So far, the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), now two-thirds of the way through its inaugural six-race season, seems to be living up to, and maybe even exceding, expectations.
The brainchild of NASCAR Hall of Famers Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart, as well as former NASCAR executive George Pyne and TV veteran Sandy Montag, SRX is similar to the old IROC Series in concept. But Evernham, who began his racing career working in the IROC Series, has made SRX just different enough to have its own identity.
“I’ve had this dream of doing something like this, a form of motorsports entertainment that would fill a void for the fans,” Evernham said on my The Racing Beat podcast. “Racing is very competitive and a lot of the other racing series have their hands tied from the entertainment side because they’re legitimate racing competitions with championships and sponsors and big money and it’s about competition.
“With us, we can take a little bit more of a light-hearted deal and work around entertainment. It’s really a gift from us to the fans, where you get to see these amazing superstar drivers from different worlds along with mixed in some grassroots all-stars that really just put on a show to entertain the fans.
“I believe we’re maybe the only series that has legitimately tied the top echelons of racing from Formula One to NASCAR IndyCar to Trans-Am, all the way down through the grassroots. And we’re performing right at the grassroots stadiums.”
Click here to catch the whole interview with Ray Evernham on The Racing Beat podcast.
Indeed, SRX couldn’t have written a better script if it wanted to.
The first and fourth races were won by local grassroots racing heroes, NASCAR Whelen Modified Series legend Doug Coby (at Stafford Speedway in Connecticut) and Trans-Am racer Ernie Francis Jr. (this past Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis).
The second and third races of the season—Knoxville (Iowa) Speedway and Eldora (Ohio) Speedway—were both won by Stewart.
The series moves to Race No. 5 of its six-race schedule this Saturday at Slinger Speedway in suburban Milwaukee (live on CBS at 8 pm EDT) and then wraps up its season next Saturday in Nashville at Fairgrounds Speedway.
“Reaching out to all forms of motorsports makes me feel really good,” Evernham said. “It makes me feel humble, the support that we’ve gotten from our superstars and sponsors and people like that that just enjoy the show.”
The SRX was initially Evernham’s idea, one he came up with about two years ago. One year later, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, on July 4, 2020, Evernham announced to the motorsports world that SRX was a go, and that it would debut in June 2021.
It would go for six straight Saturdays, broadcast live on CBS network TV, with cars that are equally prepared and feature some of the biggest names in auto racing including Stewart, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, NASCAR Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte, former IndyCar driver Paul Tracy, former NASCAR drivers Greg Biffle and Michael Waltrip, Willy T. Ribbs oand IndyCar drivers Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, up-and-coming driver Hailie Deegan, and former F1 and NASCAR driver Scott Speed.
In a sense, SRX has become the people’s racing series. Evernham, Stewart and other series officials are basing many of their decisions on how to keep the format relevant and popular by fan feedback. For example, after the first race last month at Stafford (Conn.) Speedway, SRX listened to fan feedback and cut the two heat races for the rest of the remaining five races from 15 to 12 minutes each, and chopped the main event from 100 laps to 50 green flag laps.
Further changes this past week in the race at Indianapolis saw the overall length of the main event increase up to 76 laps, but it’s possible that number will change for both Slinger and Nashville.
“I’m scared to death every Saturday as I’m watching the stands fill up.”
“You know, you come out with a new product that you think it’s a good idea,” Evernham said. “You do everything that you can, but you’ve always got that question. I’m scared to death every Saturday as I’m watching the stands fill up. Or, I anxiously await the (TV) ratings or look at social media of what’s going on. … We still have to work hard to make sure that we are promoting the show, that CBS is promoting the show. There’s a lot of people who still don’t know about (SRX).
“I just met a man at Indianapolis. He said, ‘What are you doing now?’ I told him and he said, ‘Wow, I’m sorry, I missed it.’ So we’ve got to get the word out a little bit better. And we need some of our partners to help that out.”
Evernham then added with a good-natured laugh, “There’s more and more fans every week and if we continue to come up in the TV ratings, it’ll at least stop me from having to go get a real job.”
But getting to where SRX is is no laughing matter in reality. Evernham said forming the series has been one of the biggest challenges of his racing career, including fronting much of the early expenses from his own personal wealth, as have Stewart, Pyne and Montag. While they would like to see a good return on their individual investments, they know it’s going to take time for SRX to grow into what they all envision.
“When Jeff Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors and Rick Hendrick won 13 races in 1998, people said ‘You won 13 races,’” Evernham said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but we lost 20 (other races). Not that I’m a half-empty eyed guy, but you can’t sit back and rest on your laurels. I’ve got to keep working to make the show better, got to keep working to somehow make the cars better.
“We’ve got to keep working every week to make sure the racing is better, the drivers are happier and healthier. And we keep promoting the show because even though it is very, very satisfying, I know that we’ve just scratched the surface. I think this thing has got a lot of room to grow and I take that possibility personally.”
Even though two races still remain, Evernham and Co. are already thinking ahead to next season. By all measures, the inaugural season has been such a success that the SRX brain trust will not be toying too much with the overall format, intent on making next season also a six-race campaign, rather than add more races.
“I don’t want more races, I think six races is perfect for us,” Evernham said. “We want to make sure that we stay in our lane to where we can help send viewers to NASCAR to IndyCar to Trans-Am, even drag racing. That’s our goal. We want to be a good support (series) and help drive new eyeballs on the sport, so I think six races is plenty for us.”
Evernham said some of the tracks in the first season will have return visits from SRX next season. But he also has plenty of other tracks he’d like the series to visit.
“I think it’s important we move around the country, to bring our guys to the grassroots home tracks,” Evernham said. “There’s so many historic racetracks still running in America that many of the stars that we know have come from those places to become the stars they are. To bring stars back to that is important.”
But there will be one key change that Evernham hopes to instill: he wants to see SRX’s six races next season be contested across three significantly different styles of racing, with two laps on paved ovals, two laps on dirt ovals and two laps on road courses. There’s also the possibility that SRX may piggyback for doubleheader weekends with other series including NASCAR and IndyCar, but that is not solidified yet.
Even though SRX is primarily summer entertainment for racing fans, there are still a number of elements that have already come about, from developing rivalries between drivers to Tracy becoming the designated bad guy in the series, Evernham said.
In a sense, it’s kind of like WWE wrestling on four wheels – although unlike wrestling, races are not scripted with predetermined outcomes.
“The fans have got young heroes, their old heroes, there’s underdogs to cheer for, and now we’ve got a bad guy, Paul Tracy is in a black cowboy hat,” Evernham said, adding with a laugh, “Paul has wrecked everything we have at least twice. The fans love him, he gets it (taking on the bad guy personality), he runs hard. These guys are having fun, but they can get a little ticked at one another.
“It just shows no matter how old they are, whether they run slow, fast or not, they drive hard and they’re competitive. For me to watch the fun that those guys are having together in practice and stuff like that, it’s amazing.”
Evernham is elated with what he’s seen so far, and envisions SRX finishing the last two races on an even higher note than it has already experienced.
“If it’s a good TV show and the fans love it, I’m happy,” he said after Saturday’s race at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis. “You look at these full grandstands and you look at the time people are having.
“I think the guys are getting some pretty good recognition on television but, more importantly, I think we’re bringing a lot back to grassroots racing, and that’s really important. If we can keep doing that, I’m going to be really happy.”
Speaking of the fun aspect of SRX, Evernham related an absolutely hysterical story about the inaugural race at Stafford Speedway.
“(Tony Kanaan) thought for sure he had seen a UFO! It definitely got his attention.”
IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan was really getting into the race, its speed and pace. But there’s one thing Evernham forgot to tell Kanaan and the other drivers in the field: that drones with cameras would be following the cars as they drove around the oval.
“Those drones can go faster than our cars, especially through the corners,” Evernham said. “At Stafford, I forgot to tell the drivers about them. So when a drone passed Tony in a corner, he didn’t know what it was. He thought for sure he had seen a UFO! It definitely got his attention. He was quite alarmed for a quick second. That was quite funny.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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