Transcript of Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) and ESPN Media … – ESPN Press Room

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Executives of the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) and ESPN participated in a media conference call today to discuss the launch of the 2023 Camping World SRX Series on ESPN.
Kicking off six consecutive Thursday nights of prime time racing action, the series makes its debut on ESPN on Thursday, July 13, at 9 p.m. ET, bringing “Thursday Night Thunder” back to ESPN. The series pits champion-level drivers from different racing series against each other in identically-prepared race cars, competing on some of America’s iconic short tracks. The season opens at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway.
Participating in the call were:
Tony Stewart – SRX Co-Founder and 2021 champion
George Pyne – SRX Co-Founder
Sandy Montag – SRX Co-Founder
Don Hawk – SRX Chief Executive Officer
Kate Jackson – ESPN Vice President, Production
A transcript of the call follows:
Tony, what are you most looking forward to with the kickoff of the season?
TONY STEWART: I think it’s kind of the same as the first two years. Racing with these unique drivers, that’s the best part about it.
I think the other thing that I’m super excited about is being back on ESPN on Thursday nights. Like you mentioned, that’s how I got recognized by car owners back in the day and got my opportunity to join with Harry Rainier in NASCAR and John Menard on the INDYCAR side was because of what they saw on Thursday Night Thunder.
Having this opportunity to bring SRX back and doing it on Thursday nights, which I think multiply the amount of drivers that had interest in running but had a lot of schedule conflicts, being on Thursday nights, it’s really opened that up.
The amount of interest from drivers wanting to join the series was astronomical this year. It was also fun to lay the schedule out, work with Don Hawk and all the tracks, tracks that submitted requests for races and figure out logistics, I really enjoyed that part of it, trying to figure out how we get through six straight Thursday nights with a crew that have to sit there and not only run the cars on Thursday but then pack up Thursday night, leave on Friday, travel to the next racetrack, get set up, get cars maintained and fixed, repaired, and have us ready to go again the next Thursday.
It’s a six-week stretch that I think we all really enjoy. We love — the fans have been excited about it coming back up again, which really makes us feel good, and we’ve got great partners, like you said. Camping World came back this year. Personally on my car, I’ve got a good friend of mine back with us, with Johnny Morris and Bass Pro Shops. Just a lot of great people that are supporting this series this year.
Between George and Sandy and Don, everybody has really worked hard to make this happen and make sure that we’ve got great race cars, great race teams, tracks, drivers, you name it. We’ve got great people on board that really want this to succeed, and we’ve got a great friend in Pam Miller that’s going to produce the shows again this year. She’s done an amazing job the first two years, and worked with her a lot at the other network with the NASCAR broadcasts.
But Pam does a great job, so I feel like we’ve got all the right tools, the right people in place to put on a great product for the fans for six weeks.
Now we’ll go to George Pyne. What are your thoughts on the growth of the series over the three years?
GEORGE PYNE: Look, it’s been an incredible journey for us. I think when you take a step back, if you said three years ago you’d be going to sold-out racetracks, would you take that, you’d be very happy with that.
I think Stafford has been sold out for over a month. We have an incredible, as Tony mentioned, field of drivers. The demand and the quality of the competition this year is going to be off the charts.
But the racing has been fantastic. The lead changes, the finishes have been terrific. So we’re very thrilled with the field of drivers we have, which this year is the best ever, and the quality of the product has been outstanding.
Really excited about being on ESPN, worldwide leader in sports. Kind of special bringing back Thursday Night Thunder. Again, thrilled to pieces to be part of that.
As Tony mentioned, we have a number of new sponsors that have come into the sport this year, which is fantastic coming to SRX, which shows great progress, and again, we’re proud to have Camping World back for the third year in a row as our title sponsor.
We’ve seen this international outreach in terms of media distribution and events.
I think when you put all that together and you say, we’ve been at this three years, are you pleased with the progress, I think absolutely we’re pleased with the progress.
Like any new business, we have challenges. When you start something from scratch and you have to pivot, we’re not perfect, and so we’ve had to have our challenges. But on balance, I’d say we’re very pleased with the results in all of the key categories: Media, competition, drivers, sponsors, tracks. The whole thing just feels really good.
We’re excited about this season. We’re excited for the race for the championship, and we’re very excited about the driver field.
For me, you never know what it’s like being in business with people, and it’s been a real pleasure to be in business with Tony and Sandy, and Don has done a terrific job as our CEO of pulling this all together.
We have a tight-knit group of guys, worked real hard, and we’re excited about the upcoming season. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with us today.
Another one of the co-founders of SRX is Sandy Montag – what are your thoughts leading into the season?
SANDY MONTAG: Just echoing what Tony and George said, I think the key for us moving to Thursday night really was the power of ESPN’s brand and everything that goes with that. They’re not the worldwide leader for nothing.
I think with Wimbledon on now on both ABC and ESPN and the ESPYs coming up and baseball, it made sense for us shifting away from Saturday night to Thursday night.
Thursday Night Thunder may have been 30 years ago when it started, but I think that brand kind of resonated with Tony, and as we talked about the possibilities on what we would do for season 3 and ESPN’s interest in bringing this back for a multiyear deal, we just thought it made a ton of sense. We’re just excited to get going at a sold-out track on Thursday night.
Don Hawk is the SRX chief executive officer, and you’re involved in scheduling the drivers and the tracks. What are your thoughts on the 2023 lineup that you’ve put together?
DON HAWK: My thoughts are really pretty simple. This is — we have some of the greatest racetracks in the country, and Tony and I beat that to death. We had 43 tracks asked to hold a venue, hold a race with SRX. While we were on the telephone narrowing it down to six, a 44th call came in on my phone during that call. We feel like we did, as Tony said, the right thing there.
The great driver roster we have that’s headed to Stafford, these are just Stafford’s stats. In that field is five Daytona 500 wins and an Indy 500 winner. Six of NASCAR’s 75 greatest drivers, seven NASCAR championships combined, and a series of great sponsors. Camping World has returned, Bass Pro is in the game, SportClips, Purdue University, which is a huge deal, Sam’s Club. You saw earlier this morning South Point Casino with our good friend Michael Gaughan. We’ve got Federated Auto Sports with Kenny Schrader. It’s a whole deal about relationships.
One of the biggest things to emphasize about this move to Thursday Night Thunder is this: Thursday Night Thunder is where I met Jeff Gordon and I met Tony Stewart, and I met them through a TV screen. (Dale) Earnhardt and I would go out for dinner and we’d get home to the hotel — we didn’t have driver/owner lots. We didn’t have motor coaches. We actually stayed in a hotel. We would eat early, and we’d go watch Tony and Jeff drive cars, and we’d say, wow.
I’m telling you, if you don’t know this stat, the last winner of Thursday Night Thunder in the year 2002 when they signed off the air was Tony Stewart. He’ll be in the first one when Thursday Night Thunder returns at Stafford Motor Speedway July the 13th.
For me, I’m like a kid in the candy store. I’m so excited, it’s not funny.
From the team that we’ve developed to the ownership and the people that work on these cars in the shop, it’s been a phenomenal winter and spring to get ready. Tony and I have talked numerous times a week every week since we came home from the last race, and so we feel like we’re more than adequately prepared for this year, and we think we have the right tracks with the right combination of drivers. 21 different superstars under contract to fight it out at six racetracks, and at the end, one champion.
Kate Jackson is ESPN’s vice president of production – Kate, some thoughts from you going into the start of SRX racing on ESPN?
KATE JACKSON: I’ll just tell you, frankly, I’m just really excited. I think this is great. I think it’s such a fun snack over the summer, six Thursdays in a row. I think the racing is going to be amazing. I think it’s a star-studded event, and I think this is racing and entertainment at its best, and I’m frankly just really, really excited that we have it, and I can’t wait to watch.
My first question is probably for leadership on the whole. This is kind of broad, but how important was adding all the active Cup drivers to the roster this year, and how has that relationship with the sanctioning body, NASCAR, changed over the last three years as you’ve started to incorporate them more and more, moving to Thursday to allow those guys to race more frequently?
GEORGE PYNE: Look, I think adding the Cup guys is fantastic. It adds another element going into our third year. As Don points out, we’re adding champion drivers Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski and others. I think we’ve added some great drivers, and I think it’ll only make it more exciting.
We think that promoting champion drivers and promoting motorsports is good for everyone, and I think over time, I think that’s evolved, and I think we have an excellent working relationship with NASCAR and have tried our very best to be complementary.
I think having these active Cup drivers and having that participation I think solidifies what I just said. That wouldn’t happen without an excellent working relationship, and I think it’s an excellent working relationship because I think we’re growing the sport and we’re growing viewership and growing interest, and I think anytime that you grow interest and grow viewership, it benefits everybody, and I think that’s what the case is here.
I expect a very exciting race this week, this Thursday, and expecting many more to come.
DON HAWK: Thank you, George. I’m going to go a tad more granular, and it’s this. I’ve been in direct communication with Jim France, that’s NASCAR, and we’re good. I’ve been in direct communication with Roger Penske, that’s INDYCAR, and we’re good. I’ve been in direct communication with Cromwell, NHRA, and we’re good.
I tried to make it my business so they could see we’re going to be accretive to the whole racing inventory, the plethora of motorsports in America. All we’re going to do is, like Roger Penske said to me, a high tide lifts all ships, Hawk, sail away. That’s what we’re going to do.
I just wanted to give you the literal — I promise you, when I started getting drivers texting me saying, I want to race, and they were full-time in Cup, I called Jim France, and we are good.
I can’t emphasize that enough. Great question.
SANDY MONTAG: The only thing I would add is in our title we’re superstars and we’re about the experience. We don’t really compete with anyone. As George said, we want to help elevate the sport in general, and we’re friends with everyone here. We just want to have great racing and provide great entertainment for our fans and viewers.
From the very beginning that SRX launched with Tony being the last IROC champion, IROC gets invoked a lot as like one of the conceptual pillars of SRX, and certainly this year with the roster it’s taken on more of that flair with the current active drivers. Is that kind of the long-term model, I guess, over the next five to ten years, to grow that stature? Are you guys happy with six races? What is the three-year, four-year, five-year plan of what SRX could become over the years?
GEORGE PYNE: I’ll take a shot at that. I think right now we’re happy with the six races. I think very clearly we could go beyond six races at some time. As I said, I think there’s a lot of international interest in the product.
But I think we’re happy where we’re at, and we’re going to grow prudently and methodically. As Don said, there’s plenty of interest, 44 racetracks. There’s plenty of people that want to see SRX in their market, but we want to be thoughtful with that approach, and we’ll kind of take it one step at a time.
SANDY MONTAG: In two years we’ve built a great brand. I think we have great IP. I think starting — it’s not easy to start a sport or a league from scratch, especially in this cluttered sports environment.
We’re happy where we are now. I think we’re going to be — sometimes we’re going to err on the side of being cautious and being conservative, but clearly there are a number of areas that we can get into down the road, and we’ll see what the opportunities are.
Looking at this year, what could constitute a successful year for SRX both on the track and off the track on the business side?
SANDY MONTAG: I think already we’re successful. We’re sold out in Stafford. We’re sold out in a number of other tracks, so I think that’s successful.
Don has given you the stats on our drivers. I think that’s successful. So we’re going to have great attendance. We have great drivers. We need a little bit of luck, as you always do in the summer with weather, so we can continue that stretch. That would be great.
I just think overall if you look at it from 30,000 feet, if we continue to grow the brand, if we continue to get great feedback from our fans and viewers, I think that would constitute a success in my book.
GEORGE PYNE: One thing I would add, being a study under Bill France, is continue with a great product. We had a lot of lead changes. We had exciting finishes.
The way I measure the product is I go on social media after the races, and if you go on social media after our races, it’s very positive. I’ve been on both sides of social media, the not positive and the positive, and it’s probably one of the most positive social media experiences I’ve had.
I think the fans will tell you if they like SRX or not, and I think what I’ve been able to see is an overwhelming enjoyment of the SRX product.
I think continuing to put out a good product on the track, close competitive racing, having a little bit of fun with interesting people, I think we just want to continue that. Then other things will come from that success.
But as Sandy says, whatever the metric is, three years in, I think we’ve done pretty well so far.
Tony, on the list of drivers that you’ve been able to recruit to come over and race on either a full-time or part-time basis, who is out there that you’ve asked that you haven’t been able to get to agree to race yet?
TONY STEWART: I still want to get Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and Jeff Gordon in cars. That’s pretty easy to go that direction, obviously.
That’s two guys that are superstars, and that’s what this series is about is about superstar drivers. Those are two guys that for sure belong in this series and have earned their right to drive in this series.
I know the fans would love to see both of those guys back behind the wheel of race cars again.
I presume you’ve made the sales pitch to them; what’s their response been? Are they interested, or they’ve got other stuff going on?
TONY STEWART: I think they both have pretty full plates is the main reason. You know, Jeff is obviously very active with Hendrick Motorsports, and Dale Jr. has got his plethora of projects that he’s a part of.
That’s why this Thursday thing was so important was because of schedules and how busy everyone’s time is.
For those two guys in particular with all the business interests that they have, it made it a little complicated to get them in for six weeks.
Tony and George, what obstacles did you have to overcome with building this brand and finding your unique audience?
TONY STEWART: I think from the competition side, the whole concept of kind of reviving the IROC series but putting it on steroids with being able to have crew chiefs assigned to three cars and that way we actually can make changes.
There’s a small amount of changes that we can make, and it’s in a pretty tight box, but it does give all the drivers in the field a good opportunity.
One driver might like a tight car, one driver might like a loose car. If you’ve made every car identical to every umpteenth degree, then somebody is not going to be happy with the way their car is driving. This way we’re able to change and balance the cars a little bit better to each driver’s driving style. That’s something that was really big and unique at the start of this was trying to figure out how do we take what IROC and the Signore family did for so many years and did it so well for so many years, how do we take that and just make it better, being able to condense our show to a two-hour show where they see two heat races and a main event and go six straight weeks to six tracks is something that just hadn’t been done with IROC.
Like we said, all the tracks and drivers that have expressed interest, it’s been through the roof. I’d say from the competition side, that’s been the best part.
GEORGE PYNE: I’d just add, we started this as a couple of guys with a dream, right. We weren’t part of a big organization. We’re kind of entrepreneurs that had an idea that hey, these championship drivers could really race in a fun format, a shorter format, and we had we had to make the dream a reality. So we weren’t born out of a big organization.
I think that’s a challenge.
I think the other challenge is telling people what SRX is. I think going into the third year, I think people have a good idea of what SRX is. It’s champion drivers, some of the greatest drivers in the history of racing, competing in a very competitive format that’s kind of made for today’s fan and also in a very fair format. Like all the cars are equal. It’s the best man or woman wins.
I think explaining what it is, launching something as a couple of guys with an idea and letting people understand what that’s all about takes time, and so when you think about that and where we are, we’re pretty pleased with the journey. We’ve got more progress to make.
But I think looking at where we are three years into it, I think you’d have to be very satisfied.
This question is for anyone. In your opinion where do you see the trajectory of the Superstar Racing Experience in the upcoming years, and what continued efforts will be needed for the future in terms of evolving the series?
SANDY MONTAG: Well, I would say in general I think our graph is kind of pointing up. We’ve had, as George as Tony said, we’ve had a great couple of years to start.
I think we’re heading in the right direction. What will continue to have to happy think is interest from our fans and viewers, and I think the continued support of our sponsors, and it really just depends what we decide to do with the brand, where we decide to grow.
We have a multiyear deal with ESPN, so we know where we’re going to be the next few years, and I just think the arrow is pointing in the right direction.
For anyone who wants to chime in, heading into year three, where specifically are some areas that you feel the series has evolved?
TONY STEWART: I think we’ve looked at the first two years, and this is going to be a real simple sign of it behind the scenes, but I think really planning ahead. I think we did a really good job going into season one of planning for six straight weeks and the challenges that nobody sees on — nobody will see it on Thursday night because they don’t see what happens the other six days, but the amount of work it takes to turn all these cars around and basically we’re a traveling circus for six straight weeks.
But I think the thing that I’ve seen a lot of growth in is how good a job our staff has done, the guys that work on the cars at the shop, and on the road, how efficient they’ve become and how they keep trying to find better ways to make sure that if we have issues while we’re out on the road that if we need something really big that needs to go back to North Carolina, we’re set up for it.
But those guys are really geared up, and I think that’s one thing that I feel like is super impressive that none of the fans see. They are definitely the unsung heroes in this equation and keep the ball rolling and the train rolling for us.
That’s one thing that I feel like has been super impressive to watch is how we keep trying to evolve and find ways to make things better, and it’s that way across the entire two-hour program is how do we make this better for the drivers, how do we make it better for the fans, how do we make it better for TV? We’re always constantly trying to figure out what we’ve already done and make it better, and that’s something that’s really important to us.
SANDY MONTAG: I think what we’ve also done if you look at our television shows the first couple of years, we’re essentially keeping the same production team moving to ESPN. I think we’ve gotten great feedback on how we produce a two-hour motorsports race. I think from our technology, from our in-car cameras in every car, from our communication, from the announcers in the booth to drivers while the race is on, to some of our stats and the use of drones.
I think the way we produce this race, these races, I think is really unique, and I think arguably the best in the business. I think we’ve improved on that over the first couple of years.
The other thing, too, and I think Hawk has done an amazing job with Tony on the driver lineup. It’s just amazing how over a couple of years — Hawk has many, many incoming calls, as does Tony, raising their hand to join the field. I think that too, really, the number of drivers and the interest from the drivers in all the different disciplines has been pretty special.
Tony, with the addition of more Cup drivers from a driver standpoint, how do you feel that dynamic will change on track?
TONY STEWART: I don’t think it’ll change at all, honestly. It’s still the same cars. It’s still short tracks.
I think for a lot of the Cup guys, we didn’t have that luxury with IROC. Whatever venue we were at at the Cup Series that weekend, that was also where we ran IROC.
I think that’s what’s going to be fun about this for these guys is even though they’re full-time racers on the weekends with NASCAR, for them to have the opportunity to come back and go back to their roots and go to a lot of these short tracks, I think that’s something that means a lot to these guys.
The amount of Cup drivers that raised their hand and said, hey, we want to race. We can’t run all of them but we want to run these two races or those two races or this one race, just the amount of excitement that we had from the current Cup roster was phenomenal.
I think it shows that what we’re doing has merit, shows how much fun these drivers have going to these races, and to see that many guys raise their hand just was — obviously when you’re a partner in the series, it puts a smile on your face knowing that what you’re doing must be right.
Don, one of the big storylines that we saw from SRX last season was that you had promised Helio Castroneves a Daytona 500 ride if he won a race. Wondering if there’s any more deals like that between yourself and drivers that we could be on the lookout for this season?
DON HAWK: Yeah, that was actually a really cool spontaneous moment. We actually were this far away from attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500. I think we made a really good decision not to do that. Helio and I continue to talk about SRX, Daytona 500s and things like that.
My main focus, though, right now is just SRX, SRX, SRX, and that’s what Helio is really focused on, as well. If we get in the Daytona 500, we get an offer from somebody as a side job, it’s just going to be a blast.
To Tony. We have a lot of Connecticut media on the call. I wanted to ask you if you could talk a little bit about Stafford Motor Speedway as a driver and a venue for SRX.
TONY STEWART: I like it. Obviously we’re going back for the third straight year, which wasn’t what our initial plan was. We tried to plan on going to different tracks each season, but Stafford has always produced really good racing. It’s a fun, unique track. It’s a very technical track for — you don’t hear people talk about technical tracks, not technical tracks too often anymore, but Stafford is very unique. It’s got elevation change in Turns 1 and 2. It’s kind of a double apex corner. Turns 3 and 4 it’s kind of a decreasing radius, so to speak, so it gives the drivers a lot of options on where to go depending on how their driving style matches the car.
We had pretty exciting races the last two years there, so we’re excited to go back. Jack (Arute) and his staff do an awesome job up there. It’s a fun place to go. The fans are amazing there. When you get there, the atmosphere is incredible.
The fans really set the tone for the race for us. But when we see them that excited, it gets us even that much more excited to drive the cars.
Tony, kind of similar to the one you just answered, I do the Inside Groove up here in Barre, Vermont, and remember long ago, 2009, you came up here and ran Thunder Road in a late model. Wanted to know, did that go into any of the decision making of giving them a race this year, and what do you remember about that night, and what are you excited for to get back up there with a completely different racetrack here in 2023?
TONY STEWART: Well, I wish I could remember that far back. Unfortunately I’ve had enough battles with concrete walls that they won more than I did. There’s a lot of things I’ve forgotten.
But I do remember going up there. I remember how much of a blast we had. Couldn’t believe the size of the crowd they had for a late model event up there. It was just crazy.
We’re excited about it. The good thing is it’s for our staff, it’s a four-hour drive from Stafford to Barre, and I think that’s something that’s made it very appealing to us. If we’re going to start up in the northeast, how do you not run Thunder Road. It’s one of those tracks that’s iconic in the northeast, and it worked out good to do Stafford and Thunder Road back-to-back like this.
I think it’s two iconic tracks that deserve the attention they’re going to get the next two weeks.
SRX will air on six consecutive Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App:
The 2023 SRX Schedule (all times Eastern)
SRX Media Contact: Andrew Montag, [email protected]
ESPN Media Contact: Andy Hall, [email protected]
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