Slowly but surely, live sports are coming back into the national spotlight. Weeks after professional tennis made its return, NASCAR is back on the racetrack on May 16 at Darlington Raceway – its first competition since Joey Logano took the checkered flag at Phoenix Raceway on March 8.
While fans are unable to attend the event, NASCAR will be leaning on new features in its mobile app to connect with those at home.
They include: a “scanner” that enables fans to hear audio from nearly every car in the race; in-car cameras that offer fans a unique view of the driver’s vision; live data that takes information from the cars and delivers it right to users; and a Fantasy Live that allows for fantasy players to make in-race driver swaps.
Front Office Sports spoke with NASCAR Chief Digital Officer Tim Clark ahead of its first race during the coronavirus pandemic. He touched on the new innovations that will be on display at Darlington Raceway and how his team is preparing for its comeback.
The questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Front Office Sports: Transitioning away from live content and now back to it, what has that process been like from a digital standpoint?
TIM CLARK: Like most publishers in leagues and different platforms, we certainly made some adjustments. We leaned a lot on classic races and throwback content. Certainly what we did in the esports arena, with our partnership with iRacing and the development of the Pro Invitational Series, I think that was a huge boost for all of us across the sport and the industry. It was unique in a couple of different ways and it was interesting to see how a lot of components of our business transitioned relatively quickly. Specifically from a content perspective and our digital platforms, we used a lot of the same infrastructure that we’ve had to cover real-live racing to do the same across esports and iRacing. In that regard it was a little bit of a pivot – like everyone else, we were fortunate that we could use our existing platforms to cover virtual racing in much the same way we had typically covered real racing.
FOS: What are some of the new elements to NASCAR’s mobile app that fans should feel excited about?
TC: For our existing fans and users, obviously that experience has been in place and something that they’ve continued to enjoy. But what I’m excited about is for new fans or casual fans or first-time viewers, the experience of being able to have an in-car camera and essentially ride shotgun with these drivers through the course of the race and experience different perspectives, like the team communications, the audio communication of hearing the drivers communicate with crew chiefs and spotter. Seeing all of the data that is coming off of the cars, lap averages, some of the pit data – it’s such a unique experience of all of that information that we’re able to bring to the fans that really is so unique in sports.
Particularly for fans who may be watching for the first time, the ability to not only experience NASCAR but also to have that connection to a particular driver – it’s so unique and something we’re really proud of and excited quite frankly to see that introduced to new audiences.
FOS: With live racing now back in the mix, how does NASCAR plan on measuring success on the digital side?
TC: We’re optimistic for good engagement this weekend. More than anything, we just want to put on a good show and create some entertainment for fans. In terms of where we go from here, we’ve obviously got some aggressive plans for a lot of races in a relatively short period of time. That puts the pressure on us to continue that engagement and continue that conversation, if you will. Ideally if we get fans to come in for the first time this weekend and use the app, I’d love for them to come back again and play fantasy and then come back again and experience some of the other live features, whether it’s in-car cameras or what have you. This weekend I’m really excited to have audiences experience these, but I really want to make sure that we continue that conversation and keep the engagement going with fans that may be seeing some of this for the first time.
FOS: Going forward, how do you see the digital offerings from NASCAR evolving? Is it going to return to normal, or is this just the beginning of more experimentation on the digital front?
TC: We are constantly in experimentation mode. That is not meant to suggest that we will change just for the sake of changing, but we are always pushing ourselves to be more and do it better. I certainly believe that we are providing arguably the best at-home fan experience of any sport.
A good example of that: not only is our scanner audio available on the website and our mobile app, but it’s also available on Amazon Alexa devices. We’ll just continue to push for ways that we can continue to engage with our fans. A lot of that will be based on how we’re evaluating the engagement data, and a lot of that will be with interaction directly with the fans that are using it and what they want to see from us.
FOS: Is it going to be like a typical race day where you have X amount of digital people onsite, or are things a little different now given the circumstances?
TC: We, like a lot of other organizations, have learned to do business in a little bit of a different way over the last couple of weeks. We’ll really have the majority of our operation happening remotely. The good thing for us in that regard is a lot of the data that we’re using comes directly from the cars and from the track. We’ve got that infrastructure that exists, but our team will really be facilitating everything that you see on our digital and mobile platforms remotely. That’s a change for us and it’s a new way of doing business, but we have the confidence in the team and our existing platforms.
If this were something we were rolling out for the first time this weekend, I think there’d be a good bit of concern there. But we are really happy with our platform and the options that we’re making available to fans. We’ve got a really strong amount of trust in our team that they can operate just as effectively remotely as they used to – whether it be in the office or at the racetrack.