• NASCAR is Expanding Internationally

NASCAR is Expanding Internationally, and China is Next on the List

I had a fascinating conversation recently with the company’s chief international officer, Gene Stefanyshyn

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald August 20, 2019

About 15 years ago, give or take a year, my wife and I were at the final Indy car race at Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania. I’d told our friends we were embarking on a very Biblical journey. “The race is in Nazareth and we’re staying in Bethlehem,” I said.

Ho, ho, ho.

My wife is not a racing fan — she only comes to one now and again — and is definitely not a speedway-food fan. While my mouth was watering at the prospect of enjoying hot Italian sausage sandwiches with friend green peppers and onions, she’d gone to the supermarket for a bag of fruit.

So, we’re sitting in our seats in the grandstand, and I’m warming up for my feast by tucking into a hot dog with mustard, relish and sauerkraut, when she takes an apple out of the bag. “Hey, look at this,” she said. And she held up the apple that had a sticker on it. The sticker said:


“Somebody’s having fun with you,” I said. “They just stuck that on there. It’s a joke.”

Said my wife: “It’s on all of them,” and showed me the rest of the bag.

“NASCAR’s taking over the world,” I said.

I’m not sure if NASCAR is still involved in the retailing of apples, oranges and bananas — if they ever were (it could still have been a joke) — but there’s no doubt that the sanctioning body has embarked on a period of international expansion. NASCAR is the biggest and most successful auto racing organization in the United States, and is now establishing its brand in Canada (the Pinty’s national stock car series), Mexico, Europe and, soon, Asia (a.k.a. China).

Yes. NASCAR in China.

I had a fascinating conversation recently with the company’s chief international officer, Gene Stefanyshyn, the guy in charge of spreading the NASCAR word around the world. And when I write the words “around the world,” I mean that literally, because after China will come South America. We didn’t talk about Africa, but I have a feeling that it’s on Stefanyshyn’s radar too.

Our chat took place during the Honda Indy Toronto weekend in July — one of five Toronto-area racing promotions involving NASCAR each year. Next weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, north of Bowmanville, there will be another — the annual NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Chevrolet Silverado 250 weekend, which will also include the ninth round of the 12-race Pinty’s Series. The Toyo Tires Formula 1600 Championship, the Canadian Touring Car Championship and the Nissan Micra Cup will also be racing at CTMP next weekend.

The truck race will be the first round of the series’ seven-race playoff. Canadian Stewart Friesen of Niagara-on-the-Lake is among the eight drivers who qualified to run for the championship (with Brett Moffitt, Grant Enfinger, Austin Hill, Ross Chastain, Tyler Ankrum and old pros Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter being the others).

For complete details, ticket prices and so-on, go to the CTMP website.

NASCAR is Expanding Internationally

Now, Stefanyshyn is one of several Canadians who’ve held senior positions at NASCAR — Brad Moran is currently managing director of the truck series and Brent Dewar is immediate past-president — and is a veteran of automaking in his home country.

“I was born in Red Lake in northern Ontario,” he said. “My dad worked in a gold mine up there. Then we moved to the Oshawa area. As a kid, I was always interested in technical things, working with my hands. Because General Motors was there, I got into the co-op program. Then I went to Kettering (University) in Flint, Mich., and that’s where I got my engineering degree. I worked for GM in Oshawa for 35 years.”

And how did he wind up working for NASCAR?

“When I finished my career at GM,” he said, “NASCAR approached me and said they were looking for a technical person to run their R&D Center, and so I signed on. The opportunity then came to work for the international division, and here I am.”

China is not a country where you just walk in and go into business. You have to know the right people if you want to get things done.

“We have to put a footprint into Asia,” he said. “It’s a huge market. I think looking to enter Asia has been a priority for us; we’ve done a lot of study and we have some pretty good plans in place. But in the grand scheme of things, we’re still in our infancy in taking the brand global.

“So, I don’t think we can go it alone; I think we have to find the right partner. You need to know the system there, the political system. You have to know who to talk to at the national level, but particularly at the provincial level, where a lot of things happen in China. If you want to go racing, you need those connections. A good partner would bring their government connections and their knowledge of the market. We would bring the brand and the intellectual property so we could work together to try to establish a national racing series in Asia.”

I pointed out to Stefanyshyn that, with a few exceptions, NASCAR racing in North America, and particularly the United States, takes place on oval speedways and, so far as I know, there aren’t that many ovals on the other side of the Atlantic. He didn’t disagree.

“As you know,” he said, “we race on ovals in the United States that are small half miles on up to the superspeedways and some road courses. Over time, we will evolve these tracks to reflect what our customers tell us is the kind of racing they like. Over in Europe, the history is road-course racing, but we do have an oval race there.

“We will not be dogmatic about the type of racing we present. We will be fan-centric. When we go to Asia, there are a lot of road courses, but in the conversations we’ve had, there is interest in putting in some ovals. We will start with a heavier mix of road courses and move to ovals, and eventually get to a 50-50 blend over there.”

And Stefanyshyn doesn’t see any problem with oval racing, despite what some race fans have to say about it.

“I know some people have trouble with that type of racing, but frankly, from a fan perspective, on a small oval the fan can see the whole race with the cars going by many, many times and the action — the bumping and the grinding — it’s classic NASCAR. So we think this is a strength for us, particularly as we go into new markets.

“The question is, how quickly do you migrate from road courses to that? We’re open-minded and we want to do what’s right for the region we’re in, and we’re always going to err on the side of giving the fan a better race.”

And would that be the approach in China?

NASCAR is Expanding Internationally

“Yes. We’ve had talks about tracks and suggested that if any new tracks are going to be built that they consider small ovals, around a half-mile, because we know those small ovals put on really good races. They are fairly inexpensive to build, very scale-able in that you can start out with 15,000 seats and built it up to 80,000 like we have at Bristol, and it’s an asset that’s easy to manage. It’s really good racing in that it has bumping and grinding and it’s like, ‘If you’re not going to move out of the way, I’ll move you out of the way.’ We’re kind of blessed in that we have stock cars and we can do that, unlike open wheels.”

NASCAR has always supported — and been supported by — the major automobile manufacturers. As the industry goes, so goes — with some exceptions — NASCAR. It took the sanctioning body what seemed to be forever, for instance, to go to direct fuel injection and to deep-six carburetors. But, by and large, what happens on the assembly line pretty much winds up on the race track.

The industry is being turned on its head by the rush to electrification, however. What will NASCAR, known for V8s, do about that?

“We understand and appreciate the push toward electric vehicles,” Stefanyshyn said. “The Chinese government has decreed that by 2035, all new vehicles sold in China must be electric. We and the partner we pick will develop the strategy. I think the introduction (of racing in China) will be with internal combustion engines. It’s our classic style of racing.

“But we will have to evolve, we will have to adapt to the market. But what will that market be? In 1985, they told me that two years from then, GM would build their last V8 engine. Here it is 2019 and we still have them. Mind you, the volume has dropped significantly.”

He noted that automakers must have many options these days.

NASCAR is Expanding Internationally

If you’re a manufacturer,” he said, “you have to have an electric message. You also have to have as many options as you can. The question is, how fast will this electrification happen? The economics is a challenge; it depends a lot on the country. If you go to places where gasoline is $8 a gallon now, electric makes sense. If you’re in a place where gas is cheap, electric doesn’t appeal all that much. If you buy electric today, you’re doing it for socially conscious reasons, not economical reasons.

“So, there’s all these transitions that have to happen. I do believe that we’re going to wind up in the end with a blend of energy sources; whether it’s electric, whether it’s hydrogen, whether it’s bio — it could be all kinds of things. And I still think there’s a future for internal combustion engines.”

And the future of NASCAR?

“People talk as if this electric revolution is going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “It’s going to come, but it won’t happen tomorrow. It will take time, and what we have to do is be very measured. Will keeping internal combustion make our product more exciting because it will be different? Or do we go to electric because that will be more exciting?

“This will be a fundamental question for us.”

Norris McDonald is a former Star editor who is a current freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @NorrisMcDonald2