Leaders in Motorsport: How Nascar plans to conquer China

For years, the domestic narrative around Nascar has centred on its dwindling event attendances, falling TV viewership and mounting sponsorship struggles. Yet the growing international ambitions of stock-car racing’s preeminent series tell an altogether different story.

Leaders in Motorsport: How Nascar plans to conquer China

If Nascar’s recent past has been a tale of retreat on home soil, the same cannot be said of the series when it comes to the international marketplace.

Over the course of several seasons, stock-car racing’s venerable organisation has seen its average trackside attendances fall year-on-year, its domestic TV ratings and viewership decline in a much-changed media landscape, and many of its stakeholders publicly voice nagging concerns over the long-term future of a sport with an ageing, predominantly white working class fanbase.

Yet away from its southern US heartland, Nascar is most definitely on the advance. Intent on exploring new frontiers and ensuring their sport stays relevant in the digital age, Nascar’s newly restructured leadership have assumed a more internationalist mindset.

This past January, the organisation’s senior executive team refocused their overseas expansion efforts with the creation of a new international department headed up initially by Jim Cassidy, until his departure in early May, and now taken on by Gene Stefanyshyn.

“I’ve been involved with the international space for a number of years,” says Cassidy in one of his final interviews before ending a Nascar career spanning two decades, “but the family and the leadership sees a very significant opportunity for growth in the space. And so we’re going to go out and provide a little bit more dedication to this area – or a lot more, in fact, going forward.”

Reporting to Steve O’Donnell, Nascar’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, Cassidy and now Stefanushyn is responsible for growing the Nascar brand globally whilst overseeing its established developmental series and commercial operations in Mexico, Canada and Europe, and seeking out new growth opportunities in other international markets. Alos working on the project are Chad Seigler, now Nascar’s vice president of international business development, and Jimmy Small, its senior director of international business development.

“We’ve found great success in the United States and North America in particular,” says Cassidy, “and obviously if you’re a company that finds great success here you’re going to naturally want to explore and make sure that you’re optimising the opportunities to grow your business where there’s demand for it elsewhere.

“Certainly motorsports, needless to say, is a form of sports and entertainment that you find worldwide – there is no shortage of it. But there is a shortage of true stock-car racing. We firmly believe that there is a strong appetite for some further differentiation in the types of racing that people can find where they are. We’re going to find those people and introduce them to some close, side-by-side racing with some big fast cars.”

Nascar’s overseas footprint has spanned both sides of the Atlantic since 2012, when the organisation began sanctioning a European championship – now known as the Nascar Whelen Euro Series – to sit alongside its existing feeder circuits in Canada and Mexico.

Each of those series has been set up to offer a pathway for young local drivers to make their way into Nascar’s various national championships at home in the United States, and all three have borne fruit in that regard: the emergence of Daniel Suarez, a young Mexican driver for Joe Gibbs Racing who rose through the ranks at home before landing a spot in Nascar’s top-tier Monster Energy Cup Series, is one standout success story, while the arrival last year of Alon Day, the first Israeli to race in the Cup Series, is testament to Nascar’s ongoing eff orts to develop overseas talent.

The Black Book spoke to ex-Nascar head of international development Jim Cassidy in one of his final interviews before ending a Nascar career spanning two decades

The strategic objective now is to replicate the model in other important markets – and one country in particular has long been front-of-mind. “The wider and immediate ambition is China, definitely,” Cassidy insists. “When you look at where China is from a standpoint of enthusiasm and the passion around the automobile and the growth of the automobile culture – and the growth of the motorsports culture along with it – it’s not to be ignored, and it’s something we’re not going to ignore.”

He adds: “I think there is going to be a prolonged, high level of competition across many OEMs to continue to grab that market share and that excitement and enthusiasm around the car in China. Those OEMs will require a high level of differentiation of opportunities to demonstrate their products, and we think that Nascar is a perfect fit at a perfect time for China.”

Though a precise launch time has not been specified, Cassidy foresees Nascar establishing some form of permanent presence in China “relatively soon”, not least since efforts within the country to build world class facilities are ramping up all the time. Last year Nascar executives attended the opening of a new road course built by Mitime Investment & Development, a subsidiary of Chinese automotive company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which is in the process of constructing several racetracks in China and has also invested in motorsports overseas.

Daniel Suarez rose through the ranks in his home championship in Mexico to secure a seat with Joe Gibbs Racing in Nascar’s top-tier Monster Energy Cup Series

Now, Cassidy anticipates “an upturn in both the development of racetracks as well as the development of racing” in China, and says Nascar itself will look to bring “something different” to that which is currently on offer in the country.

“Certainly, there is racing over there today with touring cars and some open-wheel; obviously, Formula One goes into a big market once a year and then goes away,” he says. “We’re going to go over there and work with them to introduce them to the sport and let them know that we’re going to be there for a long time.

“I would be hesitant to put a timeframe on China but I would say that the conversations didn’t start when this newly formed department was announced. The conversations with China have been ongoing for a number of years, and I think part of what you’ve seen from this committed and dedicated group is a combination of some of those conversations and us feeling that this is now the time to commit fully to this endeavour.”

Cassidy explains that the specific appeal of China extends far beyond the country’s vast population of 1.4 billion people, its burgeoning automotive industry that sells over 20 million vehicles a year, and its evident appetite for all forms of motorsport. He notes how “there are really a lot of opportunities from a commercial standpoint that we’ll be able to determine as we get deeper into it”, and acknowledges the inherent attractiveness of the market for all members of the extended Nascar family, including teams, drivers, OEMs and corporate backers.

“Philosophically, from a Nascar approach overall, when we develop a new product or any new business model we’re going to do it the way we’ve done it from the beginning – and that is: it should work for everybody,” he insists.

“Certainly, we have a lot of stakeholders to juggle in motorsports across the commercial front and the competitive front, with drivers and owners and tracks and OEMs and other major commercial players. But what we’re going to do is obviously communicate and make sure that they know what we’re going to do, when we’re doing it, and have the opportunity to come and be part of helping build the sport abroad.

“I would say that there will be an opportunity to have business going both ways, ideally from China to the United States, from a partnership standpoint: new partners in China that may be China-specific and then, potentially, US partners that are looking to continue to grow their base in China.”

Asked how Nascar is looking to approach the Chinese market from an operational perspective, Cassidy reveals that his team has been closely studying the way in which the National Basketball Association (NBA) has set up shop in the country. With offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, the NBA boasts long-established and hugely successful operations in China, and has come to be seen by many as a leader within the sports industry when it comes to overseas expansion in general.

“We like the way that the NBA has approached it,” he says. “They’ve been very thoughtful about the approach and it’s taken a number of years, and that goes to show you that the long-term play is important. We appreciate what they’ve done in China in particular, but motorsports is very unique.

“What we would intend to do is also very unique in that we’re going to establish Nascar in China – it will be Nascar China, and we’ll be racing there, fully fledged racing. That’s a little bit different. We’re going to have a model, ideally, that will develop stock-car drivers in China who will ultimately have the opportunity to race at the highest level; just as Danny Suarez has come up from Mexico, I would anticipate Chinese drivers making their way through the ranks in China and then through the ranks in the US, and with them bringing partners that have supported them along the way.

“Like the NBA, I think the excitement level around the series that we have today – and when you go to these races the excitement is really palpable as it relates to motorsports – is refreshing. It feels almost like a step back in time to when Nascar was growing here in the States, so it’s a look back in time from a development standpoint, but also an exciting mission to be part of with a great team to introduce what we love doing every day to new cultures.”

From a competition standpoint, Cassidy says Nascar’s approach in China will likely mirror that of its other overseas operations – although he refuses to be drawn on whether it will look to sanction an existing series and forge an operational partnership with a local promoter, as it has done with some success in Mexico and Europe.

“The common thread is the philosophy that we’ve taken in that when we enter a market, we’re not going to enter it as a one-off,” he says. “When we enter a market, we would like to ideally establish ourselves in a way that’s similar to the way we established the sport in the United States, and that is by having a series that is firmly planted here and firmly established, and that the fans and the community know that we’re racing here year-round.

“In the United States, we have roughly 1,300 Nascar-sanctioned events across North America, so fans know we’re here, they know we’re committed, they know we’re committed at all levels of racing, starting obviously at the grassroots.

“Certainly you’re going to have cultural nuances and differences in the different markets you go to, and there will be different approaches, but what you’ll see from us is a continuation of that approach that says when we come in, we’re coming in in a thoughtful and meaningful way, and a way that is going to be a long-term play and a long-term relationship with that marketplace.”

As well as China, Cassidy specifically mentions Brazil, a country with a storied association with motorsport and plenty of existing racing infrastructure, and India, “an incredibly dynamic market”, as areas for expansion further down the line. But he also sees untapped opportunities beyond actually racing – in all-important areas such as media and gaming.

“We have a good relationship with IMG and they’ve been very helpful on the international front – from a distribution standpoint, we’re currently broadcast in 185 countries,” he says. “But I think there is a big opportunity to continue to introduce Nascar in places where we may, frankly, never race. We’re going to continue to do that through that relationship and the exploitation of the digital opportunities, and as well as that you can expect to see a continued focus on the gaming side of things.

“We have good relationships with great companies like EA Sports and iRacing that can continue to introduce racing to faraway places and people and fans that want to touch the sport but might not get to touch the sport as closely as they would like to. There are certainly licensed product opportunities that go along with that. We’re going to look at all that and continue to build that out in a thoughtful way, and one that will engage each of these cultures and markets in the right way.

“Overall, Nascar from a growth standpoint has been focused on North America primarily, so I view us as having just started to scratch the surface of what is possible. We’re going to go out and explore that opportunity that we see and seize on every moment of that.”

All measurement data is provided by Hookit, the Black Book's official data partner