round of 16 and Talladega in the Round of 12 I think is going to be really exciting for our fans to see.

Q. The Darlington-Daytona shift, I know it’s largely in part because of the two-week break, obviously, so is it a given that those will move back to the positions that you had them in following this, or are you still — is that still up in the air, not guaranteed that they’ll return to their spots?

BEN KENNEDY: It’s up in the air. You know, I’ve really enjoyed Daytona as a regular season cutoff race. For the past few years, I think it’s been exciting, it’s been unpredictable, it’s created a lot of storylines. Next year with us taking two weeks during the Olympics and naturally moving the end of our season back one week shifts that, and we had a lot of conversations about does Daytona continue to stay as a regular season and do you swap it with Darlington.

We felt like Darlington on Labor Day Weekend and being that race is something that’s core to us and something that’s special to our fans, so it’s something we wanted to keep in place and really test out as we think about for 2024, seeing that it is a little bit different.

I know that ’25 is going to look different. Naturally we’ll be in our new media rights agreement, so it won’t be an Olympic year, so I think the schedule overall will have a lot of variability to it as we think about ’25. Does that mean we’ll be back at Daytona? Potentially. Does that mean Daytona is a regular season cutoff race? Potentially.

We’re going to look at all scenarios, and part of it will also be looking at seeing how Darlington is as a cutoff race for the regular season.

Q. I had two questions on Pocono. A lot of people since I’ve been here keep mentioning that they’re frustrated that there’s not two races anymore. My question for you is how do you balance when you’re making the new schedule going into new markets like Iowa but obviously respecting the tradition of somewhere like this? And the second part I wanted to know is what effect do you think having the race here at Pocono a week earlier will do in terms of attendance, and how do you consider all that?

BEN KENNEDY: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I appreciate it. It’s a balancing act, right, so we want to continue to be bold and innovative and introduce new venues to the schedule like a Chicago Street Course, LA Coliseum or Nashville or Circuit of the Americas.

That said, unfortunately we can’t add new races to the schedule. Every time we add a new date, it has to come from somewhere else, so as we think about schedule variability and getting to some of these new markets, naturally we do have to make some of those difficult decisions.

But I think that said, if you looked at Pocono this year, I didn’t have the chance to go but I looked at some of the aerial shots of it, it looked amazing. The crowd in the grandstands, the camping was unbelievable. It was great to see the amount of people that turned out for the event. The race was fun to watch.

I think having it — even though it’s not on the same exact weekend, close to its weekend that they had this year, I think helps keep a little bit of date equity, and it’s a lot of conversations that we’ve had with Nick Igdalsky and the group is they really love that middle part of July and having some equity around it, so we wanted to try to protect that as much as we could.

Q. Ben, looking at the schedule and kind of with the Daytona-Darlington flip, if you will, how much consideration was given to having a mid-week race or a double-header during the regular season to accommodate maybe for keeping Daytona as the regular season finale, and why didn’t that work if you were considered it?

BEN KENNEDY: We talked a lot about that. We talked a lot about midweek races. We’ve had conversations about double-headers. I can’t tell you how many scenarios we went through. We ended up with our 24th version of the schedule. It was scenario B of 24.

There are a number of different variations that we go through as we think about building the schedule, and those were some of our considerations. We got to see a lot of that play out, especially during COVID in 2021.

That said, we felt like it was in our best interest to try to keep most of our interest on Saturday nights or Sundays. As we’ve mentioned in the past, a lot of our fans are accustomed to tuning into races on Sunday afternoons. We see some of our strongest ratings and viewership and attendance on Sunday afternoons, so we felt like it was important to really protect that as we think about 2024.

Does it mean that it looks a little bit different on the ’24 schedule? It does. I think as we’ve said, we’re going to continue to test and edit it. Is the schedule ever going to be perfect? It’s not. It’s going to be a journey for us.

But I think seeing how Darlington plays off as a regular season finale, Atlanta and Watkins Glen in the playoffs, introducing some of that innovation just gives us more data as we think about building out new schedules.

Q. What is something about the schedule that you really wanted to see implemented this year that you weren’t able to?

BEN KENNEDY: That’s a good question. I’m pretty happy with it. You think about a lot of the highlights, to be able to go back to Indianapolis on the oval for their 30th anniversary, something that we’ve actually talked about for quite a while, to be able to do that is going to be special. To be back here in Chicago is going to be amazing. The event this year was unprecedented in a lot of ways, including our winner.

To be able to come back next year is going to be another tentpole event for us.

I’m really excited about it. Iowa is going to be another great addition. I have every expectation it’s going to be a sold-out crowd. The camping is going to look amazing there. I think the racing product is going to be strong.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the ’24 schedule plays out.

Q. Looking at Chicago, great race, can’t wait to go back. But you had to give up some concessions. The city said you agreed to shorten the event setup and teardown and also committed to addressing costs incurred by city departments. We have a new government there, and there was a little bit of push-back, but hey, you’re going back and that’s the bottom line. Do they kind of have you over a barrel, so to speak, in terms of — because it’s a new administration, and how tough were those negotiations until you finally were able to pull the trigger and say we’re coming back?

BEN KENNEDY: No, you know, I think as we’ve mentioned around July 1st and 2nd of this year, we had every intention of us going back to Chicago for 2024, and it’s great to officially be able to announce the dates for that next year.

Those are conversations that we’ve had. With the Johnson administration coming into office, we’ve had a great relationship and a really open dialogue with him and his entire team, and they’ve been nothing but fantastic to work with since May of this year.

We look forward to continuing to have those conversations and what the next few years are going to look like, and we’re still really bullish on this event and what it means to the NASCAR community in the sense of creating a street race in a huge market like Chicago for us.

But importantly, what this means for Chicago. We want this to be a positive event for the city of Chicago, something that Chicagoans are proud of, and part of that comes on what happens on Saturday and Sunday of that race weekend. Part of that also comes with road closures and park closures and some of the other things that were doing in communities, whether that’s STEM or STEAM initiatives and a handful of other things.

We’re really proud of the work that Julie Giese and the team has done here this year, but bullish about what the next few years look like in Chicago.

Q. A quick mention of the media rights. They’ll obviously come into play next year. Do your TV partners and broadcast partners put a lot more pressure like maybe next year to maybe do some things with the schedule that you felt a little freer to do with this year, or it doesn’t matter?

BEN KENNEDY: You know, our broadcast partners are fantastic, between FOX and NBC, and it’s a really collaborative process with them.

As you think about the layout of the schedule, a lot of that is driven from our conversations with them and programming and times, whether it’s an afternoon race, a primetime race, a Saturday night race, where a lot of our windows are.

They certainly have a very big voice at the table. That said, we also have a lot of voices to hear from, so our fans are probably number one on that list. Broadcast partners are high on the list. Our teams and drivers are high on the list. Our partners are high on the list.

There are a lot of folks that are certainly weighing in as we think about these scheduling changes, and it’s incumbent upon us to take in all that data and information and feedback, try to make the best calculated decisions as we think about rolling out the next schedule.

THE MODERATOR: Ben, thanks for all the time, and again, thanks for all the hard work over the last year, pulling together another dynamic schedule. It’s really good stuff.

All the media, appreciate you joining us. Thanks for the coverage of the sport, and of course see you all out at Charlotte this weekend.