Auto racing has been so inextricably associated with country music that a major reason why Phil Metz was hired at NASCAR in 2003 was to help broaden its audience. “We love country but we didn’t want to limit ourselves to it,” he says. And while the genre remains the cornerstone of NASCAR’s music involvement, Metz has brought others in as well: Between its races — like its biggest, the Daytona 500, which drew 14.1 million TV viewers in February — and “off-track” events like its Sprint Car Series Awards in Las Vegas on Dec. 2, the organization has presented heartland-friendly acts like Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock and Zac Brown Band, but also Kelly Clarkson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aloe Blacc and even Sara Bareilles.
Metz, 40, brings a diverse background in music to the job: His late father, Stephen, was a music producer and executive, and his mother Wendy a singer who performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. He held a series of music-industry jobs — including an internship at Elektra Records under Sylvia Rhone (who had worked for his father’s Bareback Records in the 1970s); roles with Eureka Records, ArtistDirect and his dad’s company; and some music supervision — that all come into play with his Los Angeles-based role at the biggest auto-racing organization in the United States.
Would you say that you basically grew up around the music business?
Yeah, my dad was the first person to promote concerts at [New York’s] Beacon Theatre in the ’70s, and he had a label called Bareback that put out albums by John Travolta, Scott Baio and Danny Bonaduce. Then we moved to Los Angeles in the ’80s when he started administering the international publishing for Spelling TV — Charlie’s Angels and Norman Lear shows. After I got out of college, I worked for him at a company called Sage Stone Entertainment, where we managed a rapper named Jayo Felony and put out a Leon Russell album.
Has NASCAR’s interaction with music increased since you got there?
It has. We try to align with artists that are well-known, but at the same time we have been more aggressive in trying to get younger and more diverse audiences. That might not always come in the form of a [traditional] live performance — this year Aloe Blacc performed the national anthem at the Daytona 500. We are really looking to work with the music industry and there are a lot of opportunities — and it’s often artists you would not expect at a NASCAR event.
Like Sara Bareilles?
Sara was actually perfect for the moment in the awards show where, after the champion is crowned, we have a performer sing a song that is heroic and worthy of a champion moment. “Brave” fit that well.
What does NASCAR get out of these music spots, apart from popular songs at your events?
Music isn’t a sticker that says you’re cool — you get all the memories and experiences that people bring to those songs. Last summer we did a campaign where we helped promote the Guns N’ Roses tour and in turn we used their music to promote our races. We put out video content across our social channels and had a higher engagement with those spots than we would if we didn’t have the music.
Taylor Swift recently performed at Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix. Is there much competition between racing organizations?
I actually consider our competition to be other sports and other forms of entertainment. Formula One has a totally different business model. That was a big win for them but, for example, there was no TV component to that concert.
Are there any artists or genres that you’ve tried that haven’t worked?
Our fan base is so broad in age range that you’ll have everyone from grandmas to babies attend our races — I’ve used the phrase “drool to drool.” I’m not going to name any artists, but we have to be in a family-friendly context.
Have there been any mishaps involving music at the races?
Not really, but for our first-ever mid-race concert in 2006, the Red Hot Chili Peppers had exactly 10 minutes to play — and they just kept playing. It was only about three minutes but the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is our premier series and everything is timed to the half-second — so to go over by that much is a big deal! The drivers turned on their in-car communications expecting to hear their spotter telling them how many laps were left – and instead they heard Anthony Kiedis singing.