Growing up attending races at the Catamount Speedway in Milton, Vt., Steve Phelps ’85 knows that stockcar automobile racing is a sport best enjoyed in person. “When you go to a NASCAR race, it's very sensory. You can hear the engines; you can smell the gas and the tires. It's tactile,” he says. As President of NASCAR, Phelps also knows it’s a sport that has the potential to be for everyone, if recognized as a sport that’s welcoming of everyone.
On June 10, 2020 — in the wake of the death of George Floyd and at the request of the association’s only Black driver, Bubba Wallace — Phelps guided NASCAR through a decision to ban the Confederate flag at all its events:
“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties,” the statement read. As the first sport to resume during the pandemic just three weeks earlier, all eyes were on NASCAR.
On Tuesday, March 9 — following a virtual discussion about the sport’s road to a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community, and it’s leadership during the pandemic — Phelps will join Wanda Heading-Grant, UVM's VP for diversity, equity and inclusion, for a moderated conversation as part of the annual Hoffman Family Business Lecture.
“Having Phelps give this year’s Hoffman Family Business Lecture is a tremendous gift to our UVM community,” says Heading-Grant. “In his high-profile position, he took a stand for what is right and necessary this summer by banning the Confederate flag from NASCAR events, demonstrating to an audience of millions that hateful and racist symbols have no place in our society — and I, for one, am thankful for his leadership and being an active part of making social change by addressing racism.”
We spoke with Phelps about his experience this summer and what to expect during the virtual conversation with Heading-Grant:
- You’ve worked at both the NFL and NASCAR in your career. What do you see as NASCAR’s role in racial justice initiatives in comparison to other sport leagues or associations?
We are a different sport; unlike stick-and-ball sports, we don't own teams. We own some of the facilities where we race, but we don't own teams, so it was important that our industry came together as one. There needed to be a healthy amount of trust in order to have people want to participate, want to collaborate and push things forward to meet the vision that we had outlined for all the different stakeholders in the sport.
But we don't look at how we're doing versus other sports; we kind of look at it in the absolute. The stance that we took on social justice after the death of George Floyd was really an industry-wide effort that started with the drivers. Shortly after, I addressed our entire industry about how we needed to do better, we needed to listen, we needed to be educated, we needed to do better overall — as a sport and as a country. I believe it was the next week we banned the Confederate flag at all of our facilities, which, for some people — including myself — was very long overdue, but we had to make sure that we were being smart about how we were going to do that. There were some people that thought that it would completely alienate our fanbase and was a foolish thing. I didn't think so, and it's proven to be one of the better decisions that we've made as a company.
For us, we had to be, and will continue to be, a sport of action as it relates to social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. I think what is striking to people is — with the perception of what NASCAR was — that if NASCAR can do it, boy, can everyone do it. And I think that has been important for us.
- Having taken these strong first steps toward a more racial and socially equitable community despite some resistance, what should brands know as they turn their attention to act on this effort?
Each brand is unique and different and I think some have permission to opine or take action in this space, and others probably feel like they don’t. I would say that what we have done and continue to do needs to be done authentically to our new brand — not just because we want to be doing things of action in this space and not necessarily because of what people's perception of our brand was.
It was right for us and I can only speak for us, but the results that we've been able to see have been striking. One component of that is new owners, and we've got two new high-profile owners. One is Michael Jordan and the other is Pitbull. They're bringing their own sets of young fans to NASCAR and I think people will perceive that as, if Michael Jordan and Pitbull want to participate at that level in the sport, there must be some cool things happening in NASCAR. It's exciting, but we still have a ton of work to do.
- The last time you were on campus, you spoke about the importance of diversity and bringing cultures together, and how leadership was necessary for success on that front. What leadership traits did you lean on last summer?
You need to surround yourself with good people, and I have phenomenal people. I've been very fortunate that I've been able to lean on my team so much during what was a very difficult time, not just in social justice, but of leading through the pandemic. Being the first major sport back was a big deal for the entirety of sports. I talked to most of the other sports leagues leaders and they all were rooting for us because the world was watching. Was it going to work? Were we going to fall on our face? I couldn't have done that without good people.
This conversation has been modified for clarity and length.