For Ron Capps, a regular Saturday in the middle of last year’s NHRA season would involve him finishing up qualifying wherever he was — and then running to the closest bar or restaurant.
He and his team, after all, wanted to watch the spectacle that was Superstar Racing Experience.
“It was what was going on,” Capps reminisced to The Observer with a smile on Tuesday. “Everybody wanted to see what was going to happen.”
The appeal of SRX was and still is simple to Capps: Take the biggest names in motorsports across all kinds of disciplines — IndyCar, NASCAR and more — and put them in the same equipment on the same schedule of racetracks and see who bests who.
“You throw in Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti, and then NASCAR drivers with Chase Elliott once in a while would jump in,” Capps continued. “So you’d see: How good are they? For race fans, it’s unbelievable how many people were paying attention.”
Capps shared this excitement on Tuesday morning in Clutch Studios in Huntersville, during a spare moment while SRX was shooting promotional materials ahead of the series’ third season, which begins in July.
Capps is a three-time NHRA Funny Car champion and will be the first driver from the NHRA ranks to compete in the series. But he is not all that is new to one of the more innovative series in motorsports: The third year of SRX, in many ways, is shaping up to be one of the more compelling ones yet.
For one, the six-race schedule from July 13 to August 17 will all be on ESPN and will all be on Thursdays. It’ll thus mark the return of “Thursday Night Thunder” — the show put on by International Race of Champions (IROC) decades ago that pitted the Andrettis and the Pettys and the Earnhardts against one another — and supplement the summer motorsports scene with mid-week racing.
For another, SRX will be deeper from a talent perspective perhaps more than ever before. Among those running full-time in the series: Tony Stewart (one of the series founders), Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski, Hailie Deegan, Marco Andretti (last year’s champion), Ryan Hunter Reay and Paul Tracy.
Of the part-time drivers: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Ron Capps, Kenny Wallace, Kyle Busch ... a who’s-who of motorsports, essentially.
“I think SRX is here for one reason, and it’s to appeal to the short-track racing scene and to help the short tracks in America,” Don Hawk, CEO of SRX, said on Tuesday. “And in turn, in my opinion, we help IndyCar, NASCAR. It’s not that they need our help, but we’re promoting racing and short-track situations at a different track on a different day.”
SRX held its first season in 2021 and averaged 1.25 million viewers through six races, per a report from Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal. That figure dropped to just over 1 million in 2022, per the report, but meaningful increases in sponsorship, ticket and merchandise revenue in 2022 helped the property break even after losing money in its inaugural season.
“You always want to be bigger, better, faster, stronger,” Hawk said. “You want to be different. You want to have different things that make the people go ‘oh wow!’ instead of ‘oh why?’ So there might be a rule change or two. We’ll elaborate on that more.”
He added: “But it’s back to that mix of driving talent. It’s good for our sponsors. It’s good for ESPN. And it’s a huge get for the local tracks and the short tracks because they sell out, and the fans come, and they have a great time.”
Hamlin grew up watching IROC and said all the exciting moves SRX has made ahead of Year 3 — getting thrust in the ESPN spotlight, running on Thursday nights, etc. — is what made this opportunity intriguing.
The three-time Daytona 500 champion and co-owner of 23XI Racing also realizes the benefits that growing SRX can be to growing NASCAR. (Hamlin has an entire podcast centered around drawing in new fans and energizing current ones, and he’s constantly tossing out out-of-the-box ideas of how to make the sport more compelling. On this week’s episode, he suggested a mid-season single-elimination tournament.)
“I think SRX helps grow motorsports generally,” Hamlin said on Tuesday. “Guys from different types of racing coming to race in one series, knowing that their cars are the same, so you just do your best to compete against these guys. And you really get to measure it.”
Andretti was last year’s SRX champion. But he has something new to shoot for, too.
“We led a lot of laps this year but didn’t get to win a race,” Andretti said. “Having said that, I think it’s going to be pretty tough. We got a lot of Cup guys coming. So it was already not my sandbox. I’m a little more comfortable, you could say, but the competition has ramped up a bit. I love it.”
Superstar Racing Experience 2023 schedule
Thursday, July 13
Stafford Motor Speedway (Stafford Springs, CT)
Thursday, July 20
Thunder Road Speedbowl (Barre, VT)
Thursday, July 27
Motor Mile Speedway (Radford, VA)
Thursday, Aug. 3
Berlin Raceway (Grand Rapids, MI)
Thursday, Aug. 10
Eldora Speedway (New Weston, OH)
Thursday, Aug. 17
Lucas Oil Speedway (Wheatland, MO)