Exclusive Interview with NASCAR’s Chief Innovation Officer

By Collin Robisheaux |  February 17, 2022

Moving fast and avoiding wrecks are both essential to victory in corporate innovation.

The same is true of stock car racing, the pulse-quickening sport that dates back to the late 1930s. The privately-held company that organizes stock car races in the US is Daytona Beach, Fla.-based NASCAR — which is still run by the son of its founder.

This Sunday, NASCAR’s “Next Gen car” will take to the track at the annual Daytona 500, NASCAR’s highest-profile race. The Next Gen vehicle generates entirely new feeds of live audio, video, and data that will enhance racing analytics and the home viewing experience; it includes a new sequential five-speed gear-shifter; and it features enhanced aerodynamics that increase downforce, while decreasing “dirty air,” or turbulence, that cars tailing it must deal with.

NASCAR Chief Innovation Officer Craig Neeb

And the Next Gen car is just the latest in a long line of innovations that NASCAR has rolled out since its founding in 1948.

To shed light on how NASCAR stays connected with fans — and how it explores the potential of new technologies — we spoke to Craig Neeb, Executive Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer. He says that delivering concrete results requires strong relationships with leadership, an eye on the startup world, and an acute awareness of where a project’s biggest risks lie. “Over-communicate, and identify where the failure points could be upfront,” Neeb advises.

Neeb has spent 22 years at NASCAR, at various points overseeing the company’s information technology, corporate development, and strategic growth initiatives, including eSports, streaming video platforms, and sports betting.

Innovation at NASCAR: How Strategy Applies to the Racetrack

The concept of racing is simple at its core – a handful of cars and drivers vie to be first to cross the finish line.

But at a moment when TV viewership and race attendance have been on the decline, thanks to a multitude of competing entertainment options, reaching new fans and rethinking the business strategy behind NASCAR is complex.

NASCAR’s new “Next Gen” car

“It’s [about] always looking at our business through a different lens, other than just purely NASCAR racing,” Neeb says. “How do we take advantage of all these wonderful assets – and the assets are just not the properties and the [race track] real estate, it’s the people and the creativity that we have – to do more with what we have, and expand our revenue opportunities in the broader spectrums.”

When it comes to Neeb’s innovation strategy, being patient and doing due diligence on emerging trends is key. With NFTs and blockchain making a splash on the sports scene, and novel concepts such as the metaverse gaining traction, Neeb and NASCAR are doing their homework before committing time and resources.

“We are definitely monitoring it. We are looking how we can best capitalize in that space,” Neeb said of blockchain and VR. “We have a little bit of stuff going on right now. But that one’s definitely more of a ‘crawl, walk, run’ thing, as we continue to learn and make sure there’s really a good valuable application that we think would really make sense.”

We continue to learn and make sure there’s really a good valuable application that we think would really make sense.

At the crossroads of technology and sports sits “eSports,” the term commonly applied to next-level competitive video gaming. With the rise of streaming platforms and the popularity of video games, the eSports initiative has become a new market for sports innovators to tap into.

In his role, Neeb has tracked the meteoric rise of eSports, and guided NASCAR toward embracing the trend through initiatives like iRacing, a racing simulation program that anyone can download to their computer and compete in, using a USB-connected digital steering wheel. Neeb said that NASCAR’s iRacing partnership was vital when COVID-19 halted in-person racing.

“We had a lot of our professional drivers from the top series actually competing on a weekly basis through the iRacing solution,” Neeb says. “And our broadcast partners picked that up, and were able to broadcast [the digital races], and it really did fill a content void during that time.”

iRacing’s popularity explosion during the beginning of the pandemic is representative of a larger trend in sports — the move to digital entertainment, streaming, and eSports competitions. While the revenue model for eSports initiatives is still evolving, Neeb and his innovation team continue to explore the opportunity in hopes it can help attract new fans and foster future business growth.

It becomes more and more important that there’s a lot of people who have a very positive attitude about our sport, and have some level of engagement.

“Being in eSports, there’s not a big financial return I could justify– obviously, we got a lot of visibility,” Neeb says. “That visibility brings awareness in a demographic that maybe we didn’t have awareness in before. It can also relate to new sponsorship opportunities… It becomes more and more important that there’s a lot of people who have a very positive attitude about our sport, and have some level of engagement. All that cumulative interest becomes something that becomes important as we look at sponsors, as we look at future media rights… Can I figure out dollar for dollar, how that’s going to equate? No, I can’t, but it’s going to have a positive impact for sure.”

The Benefits of Acceleration – On the Track, and in the Startup World

For established businesses like NASCAR, participating in or creating a new startup accelerator is one way to get a look at what is percolating in the startup world. In January of 2020, Comcast NBCUniversal launched SportsTech, a global accelerator to attract sports technology startups. NASCAR is a founding partner, alongside PGA Golf, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and other big-name sports brands. The partners all share with the accelerator’s leaders “general areas” of importance to each organization, Neeb says, and that helps to filter the initial wave of startups that apply.

Neeb says that he is involved in helping to winnow down the list further, which has its benefits. “We meet with these startups, these entrepreneurs, to have them pitch to us. It’s not just the idea you have, but do they have the management philosophy to deliver on it?” Neeb explained. “Do they have the right mindset that they can execute on their ideas, and are they well-positioned to be able to do that and understand there’s gonna be bumps along the road? Once you get to that, then you get to the final [startups] that get funded through the program… and then we open the doors for them to actually leverage their ideas into our businesses.”

As one example of a relevant startup that has come through the SportsTech accelerator, he mentions XiQ, which has developed a device that attaches to golf carts, and enables individuals to use their smartphone as a digital key. NASCAR uses golf carts as a primary mode of transportation around its vast racetracks — and it wants to make sure that only authorized people are driving the carts. The device can also help locate wayward carts, Neeb says. “We’ve been testing that, and it has been working great for us,” he says.

Most of the SportsTech corporate partners and startup founders, Neeb adds, met face-to-face for the first time at the CES trade show in Las Vegas last month.

Managing Failure and Communicating with Leadership

In racing, failure is unavoidable: most cars won’t cross the finish line first, and some won’t cross it at all.

According to Neeb, failure is a concept to embrace rather than fear. “Failure will occur,” Neeb says. “How do you manage and mitigate failure?… Over-communicate and identify where the failure points could be upfront. Don’t be afraid of pointing out where the risks are; identify those so that there is an awareness… And if the failures or the risks appear to be too great, then you can answer yourself whether you should pursue it or not.”

If the failures or the risks appear to be too great, then you can answer yourself whether you should pursue it or not.

NASCAR is still run by Jim France, the son of founder Bill France Sr. Neeb says that it’s always essential to go into meetings with his chairman and CEO as prepared as he can possibly be.

“Our leadership here is very seasoned, especially our chairman, Jim France. I know I’m going to get 10 questions, and five of them I’ll have prepared for, and five I wouldn’t have prepared for,” Neeb says. “I’m always trying to anticipate what those five are going to be, and how I’m going to respond to him. Keeping that communication line open about progress is always important.”