NASCAR president Mike Helton joined Clint Bowyer, three new Gen-6 racecars, and a media contingency at Downtown Atlanta’s CNN Center to educate the masses on NASCAR’s new racecar and to promote the coming races at Daytona International Speedway. After recording two segments with CNN and HLN, he and I spent a few minutes discussing the big wave of change for the coming 2013 race season. 

Helton and I first talked about the new racecar and how it came about. After a barrage of criticism over the looks of the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) that NASCAR debuted in 2007, the sport decided to try and create a sleeker, more accurate-to-showroom racecar that also put on better races. Helton says the biggest attribute of the new car is its closer resemblance to the cars people can buy.   

“We worked with the manufacturers to get there. We’re excited about Speedweeks in Daytona. We get on the track this week.”  

Helton says that the build up to the debut of this new racecar has certainly made for a busier offseason. While his and much of the team at NASCAR’s headquarters’ have not been busy racing on the weekend, their Mondays thru Fridays have been stacked. 

“It has been [busy], because of testing – Robin Pemberton [NASCAR vice president of competition] and the R&D Center have done a lot of testing with the teams at the racetracks to get ready for the season. So we’ve had a lot going on.”  

Besides the showy newness of the racecars, Helton says NASCAR has worked added new safety elements, such as the large, rectangular hood flaps on each side of the hood’s sponsor decal. Helton also says the roof flaps are differently shaped than those on previous cars. And Helton agrees with the sentiments of the drivers and crew chiefs during the late-January Sprint Media Tour – the new cars will be fast and will be more competitive at intermediate racetracks. 

Helton, who used to be the president at Atlanta Motor Speedway, says lessons learned there – right as NASCAR’s popularity began to soar – has helped him deal with the sport’s peaks and troughs during his 13-year NASCAR presidency. 

“That’s when I met a lot of people that I now work with still. But the culture of this area [Atlanta] was growing in the ’70s and ‘80s just like NASCAR.”  

When Helton took NASCAR’s presidential reigns from Bill France Jr. in November 2000, he inherited a sport that was soaring to new heights with a new TV deal, the loss of its biggest name in Dale Earnhardt in February 2001, and legions of new fans. But as older fans became disinterested with a sanitized, corporate NASCAR and casual fans soon moved to other sports, the economy also began to sag. The on-track product suffered, ratings, dropped, sponsorship became sparse. And Helton says now is a time of rebuilding for NASCAR.  

“I think in today’s world when you are in competition with other sports and forms of entertainment, the goal is to be relative. With social media and everybody’s attention spans being different – including mine – we’ve got to deliver on all of that. [NASCAR’s] 65-years old now, we’ve experienced ups and downs. The economy was a big issue to all of us. Coming out of that and building your business model around that is important.” 

The Sprint Cup Series is not the only NASCAR property experiencing change. The merger of the Grand-AM and American Le Mans sports car series mean both Grand-AM and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East will race at Braselton, Georgia’s Road Atlanta road course. This also led to the NKNPSE not having Gresham Motorsports Park on its schedule for the first time since 2009. Helton addressed the schedule changes. 

“It was kind of a domino effect and goes back to when Grand-AM and American Le Mans merged. Part of that was also [ownership of] Road Atlanta. Our intent was to go back to Gresham Motorsports Park, because K&N thrives in short track environments like Gresham, but Dan Elliott [GMP GM] and the Greshams were looking to do something different and decided to skip K&N. But this Atlanta market area is big for the K&N teams, so we kind of made it fit with Road Atlanta.”     

Listen to the Mike Helton interview in its entirety: