Column: Quirky SRX exceeded expectations in debut season

Chase Elliott (94) leads Tony Stewart during the SRX Series auto race Saturday, July 17, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — SRX exceeded all expectations, right?

Not even a bookie in Las Vegas — Tony Stewart's gold standard for foreseeing results — could have predicted the six-week Superstar Racing Experience summer season would have been such a success.

It grew so big, so quickly that by the made-for-TV series finale on Saturday night, it was NASCAR's champion in victory lane at Nashville Fairgrounds in Tennessee.

The current champion!

The night before his real job as a Cup Series superstar at a race — in New Hampshire!

For a "fake" racing series!

Chase Elliott thought SRX was cool and watched his father, Bill, compete the first five weeks as one of the regular participating all-stars. With the 65-year-old Hall of Famer in the field, and permission from both Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR, Chase Elliott had just his second ever opportunity to race against his old man.

He improved to 2-0. Chase Elliott beat Tony Stewart, the series co-creator and "regular series champion," and Bill Elliott, to cap the season. It was a podium Chase Elliott will forever treasure.

"We were literally racing for the win of the race. That was no fluke or joke or setup thing," Chase Elliott said. "We were legitimately racing 1-2, which is incredible. Tony has been a hero of mine forever. To share the podium with both of them, I couldn't have asked for anything... more special."

This was the crowning moment for SRX, which started as one of Ray Evernham's crazy ideas and became the star of the summer. The series had drama, theatrics, solid story lines and it was packaged in a two-hour primetime window when CBS had nothing better to slot on the typically slow Saturday nights of summer.

The first race was OK and then came a critical moment that differentiated SRX from every other series: Evernham and CBS actively made tweaks to the racing and even the broadcast presentation based on viewer feedback. Nothing was off limits as far as Evernham was concerned; he was fine adjusting for the sake of the show.

"It's motorsports entertainment," Evernham said. "Nobody is sitting here saying this is a super serious series that's going to the next level."

Whatever it was, fans liked it because each race averaged at least 1 million viewers. SRX originally signed a two-year deal with CBS, and there's been no indication the series won't return.

But its direction — and this is the fun part of SRX — is up in the air. No idea is a bad idea, and if the fans make themselves heard, Evernham and Stewart listen.

Of course, SRX is also a business and its ownership group includes The Montag Group CEO Sandy Montag and Bruin Capital CEO George Pyne. The series has to pay its bills — and Evernham wants a $1 million payout to the season champion in the future — so sponsorship talks on a second season have already started.

There could be sponsors who want a say on where SRX races next season, and that puts Evernham on the hunt for short tracks that fit the series' core grassroots principle. But the venues must also have the infrastructure to handle a live television broadcast, and also make financial sense.

Evernham said he has talked to many of the top businessmen in motorsports during SRX's first season, among them Roger Penske, owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

SRX raced this summer at Indianapolis Raceway Park, where Trans-Am superstar Ernie Francis Jr. won and SRX nailed one of its main story lines: Francis was in the field as part of a David vs. Goliath scenario, and the 23-year-old beat the established stars to earn the most attention of his career.

Evernham, already eyeing internal SRX adjustments, is now seeking to balance the business of racing with the fun stuff.

"We've got to really look at the business ideas around this," Everham said. "We've had some conversations with the folks in Indianapolis about putting a base there for three or four months a year, and be centrally located. But the other thing is fan input from America, and specific area TV ratings will probably have a lot to do with the decision. I think the fans like being able to call the shots in this series."

The field could have different drivers next year, and Elliott suggested other Cup stars should give it a go. Kyle Busch said he wanted to run SRX but didn't get permission. Teammate Denny Hamlin said he'd be interested in competing.

"It's a good series, looks like it's growing and has a lot of enthusiasm," Hamlin said. "It's a good balance of competition and show."

Stewart, who turned 50 this year, will always be a major draw and promoters see the three-time NASCAR champion's value to SRX as a driver in the field. He was noncommittal on racing SRX again in 2022, but Stewart lives by an ever-changing schedule that includes planning a wedding to NHRA drag racer Leah Pruett and trying to fix the Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR team.

Aric Almirola's win on Sunday at New Hampshire was the first this year for SHR.

Stewart said wait and see where SRX might be headed.

"We have people asking us what tracks are we running next year? Are we going to expand past six races? Who will the drivers be? None of us have had any of those conversations," Stewart said. "It took so much work to get this series going and selling it sight unseen, selling it to sponsors, trying to sell it to the fans, it was hard to sell it to the drivers.

"Then we had six straight weeks and Ray and his crew have been on the road all over the country making this series go. Ray needs to catch his breath before we can have any discussions about next year."