This is admittedly quite awkward and feels egotistical, but after receiving enough listener feedback requesting this podcast, I decided to share my own story this week. Thanks to those who listened to and enjoyed the How I Got Here series this season, which concludes with this episode.
Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to describe their career path and shed some light on how they reached their current position. Up next: Jeff O’Keefe, who does digital and social media for Toyota Racing through the Golin agency.
What do you do right now in racing?
So right now I work with Lisa Kennedy and her team at Golin, but we work with Toyota Racing in their motorsports department handling content creation, working with Toyota — Kristine Curley, who you had on earlier this year — and the social strategy, social content creation and publishing for all things Toyota Racing.
I assume that wasn’t something that was on your radar to start out. So how did this all start for you? Did you grow up wanting to be in sports or anything like that?
So we’re going to go a little way back. I grew up in New Jersey — Exit 18, because that’s how you define where you’re from in New Jersey — off route 78 in a little town called High Bridge, New Jersey. Nobody knows where that is. However, about 15 minutes away was a place that many NASCAR people know: Flemington Speedway.
Flemington was kind of iconic on the local tracks scene, but then hosted a lot of Craftsman Truck Series races, and it was known being a place where you never went straight on the track. Growing up, me and my dad, he started bringing me to the races when I was a kid and we just started going there: Sprint cars, it was dirt, and then they transformed to pavement, saw some truck races there, and that’s how we bonded, just spending time with dad.
From there, growing up, we would go to Nazareth Speedway, which is about an hour away from where I grew up. Back then, they Busch races and Truck races. I remember it used to rain at Nazareth and they didn’t have track dryers, so they would take pickups with tires chained to the bumper and just drag them around the track. We waited about six hours to watch the first Truck race there. And literally so we went up there until about early 2000s from mid to late ’90s. That’s how me and my dad bonded, just by going to races and everything.
And then we went to Bristol in 1999. Walking into Bristol in the late ’90s, it was something like you’d never seen before in your life. You’re just like fully taken aback, and just the amount of people. And as I grew older, went to college and everything, I started to learn more (about what was surrounding the track). I was always interested in PR, and growing up in New Jersey has some really great opportunities because New York City was near there. So in college, studying communication and PR and everything, and as we continued to go to these races every year, you started to notice things more. Whether it’s the fan experience, the activation, even the drivers signing autographs and merchandise, people lined up. My brain started ticking: “How do they get people there? Why do they have all these activations set up? Why are people drawn to look at production vehicles at a racetrack?” And then as we sat in the stands, I had total FOMO — and granted it probably wasn’t a word back in 2003 — but that sat in, like “Man, I want to be in there. I want be inside and like I want to be going in there. They seem cool. They seem like really in the know.”
And by that point, I was about a junior, senior in college and I was like, “Alright, I want to do this. This is really cool. But I still live and go to college in New Jersey.” They would ask me (at college), “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “I want to do PR in NASCAR.” “What? Excuse me?” And the school, the communication program at Montclair was amazing. Senior year, like they challenge you to basically prepare you for life after college, how to get a job, the interview process, forced you to go get informational interviews. I was like, “On yeah. This is going to be great.” Graduated, and then you think you’re on top of the world — and then couldn’t find a job for a year, and you’re just like, “Oh, this is life.”
And you’re trying to, at the time, purely break into NASCAR? Like you’re looking for racing jobs at that point?
Yeah. At that point, started with racing jobs, but when I knew I wasn’t going to do a full-time job right away, I was like, “I have to stay active in some sort of industry.” So being fortunate enough to live so close to New York, I got a few internships in New York City. I ultimately ended up in 2007 interning for the agency Sunshine Sachs, and I basically told them in my interview, I was like, “Listen. I’m not leaving until you’ve hired me.” It’s a great thing to say in an interview, I’m sure, now looking back on it. (Laughs) But ultimately, they ended up hiring me in about May of 2007. And I was (working at the) front desk. So first job out of college, straight front desk. I referred to myself as the “Director of First Impressions” because it was a much better title than what “receptionist” would be.
So you’re working in New York City as a receptionist, not NASCAR as a PR person.
Nope, not at all. But it was in the industry, learning PR and was what life was like. And you know you’re young, you’re dumb and you’re just being blindsided by just what the world was like.
And ultimately progressed and continued to move up, became the assistant to both the President and the CEO, which at that time, we were about 17 people in this agency. But this agency, the head of the agency, Ken Sunshine and Sean Sachs, they come from completely different backgrounds but in a way the same. Ken was a former chief of staff for David Dinkins, mayor of New York back in the ’90s. He also worked in the music industry, and then Sean has a really big political background. So their backgrounds really meshed well, but expanded their client base. They had clients ranging from very famous celebrities down to nitty gritty on-the-ground stuff in New York, very close to people like Al Sharpton.
Nothing like going into Harlem into Al Sharpton’s office when you’re 24 years old and you’re just like, “This is such an experience, but it’s really cool.” And so just being their assistant, you’re just a typical assistant doing everything –travel, ordering lunch, making sure their lives are on point. Sitting in meetings, you have no earthly idea of like, “How am I in here right now?”
So like big time people?
Yeah. Big time people, big time stuff. As we moved along, one of the things we worked on, a lot of stuff that came in in a way, very last minute — for instance Michael Jackson’s funeral. That happened in the middle of the summer, and I remember being at home, my boss, Ken, he’s like, “Hey, this is probably coming down and we’re going to probably handle this.” It was like, “Alright.”
What does that mean, “handle it?” Like do the publicity part, organize it?
Everything. So it was working with the family on just everything that was surrounding that. He was pretty much in line with the family, but it was OK, everything that was going to happen at the Staples Center, what the media presence was going to be like, how we were going distribute everything to the media. As they set up press conferences, he’s on CNN, I’m literally sitting in the office ready to hit send on a mail merge because we didn’t have fancy Constant Contact, all these web services now. Mail merge from an Excel document of people wanting to cover this. Now, mail merge breaks in the middle of this so you now have to turn into BCC. I’m the only one in the office doing this, and it’s just a time where it’s very high intensity, but just it had to get done.
I missed my flight that night to go to LA, I ended up sleeping on the couch in my boss’s office, booked the next flight out and it was just three days of like, “OK, we’re on the ground.” We didn’t have time to make fancy credentials, so they were like gold, club wristbands — that’s literally what the all-access piece was like. Could have been counterfeited easily. But just the sheer chaos — organized chaos, that’s what it was — was insane, and it just worked. And I was the guy who just, the guy was on the ground just doing stuff. So like that just is kind of in a way just the randomness in the variety of stuff that we worked on.
From there, I started working with, as I progressed and moved on to kind of being like a junior publicist or something, started working with people like Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Anna Deavere Smith and then Calvary Hospital.
That’s a wide range.
Exactly. And that’s what they were known for and what primed us for being able to handle the variety. Now, with that, you’re young, you’ve graduated college, you don’t know what life is about. And Sean, who was the CMO, he was younger, he was really cool, but he was like your older brother who just tried to teach you life lessons — but in that older brother kind of way.
He literally tried to teach us the importance of networking, and he got to the point where he said, “I will pay for your dinner and drinks and stuff if you go meet media.” And we were like, “What? No, we don’t want to go out. We just want to go home, we’re doing our job. Why do we want to work?” Because, again, we’re 24 years old, why do we need to do this? And it got to the point where he threw a whiteboard on the wall and he wrote all the assistants’ names on it. He said, “Whoever has the most business cards at the end of the month wins dinner on me,” or something like that. Like, “Oh, OK.” So it turned into a competition.
And just these little things he started teaching us about how to handle stuff. Like (he’d say) “Hey, I need dinner reservations with this type of client.” “OK, where do you want to go?” He’d be like, “Alright, go to www.figureitout.com.” And you’re just like, “I hate you, why are you doing this?” You’re just like so frustrated when is this happening, you’re just not understanding it. But he was just teaching you a lesson that you didn’t know what was happening.
I remember with work stuff he would say, “If I have to ask, you’ve already failed.” “What?” You’d get so mad. Now, 10 years later, it’s like, “Oh my God, he came to me from the future. This is crazy.”
So with that, still going to races, still very much loving NASCAR and wanting to get into the sport. I never really had a favorite driver, I was just more of a fan of the sport and everything that was happening. And I wanted to get into it more. Through a co-worker of mine, she worked with a gentleman named Don Rohr at one point at a record company. Now Don was Brian Vickers’ business manager. It was like, “Oh, I’ll introduce you.” He was in New York one time and she introduced us and he literally became one of my closest friends really quick — whether just because I explained what I wanted to do and what I’ve done or just because he’s a great guy. But literally he would try to help me and just communicate and talk with me. I am sure that I annoyed the hell out of him for like three years, and we would IM each other, he would kind of give me ideas on job leads and stuff, and ultimately I interviewed with Braun Racing to do PR for the 11 Nationwide car at the time. Didn’t end up getting that job, but fast forward a year, Don told me (about a job) again and I interviewed again.
I went and flew down to North Carolina, told work I was sick, I met with, now that was gonna be Turner in 2011, interviewed there, and just hit off. Like it worked really well, ended up getting the job, and I literally gave my notice to Sunshine in my annual review. You couldn’t have kind of scripted it any weirder. I sat down with Sean, my boss, and he’s like, “So, give me the State of Jeff.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s how it’s gonna go. Great.” I’m like, “Well, I’m leaving.” His reaction was shocked and surprised, but after explaining to him what I was doing, where I was going, he said he understood and everything. I literally put my two weeks in, the next weekend I looked for an apartment, the following weekend I moved to North Carolina.
So there was no hesitation, even though you had a good thing going with your work with Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and stuff. This is what you wanted, you wanted to chase that NASCAR dream all the way.
Yeah, I couldn’t turn back at point. I put my eggs in a basket and I was like, “Man, I’ve gotta do this.” Working with Bette, Barbra and everything was really cool.
What was that like?
It was unreal. You’re doing a lot of different stuff at the time. Bette, she had a few CD releases, she had the HBO special for her Vegas show happening, so we did media tours around the city for that and everything. And it’s just, with that stuff, you needed to be five steps forward — even from making sure the car is where it needs to be and the exit that you’re gonna leave out of, because if you go down the wrong exit and there’s say a mosh pit of fans, you’re screwed.
Just being able to making sure she’s ready, making sure she’s ready for interviews, trying to control the questions in a way, but you know, let them ask what they want to ask. You knew what the interview situation was going to be going in, and making sure she was ready, like talking to her about her Vegas show. I wasn’t working on the account when she had her Vegas show, but she would ask me, “OK, let’s talk about Vegas, remind me.” I’m like, “I wasn’t there, but…” and I just started reminding her stories and stuff.
She is a legend for a reason. She knows what she wants, she’s a perfectionist, and she doesn’t accept anything less, which is amazing. Same thing with Barbra. And working with the two of them, and even with any of the other clients, like you just learn, you just really quickly pick up on how to handle certain situation and certain small things.
Yes there’s a glitz and glamor about all of that, but it’s down and gritty. I mean, I just found a photo of us doing the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, and I’m in Asics sneakers, jeans, sweater, a peacoat and a scarf that doesn’t match, and longer hair, and I’m like, “What the hell was I wearing?” But again, I’m 26 years old, and it was at the end a long day of press touring up and down New York City, going to different places, and you can just tell, you’re just like, “Well, we’re done.” And it’s an amazing photo, but it’s just the grind of everything that was, so those are experiences you never forget.
So how does working one-on-one with Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand compare to working with NASCAR drivers? Because now you’ve done Turner, you’ve done RCR stuff, now you’re with Toyota, so you’ve worked with a variety of drivers. Is there any comparison?
I mean, there is. It’s handling personalities, how to work with people, how to handle logistics, how to manage social. One of the things that we did with Bette when she wasn’t filming anything, she didn’t have a tour going on, is we got her on Twitter. And she was resistant on it at first, so I remember we’re coming home from an event in DC and on the train, and we’re sitting there and she’s like, “Jeff, teach me this Twitter.” It’s like, “What? Alright. Here you go. This is your timeline, you pop this open, you can write anything you want. And if you want to mention somebody, you do the @ symbol.” Literally basics. And she’s like, “What?” And you know, just getting her comfortable and acclimated to it.
And eventually, even after I moved on, when she got into a little bit of a back and forth with Kim Kardashian, I’m like a proud parent watching their kid go off to school. Like this is so great, I’m going to frame this.
Kim Kardashian tweeted a nude selfie today. If Kim wants us to see a part of her we’ve never seen,
she’s gonna have to swallow the camera.
— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) March 7, 2016
But all of that in working with different types of personalities, whether it’s celebrities, whether it’s the people at Calvary Hospital in the palliative care unit, it just teaches you how to handle variety but also think different ways and be creative, whether you’re doing PR, whether you’re doing social and not box yourself in.
Did you ever get comfortable around Bette and Barbra? I feel like with NASCAR drivers, they’re a little more down to earth maybe than I would picture those women being, because they feel diva-ish. Is that fair?
You get comfortable to a point with everybody. You get comfortable to a point with whether it’s Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Anna Deavere Smith, again, Calvary Hospital, or whether it’s Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez or Erik Jones. It doesn’t matter. You get comfortable with them up to a point, but you have to stay professional. You don’t want to become that friend zone with them. You still need to act professional because there’s going to be a time where you need to handle business with them, and you need them to have that trust with you, whether it’s handling PR or whether it’s handling social media, whether you need to tell them they did a great job on a social post or be like, “Eh, we need to talk about this.” There needs to still be that level of separation.
In general, what would you recommend to people who would love to be in your position?
That is probably one of the best questions because from Turner, at the end of 2011, I got laid off. They lost a couple sponsors, I think Dollar General, Ricky Carmichael and Monster moved out, so they just didn’t have room for people and they cut a few people out of their marketing and PR department.
I didn’t have a job. I moved down here, picked up my life and moved down here to work in NASCAR, I was like, “What do I do now?” And I saved up money, but to bring this full circle, I just remembered Sean always saying, “Networking. You have to go out and network.” And I just remembered the whiteboard with the business cards, I was like, “Alright.”
This is 2012. I interviewed with people and just circumstances, so whether you don’t get jobs, jobs don’t get filled and literally coming to Daytona, people were like, “Make sure you’re in Daytona because you don’t want to get left out. You don’t want to not be on the bus.” I’m like, “Oh my God, what?” So I did anything I could to get myself to Daytona. I ended up freelancing for an ARCA team doing PR.
Oh wow, I didn’t realize that.
Yeah. Then the next week, I was like, “Well I’ve got black pants, I’ve got a white shirt, I’ve got a hot pass through a friend. I’m going back down.” And just walked in like I owned the place. Just, “Alright, I need to be on pit road.” I had a truck hot pass, and I’m going out for the Duels.
I didn’t have a job for a year. But in that time, the amount of networking I did, the amount of doors I banged on, whether it’s PR reps, the amount of team PR reps with MWR, RCR, Hendrick, you name it, I was like, “Let’s grab coffee.” I grew an addiction to coffee through that year trying to meet people. And it all comes full circle no matter what. It may not happen right away.
One of the first people I met in this sport outside of Turner was at the Darlington truck race. (Then-coworker) Chip Wile, who was James Buescher’s PR rep who is now pretty big time, he’s kind of a big deal with Daytona (Wile is president of Daytona International Speedway). He brings me in the media center, introduces me to people, I’m dressed at that time in slacks and dress shoes, oversized button down shirt that we had to wear at Turner, and he introduces me to Lisa Kennedy from Toyota, I’m like, “Oh hi, nice to meet you.” You know, cool. Literally the first person I ever met outside of Turner.
I go through ’11, ’12, I ended up doing freelance work for Red Horse — a Toyota team — then ultimately doing freelance work for Ryan Truex. I was doing about eight or nine Gibbs races. Well that tied me right back into Lisa and her team at Toyota.
Then, you know, so in that year, I picked up freelance work, I made a lot of money, and then the government took it with the 1099. It was amazing. Did the RCR (social media) job, which is a whole other story with social because it was literally creating a social presence, literally taking baseline accounts and just being like, “OK, what is our voice? How are we handling all of this?” From (Kevin) Harvick in his final year through Austin (Dillon) going up to Cup to winning a Nationwide championship to the years with (Ryan) Newman to almost winning a championship, like how are we handling this on social? And going through and just through all that, learning the social world, to tie this back to social.
And three, four years in, you’re in a job for awhile and we’re in Chicago and Lisa comes to me. She goes, “Hey, let’s talk.” And all of a sudden, that led to my time now with Golin and Toyota Racing.
So the biggest thing, back to your question because that was a really short answer, is network. You never know who you’re going to run into and you never know who you’re going to talk to.
That’s a great lesson. Hopefully people will pay attention that because I think that’s probably the biggest thing, the whole key to this. Where can people follow you on Twitter if they want to shout at you?
Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Daniel Norwood, who heads SiriusXM Radio’s NASCAR channel. This interview was recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read. Full disclosure: I occasionally do some work for SiriusXM Channel 90, so this could be viewed as a conflict of interest (but that’s not why I did the interview).
What falls under your purview for the NASCAR channel at SiriusXM?
First of all, thanks for inviting me to do this. I got my hair done. I hope I look good on the podcast. When you write the transcript, make sure I look this good, OK?
I’ll put in parentheses: “(Has nice hair).”
Thank you. I appreciate that. Make me look taller, if you would.
I am the Senior Director of NASCAR Programming, which is really a big fancy title. In radio terminology, it means I’m the program director. I always boil it down to say I do the hiring, the firing and decide what goes on the air.
So when shows come on like “Happy Hours” with Kevin Harvick, you’re the one that’s going out and got that and decided to put that on the air?
Yeah, you know, everybody has a boss. I have a great one, Steve Cohen. He has bosses, the President and CEO (of SiriusXM), and so forth. But yeah, it’s largely myself and my team working with Steve Cohen, and we just try to find something that’s unique and creative.
And in those particular cases (with Harvick), they actually came to us and said, “We have an idea. We’d like to see if you would be interested.” Of course, we were immediately interested. Then you’ve got to go out and try to find some sponsorship and find a way to pay for the show, and that’s kind of the genesis of how those things begin. It’s usually just with the passing of a conversation, usually at the garage or something.
That one came about because of the success of Tony Stewart Live. Tony used to do a show with us. He did a weekly program back in the early days, maybe back in 2007 when the channel first started, then dropped down to a handful of times throughout the year. But we got a lot of attention. I think they saw that, and of course Kevin is working on his broadcast career for the future when he hangs up the helmet and thought this might be a good place to go.
That’s pretty interesting. So obviously, there’s only one job like yours where you’re deciding all the NASCAR programming and all the hosts and all the shows. How did you get to where you are today? Did you grow up wanting to be in radio at all?
No, it was never in my mind in the early days. I wanted to be a psychologist, which in some ways I actually am today. “Sit down and tell me about your problems,” that’s a lot of times what we have to do in a managerial role. But that’s what I wanted to do for as long as I remember, I wanted to be a psychologist.
Secretly — and I never really said this to anybody other than my wife — I always wanted to be a comedian. That was my dream. To this day, if I could get over my stage fright — I never told anybody, I don’t think, but I’ve been writing comedy for 25 years. I write it every day, and it might just be a line, sometimes it might be a couple of pages, but I write stuff and I put it off to the side. I don’t know. One day, maybe. A friend of mine, I used to write, he used to perform, and it was a lot of fun.
Like stand-up material kind of thing?
Yeah, that’s what I enjoy the most, and when I’m away from the racetrack you’ll find me, if not in the movie theater, then in the comedy club or something like that. I just love to live in those environments. I find the more I’m around it, the more ideas that come my way.
But nevertheless, I was exposed to NASCAR as a kid. My dad is an architect. He works in Charlotte for a company called Metrolina Builders. And they were instrumental in doing some designs here at the (Charlotte) racetrack. They did things like the condos that were going up here at Charlotte Motor Speedway, they put on the siding and they put on the roofs and things like that. They also built the original Jeff Gordon shop — the 24 shop — they built the museum and a whole bunch of stuff over at the Hendrick campus, the original.
I would go to the racetrack because my dad would get tickets, and I remember vividly sitting at the track one time. I was not a NASCAR fan, didn’t know anything about it, but I remember very clearly this car going off around the turn, and the next thing you know he’s bumped someone and he bumped somebody behind him, slowed up, bumped somebody behind him, and he made this space. And I remember thinking, “I’ve never seen something like this.” But I couldn’t pronounce his name, I couldn’t remember it. It was Earhair or Airhart, Amelia, I don’t know – it was Dale Earnhardt, of course. And I never forgot how cool that was. But I never thought I would be doing something in the NASCAR world.
You asked specifically about radio. I never thought that I would be working in a NASCAR radio environment, but I started as an intern. If anybody is reading this and trying to figure out how to get into this business, I highly recommend an internship. It’s certainly easier when you do it like I did when you were pretty young.
Who were you an intern for?
In Charlotte, there was a program that originated from here but it was nationally syndicated, it was called Allan Handelman Show, and I started as an intern with Allan. It was so cool because I got to meet people like AC/DC, Jay Leno — he got the most interesting guests on that were relevant to the rock culture, but not specifically just rock and roll. He would have presidential candidates, but he would also talk about subculture things like pot or aliens or whatever he could do to entertain an audience late at night in the middle of the night.
And I found it fascinating, and from that, I got a part time job running a board. An interesting connection — it’s one of those six degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of things — the guy who gave me my very first paid job in radio was a guy by the name of Chris McKee, and Chris now runs the Motor Racing Network, MRN Radio. He paid me $7 an hour to come in and run the board and that spurred off into a full time job at another station — I worked in all-sports (radio) — and it kind of kept going from there. So it was all from an internship and who would have thought I would be here today? It’s been 22 years now I’ve been in radio.
As your career is progressing, what did your goals change into? Were you starting to think, “Wow, I’m moving up. Now I know how a show runs, now I know how a station runs.” How did that evolve as you were moving up?
It’s funny. I think most people that get into our business want to get on the air. And that’s obvious. That’s what you know. When you’re listening and you’ve never really thought about this business, you just assume that’s all there is to a radio station. You don’t realize that there are accounting people and there’s a receptionist at the front desk and there’s somebody that has to make all the commercials happen and the production department and there’s a ton of people behind the scenes, producers and board operators.
I wanted to be on the air, and I was at 99.7 The Fox here at Charlotte, it’s the heritage rock station in town. There’s a flagship morning show there called the “John Boy and Billy Big Show,” which is huge throughout the Southeast. If your readers haven’t heard of them, TheBigShow.com, you can check them out. They’re really a unique morning show and they do a lot with the NASCAR community.
So I started at The Fox and ran the board and worked my way up to being on the air and I thought, “Man, I’ve made it.” There was never any thought of going beyond The Fox. That was the dream.
Got on the air and it was the worst train wreck you’ve ever seen in your life. I was horrible. Awful. Terrible. The worst radio that’s ever happened. People love free stuff, and they would call in and if you’re giving away pencil erasers, they would just go, “Please give me a pencil eraser.” I was doing the middle of the night (shifts) and I tried to give myself some sort of consolation that maybe it had something to do with the time of day, but I think it was just that I was horrible.
I had a pretty good prize, it was like concert tickets or a CD or something like that, and “Caller No. 9 gets the package and we’ll tell you about it next.” We go to break. I didn’t get one single phone call. Not one. It told me that night, there’s not one person listening to me right now. Because if there was even one person listening, they would have won.
But it kind of put it into perspective that I was trying too hard. I was trying to be the guy that knows everything about rock and roll, when in actuality, right before we would come on the air, I’d be scanning through a book trying to learn about the song. I don’t know anything about The Cars or Eddie Vedder, so I’m going to read about it and see what I can say to make this a little bit more interesting. And it was not good.
But I found out by failing at that that I was good behind the scenes. I’ve told people many times when they try to get into this business and ask me for advice: “It’s OK to chase your dreams, but try really hard to listen to the universe. It will tell you what you’re supposed to do, and if you’re willing accept that, I think your life could be a lot better.”
Had I continued to chase that dream of being on the air, I probably would not be in radio right now. But I accepted that I was good behind the scenes and built a career out of it. And I’m really proud of the fact that after 22 years of being in radio, I’ve never once applied for a job. Every single time, I’ve been recruited. I like to think that’s because my work speaks for itself, and certainly I’m not doing it by myself — there’s a lot of people that are here to make me look good. But you asked about sort of the trajectory, and that’s sort of was the path that I took.
How did the Sirius thing come about? Was the NASCAR thing starting up and they’re looking for someone, and maybe you had a good reputation?
Yeah. 2006, I got a phone call, I was standing at WFNZ radio, I was working the all sports channel here. Mark Packer was the host, his dad is Billy Packer from CBS Sports, and we had a little bit of a regionalized sports show, syndicated in probably five markets in the South. I had made kind of a name for myself within that little world. Your listeners, your readers, they don’t know who I am, but in that community, it was kind of a big fish/small pond scenario. And I was really happy. I wasn’t looking for much else. It was just kind of like with The Fox: “Hey, I never thought this was going to happen, but here I am. I’m going to ride this for as long as they let me stay on board.”
And then it turned out that the phone rang one day in 2006 and a guy by the name of Steve Cohen, who was the senior vice president of sports programming at SiriusXM, he called and he said, “Hey, listen, we’re about to launch an all-NASCAR channel. XM currently has the rights. Sirius is taking over the rights.” This is before their merger back in 2009, 2010, something like that. And Steve calls and he says, “I already have the guy that I’m going to hire for this channel, but two people have told me recently you’d be smart to talk to Daniel Norwood before you pull the trigger.”
One of them was David Poole, who was a long-time writer for the Charlotte Observer, who went on to be the first host of “The Morning Drive” on what was at the time Sirius NASCAR Radio. David was highly respected in this business, I think you would probably agree with that. So he got Steve’s ear. It just so happened that David was one of my co-hosts on “Primetime with the Packman” on WFNZ, so there was some overlap there.
The other was a guy named Chris Weiller. Chris Weiller worked for the Charlotte Bobcats at the time, they’re now the Charlotte Hornets. It just so happened that Weiller is Steve Cohen’s best friend. And so two people that I knew recommended me to Steve and he made a phone call.
He said, “I already got the guy, but I’m just talking to you.” Before the end of the phone call, he said, “Would you like to come work for us?” I don’t know what I said or what I did, but for some reason it changed his mind. He said, “Before I can officially offer this to you, you’ve got to meet with NASCAR.” There was a vice president with the name of Paul Brooks, had to go meet with Paul. Met with Paul, and before I got back to my car, the phone was ringing and Steve made an offer and I was able to accept it.
So was there any hesitation at the time? Sirius now is a household name and satellite radio is clearly a dominant force. But at the time, was it as clear-cut for you, the decision?
Not at all. I was scared to death because, like I said, big fish, small pond. I felt like I had carved out a little niche for myself, and I was gonna jump outside of my comfort zone big time. I was worried about being exposed. To this day, I don’t consider myself a NASCAR expert. My hosts are experts. Our producers are experts. It’s not really part of my job to be an expert on the sport, that’s why we hire good people.
But I met with my uncle, who passed away right before the job started in February of 2007. And he told me at the time, “You’ve gotta do this.” He was a big NASCAR fan. He said, “You gotta do it.” He was a great mentor, he said, “Even if you do it for a year and the whole thing falls apart, you’re gonna have that on your resume for the rest of your life.” And he said, “National. Think of all the people that you could meet.” And I thought boy, I don’t take chances very easily, but there’s something about the way he said it.
And I had another mentor, Terry Hanson at the time, who was great with business, he was Ted Turner’s right-hand man and he sat down with me, we went through it. He helped me negotiate my salary — which by the way, thank you Terry, you did a great job. It was one of those kind of deals, where fake it ’til you make it, and I think that’s what we were able to do and now hopefully I’m not embarrassing myself too much and people like what they’re hearing.
So on a day-to-day basis now, you have your hosts, your have your regular shows that you’re putting on, and then people need to fill in so you’re looking at that. You’re trying to figure out what’s next for your channel and your hosts and your shows. What goes into your day-to-day job?
I spend a lot of time at the computer. To me, that’s not really what radio is all about, and that was kind of one of the problems with transitioning into this role. I’ve always been in a studio, and I’ve always assumed that that’s where you had to be in order to do radio. But I spend a lot of time in front of a computer doing email. I work remotely.
One of the things that a lot of listeners may not know is that our business model is such that the majority of our hosts work from their houses. Our producers and board operators are based in Washington D.C., and as the program director, I’m based in my home just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina in a small place called Lake Wylie, South Carolina. And so I work in a little small office at the house constantly creating schedules, listening to the channel, offering suggestions.
What I was able to bring to the channel was that I cultivated relationships over the years, I had about 10 years under my belt before I came to SiriusXM, and so those contacts have helped us to start the channel. If a new producer comes in, they don’t have those contacts, I have an open Rolodex. Usually they go, “What’s a Rolodex?” because they’re all so young. But we share resources. We’re always looking for new programming, we’re always looking for new talent, we’re always looking to take somebody who maybe isn’t an established name and hopefully create someone that can be our own. That’s the dream.
It’s a little bit more challenging in the world of NASCAR than it is in a stick and ball environment because NASCAR is in so many ways still a niche sport that you’ve got to convince people. They come to the track, they’re sold. They’re instantly sold and they’re coming back for life. But if they’ve only experienced it over the radio or television, some of them are apprehensive, and they don’t build that huge fan base, it takes them awhile. So it’s harder for us to find people. They’re already tied up with MRN or PRN and FOX, NBC, whatever the case. NASCAR.com, you know. But there have been a handful of success stories. People … that are willing to take a chance and get out of their comfort zone a little bit. You bring the NASCAR knowledge, so maybe let’s all work together to get you up to speed as a broadcaster. It works the other way as well. Bring me a seasoned professional as a broadcaster, and we can probably teach him the NASCAR stuff. But I always say, bring me someone that knows nothing about radio or about NASCAR and I’m very busy.
You mentioned earlier in the interview about internships and the importance of doing that. If someone has a dream of, “Wow, I’d love to decide who’s on ‘The Morning Drive’ 10 years from now or who replaces Moody in 20 years,” there’s a kid out there in college or something…
We are actively looking for the person that will help us replace Moody. Anybody listening, just in case he’s listening, I just want to make sure that that’s known.
So what advice would you have for somebody who’s looking to get their start and maybe follow in your footsteps one day?
Well, like I said, internships are certainly the best way. Some people are able to skip over that. But anything entry level, just get your foot in the door. Spending the time there, I can’t tell you how many times, whether I was being paid or not, how many times I’ve worked a night, a weekend, a holiday. I remember eating Thanksgiving dinner, sitting right there at the radio control board, and my family brought down a plate of food.
You know, it feels like it was, but I was having the time of my life because I was where I wanted to be. And, you know, honestly, if you can find people to support you, that’s a big deal.
I’m not embarrassed by this, but I’m not super proud of it either. So I don’t talk about it much, but I didn’t go to college. I was in high school when I got my internship, I was in my senior year, and it’s too long of a story to tell you here, but there was a program at school where they wanted you to do a project and a friend of mine did his on radio; I went with him, and that’s how I met the host that I got my internship from.
But I was going to be the first in my family to graduate college, and there was a lot of pressure: I’m an only child, and I just assumed I was always going to do it, especially if you’re gonna be a psychologist, they’d kind of like you to have a degree, right? So that’s what I thought I was going do.
When I found radio and decided that’s really where I wanted to go, I went to my folks, specifically my dad, and I said, “I’m loving this. And I had a conversation today that I never thought I would have.” Jeff Kent was the program director at WRFX in Charlotte and I went to him and I said, “Hey look, I’m going to be going off to college here pretty soon, my goal is to go to Carolina, I’d like to get a degree in communication and broadcasting.” As a matter of fact, John Boy and Billy had a scholarship program back then and I thought, “Maybe I could come back and work for you later on.” And he said, “Well, I have a job for you right now.” And I said, “Well yeah, but I’ve got to get this degree.” And I’ll never forget how he said this. He said, “Why would you leave a job that I’m offering you right now to go off to get a degree for you to come back and ask for the job that I’m offering you right now? Because this is what I would be offering you!”
And I’d never thought about it that way, so I’m back talking to my dad and he said, “OK, let’s not lose sight of school” — because at that age, the first shiny thing that you see, that’s what you chase after, and I think he was worried that maybe that’s what this was. So let’s go do this for a year, let’s not forget about school, then go get that degree. And that was 22 years ago. But the fact that I had my family’s support, without that, all the other opportunities that were presented to me really wouldn’t have meant anything.
Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Josh Williams, who races in the Xfinity Series for DGM Racing.
How did this all get started for you? Did you grow up thinking you wanted to be part of racing?
I played normal sports as a kid, started racing when I was four and a half years old, running go-karts. Kind of the typical race car driver story.
Did you have a racing family?
I did. My dad started racing in Indiana and moved to Florida. He raced on South Florida short tracks and won championships. Most of the track records I had to break in Florida were his. He’s the reason why I race.
Always went to the racetrack with him when I was little. When I raced go-karts or quarter midgets or things, he’d race open-wheel modifieds or late models or sportsman cars. I just loved it. Something about it intrigued me a lot. It’s just a different feeling, winning races and getting your picture taken on the frontstretch and things like that. The checkered flag is addicting.
When you were little, were you thinking NASCAR all the way? That’s what you wanted to be involved in?
Not really. Up until I was about 14, I was racing just to race and go to the next level. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I want to be a Cup driver.” Probably the year before I started racing in the ARCA Series, when I turned 15, I started thinking, “Man, maybe we could make this a career and stick with it and maybe race in the Cup Series one day.” I’ve always tried to make that my goal and open every door I can. It’s a tough road to do it if you’re someone like me and trying to do your own deal. I wear a lot of hats when I’m at the racetrack, so it’s a little different story than your typical driver.
I’m assuming no one was ever like, “Congratulations, here’s a pile of money.” You’ve had to do this yourself. How did you progress from ARCA ultimately to where you are now?
My family supported all of my racing up until the ARCA Series. We did have Musselman’s Apple Sauce as a sponsor there for a little while. We’ve had a few smaller sponsors — Go Puck, Krankz Audio. We’ve had a few people come in off the side when we were running in ARCA and help us out a little bit.
And we were low budget. We’d buy scuffed tires from some of the bigger teams and practice on them. They quit selling us scuffs after awhile because we were beating them and they were a little upset.
You see a few family-owned teams, even in Xfinity, but it’s tough to race against these big guys with all the funding and somebody who says, “Here’s a couple million. Go play.” We haven’t opened that door yet, but we’re not going to stop until we find it. We’re working with some really good people now in the Xfinity Series on a lower budget scale with Sleep Well and also Star Tron. They’ve helped us out a lot to get to this point. So just trying to build relationships and open doors and hopefully we knock on the right one and they hand us a pile of money and we get to go play.
When you won a couple times in ARCA (in 2016), were you thinking people would notice and things would get a lot easier? What was the aftermath of that?
Not really. I knew the position we were in and the way the racing model is held now compared to what it used to be. For us, that was huge. That was like winning the championship — having one car, having a dually truck pulling a gooseneck trailer and just running against the big boys and winning races. I knew it wasn’t going to be something spectacular — like, “Oh, I’m going to get a Cup ride tomorrow” — but it did open some people’s eyes who didn’t know much about me. They knew who I was, they knew we ran up front. But sealing the deal and winning a couple races in the ARCA Series, people were like, “Man, this guy is actually the real deal. He’s pretty good.”
How’s it been so far in Xfinity? What are some of the triumphs and struggles you have here?
The struggles are always the normal struggles you have here — tires, pit crews, motors, cars, quality of equipment. The good thing about it is I’m getting a lot of seat time, I’m learning a lot about the cars and the different setups, different tracks, things like that. I like it. It’s just a learning curve. I haven’t run all the races this year, just a limited schedule. But I’m learning a lot and I’m OK with that.
Since you don’t have the same funding as those you’re competing against, what’s your goal when you go out there? Do you have certain numbers in mind?
I don’t know if you’ve heard Corey LaJoie joke about his “GT Class” in the Cup Series, but we call it different levels. So if we can win our class — 20th, 25th — that’s great for us.
In Vegas, we finished 20th on two sets of tires and no pit crew. For us, that’s phenomenal. It’s tough, but you’ve got to just race your race and not worry about the circumstances. Like when you come down pit road and you know you’re going to put on 30-lap-old tires, you’re like, “Man, these guys are going to drive away from me for a minute.” But once it all levels out, it’s not so bad.
So when you have days like that, are you like, “Oh my gosh, people need to be paying attention to this?” Because from a media standpoint, everyone is looking at the front and focused on that. But are you like waving your arms like, “Pay attention to this second race, too?”
It would be nice for a lot of people to maybe focus on the latter half of the field. That’s where most of the good racing is. A lot of people miss it.
Talking about Vegas and Ross (Chastain) winning, that was big for drivers like myself and a few other drivers in the Xfinity field. Ross is just like me. We raced at the same racetrack in Florida. We’ve beat each other’s fenders off, we’ve wrecked each other, we’ve fought. We’re past all that now — we were like 14 years old.
But we work hard Monday through Friday and we race on Saturdays. We don’t just race on Saturday and wait until next Saturday. We’ve got jobs. So (when Chastain won), I was like, “Man, that’s cool,” because I can do it. You’ve just got to get that opportunity. You’ve got to be in that good car, you’ve got to be in that good piece and show everybody what you can do. If you can get in a good car and run fifth, then run fifth. Don’t tear it up trying to win a race — unless you get wrecked by (Kevin) Harvick, and then it’s an unfortunate situation.
It’s going to be a hot one here tonight @KySpeedway looking forward to a fun 200laps. We have a pretty good @Sleep_Well_Inc Chevy today in Race trim #JWM2018 #Underdogs #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/rbX0AsGK8L
— Josh Williams (@Josh6williams) July 13, 2018
What is your week like? What do you do during the week?
Me and my fiancee, Trazia, we own a property preservation company. We clean out foreclosed homes, we do maintenance on them, things like that. Fix anything that’s broken to get it ready for the bank to sell. So we do that during the week.
I also own JW Motorsports, which is what we used for the ARCA Series. We build some cars for people, do a lot of short track stuff — street stocks, modifieds, late models. We build some road race cars for some people. So there’s a lot going on in the week and we try to race on the weekends.
So a bank forecloses on a house and the previous owner trashed it before they left, and someone calls you and your fiancee to come in and get it cleaned up before it gets sold?
Yep, that’s pretty much what we do. We’re a third party, so there’s a middle person in between us. They just feed us jobs, and we go in and finish them.
So you’re doing the work yourselves? Repairing walls, things like that?
(Chuckles) Oh yeah.
How did you get into that?
A mutual friend of ours was talking about it and thinking about doing it. I talked to her about and said, “Let’s just see what happens. We’ve got a truck, we’ve got a trailer, we’ve got some equipment. Let’s give it a shot.” We started with it, and we’re still gaining on it — we’re not making a bunch of money — but it’s helping us out a lot as far as getting things prepared.
I guess I would think that would be kind of humbling. Here you just finished 20th in a NASCAR race that was watched by a lot of people and then you’re cleaning out these houses the next week. It would be like, “The glory was right there — and now I’m here,” you know?
Yeah. I don’t mind it, though. That’s just who I am. I’m just a normal person like everybody else. I think that’s what people enjoy about me. I’ll sit down and have a conversation with you at the racetrack, even if I don’t know who you are. We’ll be pushing through the garage somewhere and somebody will just be standing there and I’ll say, “Hey, you want to push a race car?” They’ll be like, “Oh yeah!” They don’t know it’s because we’ve only got two people pushing; they think it’s cool.
But you have a conversation with them, you get to know people and you make fans. I think it’s cool to give people the time of day. I don’t know if you’ve seen these children’s hospital tours we do when we go to these racetracks, but we go visit them all over the country and try to share the love. I’m a normal person, man; I’m just a race car driver on the weekends.
What else would you like people to know about you or your story?
I’d like people to know I’m a real racer. I’m the old-school racer, where people used to enjoy watching NASCAR and they liked the guy who is a little rough who is not afraid to voice his opinion or get out and go rough you up a little bit. And I also get along with people in the same way. I just want them to know I am the old-school model and a real racer, and I don’t want them to give up on the sport thinking there’s none of us left.
I always ask people for recommendations for those who want to make it to where you are. For people who are reading this and have the dream of racing, is it still possible to make it the way you have?
I think it’s still possible. Is it getting harder and harder by the day? Yes it is. The biggest thing is to always be yourself, focus on your dream, accomplish your goals and do what you have to do to accomplish those goals. If you’ve got to put in the work and fly here to meet this person to see if they want to sponsor your race car, even if you waste two days of your time and they say no, you never know. That could change in a couple years. But they know who you are, you went there and put in the effort.
You have to want it. On my Twitter (profile), it says, “When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” I try to base my model off that and give it all I’ve got.
Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Steve Phelps, who took over the position of NASCAR president on Monday. This interview was recorded as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
Let’s start at the beginning. Did you grow up as someone who wanted to spend your life in sports?
I’ve been in sports my entire career. That’s a good 30 years or so, because I’m old. I grew up in Vermont, loved NASCAR, loved all sports. Went to a lot of NASCAR races when I was a kid up in Vermont. Went to University of Vermont for undergrad and went straight through and got my MBA from Boston College.
Then I went to New York and got a job working for a company called American Home Products and was a brand manager on the Chef Boyardee brand.
Oh yeah. Pretty exciting stuff.
So you were in charge of the advertising, or…?
Yes. So anything that had to do with that particular brand was my responsibility. The products, advertising, promotion, what we do from a selling standpoint, what happens at retail — that was all mine. And I got tired of eating canned pasta. But it was a good learning experience, and I moved on to be a brand manager at Guinness (beer).
Oh wow. That’s an upgrade from Chef Boyardee — no offense to Chef Boyardee.
No disrespect to the Chef. And then I was a brand manager on the Bass Ale brand, which was one of the Guinness brands here in the states.
Then I moved on to the NFL, and I was at the NFL for almost 14 years.
When you were at Guinness, were you keeping an eye out for a sports job like the NFL?
I had a guy who was a family friend, when I was trying to get a job out of business school, who said, “Hey, listen. Best advice to you is to go work for a big brand and get a ton of experience, and then come back and talk to me.” He worked for one of the golf companies. He said, “At that point, come back and we would love to have you work for us. But go get the experience necessary.”
And I absolutely wanted to work in sports. I had no idea what that meant, frankly. So when the job opportunity came up at the NFL, I said, “This is something I want to pursue.” And I did.
What did you start out doing at the NFL?
My whole career at the NFL — which actually dovetails pretty well with what happens in NASCAR — I started as a marketing manager working on different sponsor brands for the NFL. So Miller and Budweiser and Frito-Lay and Visa and different brands. Then I worked my way up from manager to director to managing director and ultimately the vice president. I was overseeing the entire group. It was a great brand, it was great training for me to ultimately get to NASCAR.
What was it like working at the NFL and with the people there? Obviously, it’s a behemoth — then and now. What was the experience like?
It was a great experience for me, which is why I stayed so long. Great brand. I learned a lot. Interesting thing, because people ask me to compare NASCAR and the NFL — they are very different. The only thing, frankly, they have in common is a large, passionate fan base. Theirs is obviously twice as large as ours. Ours is equally as passionate.
But the thing we have they don’t have is our fans understand the need for sponsorship and support those brands. We didn’t have that at the NFL. (Fans) didn’t really care, frankly. They couldn’t identify, if you’re the official something of the New York Giants, what does that do for (fans)? Do you get a long snapper for that? Do you get half of a wide receiver? You just don’t know.
Here, our fans know: It puts on the show. My favorite sport, my favorite team, my favorite driver, my favorite track. That’s a unique point of difference for us.
If we can back up for a moment, you mentioned you went to some NASCAR races growing up. I was talking to Dave Moody, and he said he was doing the public address announcing at a track in Vermont and can remember meeting you when you were younger. What was that background like?
Obviously, I didn’t know at 5 years old (I wanted to work in NASCAR). At 5 years old, I wanted to be a fireman. At 7 years old, I wanted to be a vet.
But at 5 years old, going to Catamount Speedway — which was 15 miles from my house — with my dad in the town where my dad grew up and having that experience with him was fantastic.
It was very funny, because we’d go to races and my favorite television show at the time was Speed Racer — again, I’m dating myself. But it was the white No. 5 car (in the show), so that’s the car I wanted to root for on the racetrack. Unfortunately, that driver was from Quebec. My dad, being a staunch (local fan) said, “You’ve got to root for the Vermonters. You can’t root for the guys from Quebec.”
Speed Racer Mach 5 pic.twitter.com/1Z1Y0SzpSc
— Kim J’s Bae “…and then we fell in love!” (@LennyGhoul) July 24, 2018
But it was a neat introduction to the sport. The connection now to Ken Squier and my relationship with Ken is a very special one. Ken, obviously with Thunder Road and also at the time Catamount Speedway, had his hands all over that, which is great.
From what I understand, you were at the NFL when NASCAR came to recruit you. Is that correct?
Well, there was one intermediate step, which is interesting. My trajectory at the NFL, I was in my job at the time as the VP of the corporate marketing group for seven years. And there was no place for me to go, because a lot of people in senior management in the NFL, they don’t (leave). And I wanted to do more.
So I ended up getting a job with a guy named Casey Wasserman. He owns an agency called Wasserman, which used to be the Wasserman Media Group. Casey is a dynamic force and built this incredible agency, and I was his head of global sales.
I did that for a year, and then NASCAR came knocking and they said, “Hey, we’re interested in you coming to work here.” I didn’t know if I wanted to go back and work for a league, but they were so convincing — I met with Lesa Kennedy and Brian France at the time, who hired me, and they said, “No, this is a different place than the NFL. You can make a difference.”
And that’s true. That’s what really interested me in going to NASCAR, is that I truly, as an individual, could make a difference. At the NFL, it was hard to make a difference, right? It kind of moves glacially, and they don’t have to be bold, they don’t have to be at the forefront of different things. They can be the big, massive behemoth that they are and be incredibly successful doing that.
At NASCAR, getting the industry aligned is something we have to try to do every single day. And every person at NASCAR has the ability to do that, not just me. And that was the special part to me, and that’s the part I love about this place.
The other thing that is just so special here versus (the NFL) is the sense of community that exists within the sport. It’s not like that anywhere else. It just isn’t. You can be part of the NFL, you can be part of something that is big and a tremendous brand, but you don’t feel a part of the fabric of the sport. Everyone who works here — media members, teams, drivers, track people — everyone feels a part of the community here. And that’s what we are. We’re a community; we’re a family.
Ever since I’ve been around NASCAR, it seems like there’s a press release every year saying, “Steve Phelps got promoted again!” So obviously, there were people feeling strongly enough in the company who believed in you and you’ve kept moving up the ranks. The experience of being able to make an impact, what’s it like on a grand scale to see the results of what you’re doing play out like that?
Obviously, being the fifth president of NASCAR in 70 years is incredibly humbling. I keep using the same word, but I don’t know another word to describe what it is. I’m not suggesting there’s not a lot of work tied to it — we’ve got a lot of work to do, for sure — but I did aspire to be in this chair. It’s something I certainly wanted to have happen, and I worked hard to get there.
Fortunately, the France family — Lesa and Jim in particular — felt I would be a good addition and be good for this spot. I’m incredibly grateful to them for that opportunity and I will do everything in my power to make sure this sport grows and everyone who is a part of it feels like they have a voice in it.
What do you want fans to know about your philosophy or the way you will go about doing things when it comes to being a caretaker of the sport?
I think caretaker is a good word. Mike Helton always uses the term “stewards of the sport.” I think that’s exactly what we are and we need to be that.
We have a 25,000-member fan council and we have significant input from our fans. We listen to our fans all the time. Now, getting 25,000 fans to think the same way will never happen. Getting 40 drivers to think exactly the same way or 23 racetracks at the top level (to think the same way), it never happens. So what we need to do is try to take that input, and we listen a lot. We listen to fans, we listen to drivers, we listen to racetracks, we listen to our media partners. Anyone who has a stake in this sport, we’re listening to.
I think probably my single best gift is I am a good listener and I sincerely want to take in all that input. At the end of the day, we are going to have to make the decision we believe is in the best interest of the sport. When that happens, there are people who are like, “Well, you didn’t listen to me.” And that’s not true. We listen to everyone. It’s not like you’re ranking things or putting more weight on something. It’s just trying to determine what we believe, in our opinion, is going to help the sport the most and help it grow.
But getting back to the fan portion, we always have the fans at the center. They are what makes this sport go. Without the fans, we literally don’t race. Whether it’s folks in the stands, people watching on television, engaging with digital and social media — without the fans, we have nothing. So do they have a big voice? Yes, they do. And trying to determine what the right thing fans are interested in having is something we try to ascertain as much as we can.
If someone is reading this and says, “I’d love to be the president of NASCAR one day,” what is the path for them to get started?
Every sport is different, and ours is unique. We are the sanctioning body. You’ve got racetracks, race teams, you have media partners — and this community is unique in and of itself. You have disparate groups. If you work for the NFL, you are owned by the 32 teams that are part of the NFL. So if you work at the league office, that’s who you are.
There are all different points around what I would call the center of NASCAR or other sports. You have sponsor brands, agencies that support it, the sanctioning body, race teams, racetracks and on and on. Finding a connection and getting to someone who is of influence and can get your foot in the door is the most important thing.
Once you find a person to help you, that person may not have an opening at that particular time. Ask that person: “Give me, if you could, one name you could recommend for me to call and make an introduction for me.” Most of the time, people will say yes.
At some point, just working hard and being dogged in your pursuit of that job, something is going to happen. And when you get your foot in the door and get the opportunity, make sure you’re telling the story the right way. Do it succinctly and do it smartly and tell someone why you have a point of difference versus the next person they’re interviewing.
From there, once you get the job, understand the vision of the company and what needs to happen. And then just work your ass off. I think people discount that, but people who work hard are going to get noticed. And if you are reasonably smart and understand what the culture is and how to operate within it and what’s important — and you work hard — you’re going to succeed.
Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on his or her career path. Up next: Holly Cain from the NASCAR Wire Service. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed below for those who prefer to read.
What does your job entail now?
I am a writer for the NASCAR Wire Service. I work out of the Daytona Beach office and I help do all of the previews that go out on the wire for the Cup races and to a certain extent, the statistical previews for the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races. So during the week, I provide all of the advance information we send out to over 100 different outlets across the country to be able to use in their newspaper, magazine, whatever their outlet is.
So as coverage has been lessened across the country, NASCAR has stepped up with its own service to provide content to outlets that might want racing coverage, essentially. And you’re doing that.
Absolutely. And then Reid Spencer covers the actual races on the weekend, and sometimes I will go out and help as well. I also get to do some IMSA things, which I love because that was kind of my start in racing.
I’m interested in your career path. Let’s just start with the beginning. Did you grow up thinking you wanted to do something in media, like be a reporter?
Oddly enough, I did. My whole entire life, that’s all I wanted to do. I can remember back when we had huge tape recorders and I would simply read the newspaper into the tape recorder and pretend like I was doing the evening news.
My father (Ed Cain) was a sportscaster and a newscaster, so I get that part honestly. And my mom taught high school English for almost 40 years. So if you think about those two things, journalism makes sense. But I definitely took after my dad and always was doing that.
Where was he a newscaster?
He worked all over the place. He did New York Islanders hockey, he did the Minnesota Twins, the Minnesota North Stars when the hockey team was still called that, and then he worked in Seattle for many years and covered the SuperSonics when they were there, the Mariners, the Seahawks. So he had worked all over the country.
Did you tag along to some of the events when you were growing up?
A couple of the things, I would. I would go to some of the football games or the hockey games. My parents have all sorts of photos of me with the players. I have a photo of me with O.J. Simpson.
Probably the coolest thing that really inspired me with my father was when he was 22 years old, President Kennedy was shot and he was working at a small radio station in Florida. He actually drove to Dallas and was standing in the police department building right alongside Lee Harvey Oswald — and actually asked a question — when he was killed. My father is in movies and he’s in all sorts of clips and photos from that. So that was a really neat thing to see what kind of a journalist he was that he would pick up and go, and then as it turned out be feet away from one of the biggest stories in the history of our country.
My father as a young reporter standing right there as Oswald shot. https://t.co/L9IfObIcgq
— Holly Cain (@_HollyCain) October 26, 2017
What did he say over the years about that moment and being there when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot right in front of him?
Well, it was a very career-defining moment for him. He was only 22 years old, right out of college when he did that. What it always showed me was you have to go get the story. You can’t sit in a press room and expect it to come to you. He just was a shining example of what to do journalistically and was there to help me for many years.
So did you go to school for journalism and get on that career path from the start?
I wrote for the elementary school newspaper, the junior high, the senior high, the college newspaper. So I was one of those people. I wanted to do journalism, and I wanted to do television journalism. But back when I graduated in 1989 — I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa — it wasn’t such an easy path for a woman to be on television in sports. That wasn’t the way to do it.
I was told you need to get really good at writing about it and show you have the knowledge, and once you have the knowledge, we can put you on television. It wasn’t, “We’ll put you on television and we’ll help you from that point on,” it was, “You show us that you know the sport, you know how to ask questions, you can do interviews and write stories and know proper news judgment.” As it turns out, that wasn’t the path I took; I wasn’t on television that way.
But I love it. I love my career. I tell my kids all the time: “How lucky am I that I’m doing something I still love, to this day, every day?” I love working.
After you got out of college, what did you start out covering or doing?
I did not take a job in sports right away. I took a job at a little newspaper in Florida up in the panhandle. I lived with my best friend in Tallahassee — she was at Florida State — and where I worked in Marianna was an hour on a different time zone. So that was kind of weird; I’d go to work in one time zone and come home and be on another. But (that job) really helped me decide I was not cut out to be a news writer.
I can remember I had to go do man-on-the-street interviews. So I went to the local Winn-Dixie to do it, and I was just interviewing anyone who would stop and give me the time of day. I interviewed these two gentlemen, and they were kind of flirty with me — so much to the point where it was uncomfortable for me. They’re like, “We just live at blah blah blah, real close to here, you’ve got to come.”
Part of it was I had to take their photograph to include with their man-on-the-street question. So I get back to the office and turn in the photos I took and I start writing. The editor comes up to me and says, “Holly, did you not see the front page of the paper today?” I’m like, “Yes…” He said, “You see these two men on the front page for robbing a bunch of pharmacies in the area? These are the two guys for your man-on-the-street.” I said, “Well as a matter of fact, they told me where they live!” So I told my editor and they called the police and arrested them.
Needless to say, I was not cut out for the hard news. So I went back and took a job at the Sebring News-Sun in Sebring, Florida, which is about an hour south of my hometown of Lakeland. And that’s where my career really took off with sports and certainly with auto racing, as you would imagine.
No wonder you have an affinity for sports cars, then, being near the Sebring track. At that point, were you thinking covering racing could be a profession, or was that still not clear?
It definitely wasn’t clear. I was still in my 20s, and racing was just one of the things I covered. Looking back at my career now, I’m glad I had racing as a steady part of my job as a sportswriter. I worked for the small Sebring newspaper that only came out twice a week, and then I got hired at the Tampa Tribune.
While I was at the Tampa Tribune, I got to cover the New York Yankees — they had their spring training in Tampa. Back before the Tampa Bay Rays existed, we kind of adopted the Yankees. George Steinbrenner lived in Tampa. And it was really kind of neat. I can remember George Steinbrenner returning my phone calls at home. Or I would call and he’d take my call right away. It was amazing.
So I got to do that, as well as the Tampa Bay Bucs and really a whole lot of general assignment things. But the one thing that carried throughout my career was covering racing. Back then, a lot of IMSA, the GTP program, and then I’d go up to Daytona for the 500 and all that.
How long were you at the Tampa paper? Were you thinking you’d work there for life?
I was there 11 or 12 years. So I spent quite awhile there. I was really fortunate. I had other papers reach out to me with fantastic opportunities. I loved working at the Tribune. I had a job offer from another paper that was bigger than Tampa, another big city in Florida. But I loved the people I worked with so much. My co-workers used to laugh at me: They’re like, “They can’t give you any more money, but they gave you a better typewriter and a desk by the window, and you turned down whatever the difference was in money to stay because of the people.”
But I always did want to see where I could go. I didn’t get married young. I was always very open to things. So I was lucky to have another opportunity at the Dallas Morning News.
At the time you went to Dallas, I believe that was at the peak of their sports department. It was the top sports section. They had, what, more than 150 writers or something?
Oh, we had a huge staff. The sports section was like a book. It was great. We had all these general assignment reporters that could go and do anything, and if you could sell it was an interesting story, you could go and do that. We had all these fabulous columnists. Still to this day, I see them around the country and all the different things they’re doing. Dave Smith was our sports editor at the time and it was really a time of great opportunity.
It was a very rigorous job. The way it was run, you showed up and if you had a mistake or a typo, you had to answer to absolutely everything your column. You had to explain why you wanted to write this story versus that story. It was very good like that, but it certainly snapped you into some fabulous journalism.
What did you cover when you were in Dallas?
Texas Motor Speedway had just opened the year before, so I was doing that and I was primarily the motorsports writer. I had a whole page every week that was all motorsports. I loved it. I did the NHRA — they had two races in Dallas at the time — and the IRL had two races there. That’s when Tony Stewart was racing in the IRL; there were some absolutely fantastic races on that big oval. And NASCAR obviously was there, and they were still trying to get a second race. I was writing that story every year, I remember.
Back then when the sports section was so huge, were they embracing the racing and motorsports type of stories?
They did. They liked it. It was still a relatively new regular beat to the paper. They were very interested in the drivers and their backgrounds.
I also covered the Dallas Cowboys — I went to their away games and wrote sidebars for their games. So that was neat to be a part of, although that was kind of on the downswing of the Emmitt Smith/Troy Aikman days. They were just finishing up, so it was that weird time for the Cowboys. I lived in Valley Ranch across the street from the Cowboys’ complex, and I was supposed to be ready to run over there if I ever needed to because there was constantly coaching changes — Barry Switzer was the coach one of the years I was there. Again, it was great. I felt so lucky to be part of all that.
So you ended up going to Seattle next, is that right? How did that come about?
I ended up getting married, and the person I married was in the United States Army special forces, and they were based in Seattle. I had just accepted a job with USA Today and was going to go out there, and then was engaged weeks later. I had to call USA Today back up and say, “I’m going to be unable to take this job, as it turns out.” I had to live in Seattle, and you had to live in Maryland or Virginia if you worked for USA Today.
So I went west and really had a fantastic time getting them to start thinking about motorsports. It wasn’t something huge on those newspapers’ radars, but I convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to hire me. I did general assignment work, but it also turned out to be the same time a kid named Kasey Kahne was coming up. Greg Biffle was coming up. Derrike Cope had won the Daytona 500 and he was from a small little town right by where I lived. So I was able to pull that off.
The fact NASCAR was on the rise at the time — you just went to the editors and said, “Hey, I just moved here. I have experience. I can help you guys.” And they were accepting of that?
They were. And it wasn’t just NASCAR at that point, either. I would cover Portland for IndyCar. But definitely NASCAR was the primary thing I feel like I was part of the change there. They had local short-track racing and Kevin Hamlin, who is the spotter for Alex Bowman now, he was out there just tearing it up. He was one of the stars on the local short tracks at the time. So it was a good time for me to be there in terms of having racing coincide with people out there in the Northwest.
When did you leave Seattle and what was after that?
I left in 2003 and took a job with AOL Sports.
This was the start of FanHouse?
Yes, FanHouse. At the very beginning. That was absolutely wonderful, too. I got to dictate what the coverage was going to be and do takeout (feature) pieces. I got to go out and spend a week in El Cajon (Calif.) to do a big Jimmie Johnson feature. That was amazing to meet the people, to see the house where he grew up, to do all this behind-the-scenes (Johnson background) no one had done before. So that was one of my most special things.
I covered the Indy 500 with Chip Ganassi (in 2010). I was in his pits when Dario Franchitti won, and I remember thinking, “OK, so this is how this story is going to be,” but he said, “No, we’re taking a plane and we’re flying up to Charlotte. We’re going to go up to the 600.” And Jamie McMurray almost won that race. I think Kurt Busch won and Jamie finished second to him. And after that, we flew back to Indianapolis later that night.
So you did the Double.
I did the Double. It was a lot of fun. I feel so fortunate for the opportunities I’ve had. And I’m not just saying that. You can see I get really excited talking about it.
So AOL FanHouse was either really ahead of its time or too ambitious. They hired a bunch of writers and then it all just folded, right? There wasn’t a lot of warning. Am I getting this right?
There was a text message that we all needed to be on a conference call in 20 minutes. They went a different direction. Interestingly enough, a whole lot of people who I had worked with in Tampa and Dallas had taken jobs with it as well. So it was kind of cool. I knew all my co-workers already.
So you lose your job. What’s your reaction? What do you do? You had kids…
I was Mom. I was president of the PTA and all those things. But I still loved writing and I still loved covering the sport. So I would freelance and do whatever I could, write big takeout pieces. And then eventually, I was offered a job with the new NASCAR.com, when they rebooted that whole thing. That turned out to be a really fantastic opportunity.
You were a reputable voice they could bring in, along with Kenny Bruce.
And David Caraviello was there as well. So the three of us were the main journalists for NASCAR.com at that point.
How was it being able to work for them and not feeling like things were going to change at the drop of a hat like at AOL?
That was definitely a better feeling, a lot more comforting for me. They gave us a really great platform. They really redid the platform. What I appreciated the most was it wasn’t just, “Tell us what happened the race,” it was “Tell us about the people in the race. Tell us about the crew.” They let us do feature stories, longform stories. Because I really believe that’s how people learn about the sport even more. Obviously the racing is important and that’s what it’s all about, but I’ve always appreciated the behind the scenes and I feel like readers do, too.
You obviously had a high-profile battle with breast cancer during this time. I know you kept trying to do as much writing as you could and kept plugging away. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that. You were doing chemo and writing at the same time. Why was it so important for you to keep working?
To be perfectly honest with you, it was a way to feel like I was going to make it, that things were somewhat normal. My cancer was Stage 3 and I’m HER2-positive, which is an extra enzyme of bad luck that only one in 10 people have and makes it even harder to recover. It’s just kind of an extra thumb in the side to the treatment.
But at the same time, friends of mine like Steve Byrnes were going through (cancer treatments). It was really bizarre how we call had this going on at the same time. Then Sherry Pollex was diagnosed. The three of us would often joke — we would be texting and it’s “I’m in chemo” and “I’m in chemo (too).”
But I remained so strengthened by them, and I was so grateful to NASCAR.com for not just letting me go because of all the extra medical issues. They were so good to me and so supportive, and so were the readers and the people we work with. It makes me emotional because sometimes you don’t find out how fantastic your friends are until they’re put to the test after you’re put to the test.
I feel like you having gone through this long, hard battle has given you a different outlook on life. What perspective did you gain during that time?
I think you probably hear this from a lot of cancer patients on appreciating the day, every day. My children were in junior high/middle school at the time, and I never wanted them to worry. I eventually got so sick and I had many complications arise out of it, so it was kind of hard to completely shield them.
But I tried so hard. I felt like the best part of it is knowing you just have to dig deep and you have to let the little stuff go. You can’t get upset about it. I am just so thankful to have every day.
I would go to bed at night and pray to God that I wasn’t going to die. And I really mean that. I’m not just saying that. Those would be my prayers all day long. “Please, God — let me see my son graduate. Let me see my daughter graduate.” Things like that. And it just changes your entire perspective.
But it also helps you appreciate the joy in life, too. And like you said, I do look at things (differently); I don’t get all crazed out by little (things). It also helps you really to appreciate the people around you and recognize your friends. I’m very blessed. Very, very blessed by the friends and people in my life.
So in that regard, does it frustrate you when you see other people have those gripes about things that don’t seem to matter as much? I was just complaining about the WiFi earlier.
I think to myself, “At least you didn’t have to find out like I did that it’s OK.” (Laughs) Just look over at me, I will give you the peace sign and tell you it’s going to be all right.
It would be nice if people like myself could remind ourselves of that and appreciate that every day without having to go through what you’ve gone through to gain that perspective.
I hope so. One thing I try and do on my Twitter account is I always try to find something positive. You will rarely if ever see (negativity). I always try and share that. It’s easy to go one way or the other, but going positive not only helps you, but the people you’re around. I don’t mean for this to sound trite, because I genuinely believe that. I’m always the girl who was giving the peace sign my whole life, and I really mean it. Especially now.
This is a tough time to get into journalism. Do you think there’s still a path for people have a career like you have? And where should they start these days?
I’m kind of torn on it. I obviously see the way social media has gone, and it’s (about) the quick hit. Frankly, you don’t even need to have studied journalism to do some of the quick (pieces) that are sent out that way.
I do believe there is something to be said for the art of writing, for the art of asking people and doing interviews instead of you making an assumption. Talk to the person, interview them. And don’t just talk to the one person; you want to talk to several others about that person.
I know it’s an art that’s being lost. But I feel like the best are the ones who go about things like we used to and had to. I love the fact though that people want to come in and tell stories, but that’s what they’ve got to do — tell stories. It should never be about the journalist. It should be about the subject you’re writing about and telling the story about. That’s going to be the important thing, because I think now it’s a little easier for that to get lost in it all.
Each week, I ask someone in the racing industry to explain how they reached their current position. Up next: IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye sheds some light on his career path. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
When I first knew of you, it was in the MB2 days. Can you take me back to the start? Did you grow up as a race fan or anything along those lines?
I’m originally from Rock Island, Illinois. My family, we owned a small garbage trucking company. It’s funny — I basically learned how to drive by driving a garbage truck, which is kind of unusual. I was always around mechanical things. I really liked cars and motorsports.
My dad’s company would bring stuff back to our shop — pedal cars and bicycles — and they’d fix them up and send them home. So at a very young age, I always had these cool toys. You know, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So it was kind of neat to have that stuff. I wish I still had some of it, because there was some cool old metal pedal cars.
I got very heavy into stick-and-ball sports and played basketball, baseball and football all through high school and then went to college on a football scholarship. I played football at the University of Missouri and it was a great time there.
My first job out of college was at Anheuser-Busch and I was a special event manager for the city of Chicago. That’s where I started actually meeting some people in motorsports. Through that, I met some people with Valvoline. And when I left Anheuser-Busch, they thought I was crazy — because things were going really good at A-B. But I wanted to go do this motorsport thing.
So when I went to Valvoline, I ran the NASCAR and the World of Outlaws program.
Was it tough for you to give up the football days, since you’d made it so far?
No. It was a great experience and I’ve got a lot of great friends still in college sports. I’m proud we were able to do that, but it’s a whole other level to go from there to the next level, just like it was to go from high school to (college). I got my degree and met a lot of lifelong friends, and that was enough.
So all along, were you thinking you wanted to do something in sports as a career?
Well certainly going to the University of Missouri, obviously Anheuser-Busch being in St. Louis at the time had a lot of influence on what was happening. A lot of Missouri alumni worked at Anheuser-Busch. So I got to meet a lot of friends there. And obviously A-B was a huge supporter and advertiser of sports. So doing the events in Chicago, you’d have everything from local street festivals to when the Rolling Stones came to town, you’d manage that type of stuff. So it was very unique and a pretty cool job for a 22-year-old coming right out of college. It was a great experience.
So you get to Valvoline and you’re working for them. How did the transition to the team side take place?
I started with Valvoline at the end of ’91, and that was right when they started sponsoring Mark Martin at Roush. And right after that, we put together the deal with Hendrick, which was Jeff (Gordon’s) rookie year (in 1993). That’s when we started the relationship. At that time, I would say it was one of the first B-to-B deals. Not that there weren’t others, but it was a pretty high-profile B-to-B deal.
My office ended up being at Hendrick Motorsports. I was based out of Lexington, Kentucky my first year with Valvoline, but I was never in Lexington, Kentucky. Where the old 25 shop used to be, there was a small building next to it and was called the “Bug Barn.” And the Bug Barn was where Harry Hyde used to work on his Volkswagens. It was pretty cool. So I took the Bug Barn and fixed it up and cleaned it up, and that became Valvoline Racing South back then.
I worked out of there for two or three years. It was very unique being around Rick all the time and being around Jack Roush all the time. Two completely different approaches to the way they do things, but two hugely successful people. So here I am, a 26-year-old who is learning through osmosis from two of the best in the business world and the motorsports world. So that was a really cool experience.
M&M Mars wanted Rick to start what back then would have been a fourth team. Or they were asking about a fourth team. And I don’t think there was much interest in it during that time (from Hendrick). Rick had some friends who were interested in starting a team, and obviously they had never done anything like that.
So he got me with them, and that’s how MB2 was started. We partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the engines. I think at that time, people thought it was going to last for two or three years and it’d be something else, and we ended up lasting for 12. Which, to me, part of our success was our survival.
There were a lot of things happening at that time, and I look back at being 30 years old-ish around that time and basically starting a Cup team from scratch and hiring a 24- or 25-year-old crew chief — whatever Ryan Pemberton was at the time — and running it out of an 8,000-square-foot building with maybe 13 people at the time. And to think that team went and sat on the pole at the Brickyard in 1998 (with Ernie Irvan), it was the little team that could.
Really proud that @KyleBusch is running our scheme from 1998 @TooToughToTame this weekend. When we started the team in 1996 was a very young group that didn’t know what we didn’t know. Pretty obvious by these hats! Ha! Very proud of what we accomplished. pic.twitter.com/EJb55YaELq
— Jay Frye (@JayRFrye) August 31, 2018
It was a great experience. You speak of lifelong friends, and the guys on that team, a lot of them were with us for the whole 12 years, which is pretty cool. A lot of them had opportunities to go do something else and they stuck with us, and I’m forever grateful for that.
So as MB2 evolved, I can’t remember all that led into…
Yeah, the demise. I was trying to put that nicely.
The year before that, two of the partners I had in the team had sold to the other partners. And then the last original partner — the sport was getting bigger and bigger, and we were able to bring in Bobby Ginn. Remember, that last year it was called Ginn Racing. Same team, same people, just different name on the door.
A lot of things happened there that, looking back, it was good intentions, I believe, but it just didn’t work out. At that point in the industry, there was a lot of consolidation. So if you think about MB2 basically merged with DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007) who merged with Ganassi. So there’s probably still some MB2 DNA in Ganassi’s Cup team at some point.
But that was tough. That was a really bad time, because you were with this group for 12 years, and there were a lot of people who were with us from Day 1. I took their livelihoods and their families very, very seriously. I mean, I would go without before I let any of those guys or girls go without. So when DEI merged (with Ginn), I had the opportunity to continue — but there was no way I was going to without (everyone). If we all couldn’t, I wasn’t going to be one to stay. So I didn’t.
So then the Red Bull opportunity came up from there?
It was in August (2007) when everything happened. At that point, I did help transition it out. There was a lot of loose ends that needed to be tied up. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. At that point, I really thought I might go do something with Hendrick. And then I got a call out of the blue from Lee White at Toyota and he was wondering what I was going to do next. We talked for a long time, and he introduced me to the Red Bull folks.
With Red Bull, if Toyota had been where Toyota was now, things would have turned out differently. Was Red Bull ahed of its time? What happened in those years?
So their first full season was ’07. MB2, we merged with DEI in 2007, because I started with Red Bull at the end of 2007. Like you said, Toyota was in their infancy. Red Bull was just starting and expectations were pretty high. There was a lot of changeover at Red Bull, because Red Bull North America was involved and some things happened before I got there and next thing you know, Red Bull Austria is overseeing the team. So that was a unique experience.
It was amazing how I got started. I had this meeting with Lee (White) and the next thing you know, I get this call from Red Bull. They’re like, “We’d like you to come see us.” I’m like, “Sure. That’d be great. When do you want me to come?” They said, “How about today?” (Laughs) “Today?” Basically it was, “Come to Austria now.” It was cool.
So I got on a flight the next day, landed and went and met with them. This was a pretty cool, up-and-coming great company that one guy founded with an amazing story how he did it, and to meet them was a really unique experience.
So we talked, I get back to the hotel (after just having arrived) and they call me at the hotel and they’re like, “We want to do it.” It was like, “OK!” We started going through what could happen, I got home the next day, talked about it, we put it together and started about a week later.
I’m proud of what we accomplished there. They struggled a lot, obviously, in 2007. A lot. The next year, I think we got the thing pointed in the right direction. The following year (2009), we made the Chase and won a race. Then Brian (Vickers) got sick; that was for sure a setback when that type of thing happens. Getting Kasey (Kahne) that year was a great thing, a great experience.
But it was cool. The international business thing, I’d never dealt with that much and we got to be good friends with the Formula One team, which was cool. Those guys are still good friends. I would have to go to Austria two or three times a year, and we’d have meetings with Dietrich Mateschitz. It’d be Christian Horner, Franz Tost — and we’d go individually, but we’d kind of be in the bullpen waiting on our turn. There was a lot of lot of good collaboration with Christian and Jonathan Wheatley, the team manager, is a good friend.
You look back and it was a great experience. The only thing I’m disappointed in is I think we really could have made something of it. Red Bull Austria’s passion is Formula One, and rightfully so. That’s what they do. The NASCAR thing to them, they didn’t understand what we were going to need to do to take it to the next level.
They expected Formula One level results right away?
Well when we got there, our results were better than that team. If you think about it, this was before the championships. When I was at Red Bull Racing, the first year, (Sebastian) Vettel was still at Toro Rosso. I remember being in one of those meetings and they’re talking about Vettel going to Red Bull Racing, and there are guys on Toro Rosso he wants to bring with him and they’re asking how that works and is that OK? They’re asking me, and I’m like, “Absolutely. You want the driver to be comfortable, and if he’s got some people he wants to bring with him, let him bring them.”
Again, looking back on it, it was pretty cool. The first time we went to visit Red Bull Racing in Milton Keynes (England), you expect F1 to be everything James Bond-ish. So we go to the factory, and part of it is very James Bond-ish and you’re overwhelmed.
But then you go to the back of the shop and there are guys bolting the car together. It’s like, “There are our guys.” It’s familiar. It’s just racing cars, right? A lot of those guys ended up coming to Homestead at the end of the year, and they were overwhelmed by how we did a lot of things. Like to them, they couldn’t wrap their head around 38 races a year. But think about it: They’re running about 20, but they’re going to countries. We were going from Charlotte to Martinsville. So I think that was something they didn’t quite understand.
How did the transition go from Red Bull ultimately to IndyCar? You had been in NASCAR over 20 years by that point. Was there any hesitation about trying that side?
It was exciting. When the Red Bull thing ended, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Remember, for a year, I did go to Hendrick and do what I could to help.
I had forgotten that.
They didn’t need my help in any way. But I had been around them for a long, long time and they’re great friends and I learned a lot of stuff from them and there’s great trust. They’re like family to me.
So it was a really cool gap year. It was like, “What do I want to do next? Do I want to keep doing the team thing?” The team thing is pretty tough. There’s no revenue sharing. You’ve got to perform on the track and off the track. And again, taking care of the families — I took that very seriously. So it was good to catch my breath.
Over that time period, I got a call from IndyCar wondering what I was going to do next. I talked to them and that’s kind of how it happened. So it was exciting. As with F1, I was very curious about this. A lot of the people in here I already knew — there’s crossover on teams and some manufacturer stuff. But it was also getting to meet Honda, getting to meet Firestone. I’d never really dealt with them. So I was very excited about the opportunity, and it’s been phenomenal to this point. If you think about every day, we’re able to do something to help it grow, to make it better. The approach we’ve taken seems to be well-received.
If you take into account what you’re doing with IndyCar now, how much do you draw from your NASCAR background? Is it more similar than different?
Oh, it’s way more similar. Again, what do we do? We race cars, right? Yeah, the cars look different. But there’s people involved, and at the end of the day, it’s all about the people who make the cars go fast. So it’s extremely similar.
The main thing is coming from a team perspective. Everything we do, we do to see how it affects the teams. When I first started in this role, one thing we tried real hard to do was to harness the power of the paddock. There’s a lot of really smart people here. Having them help us craft this direction, we came up with this five-year plan. So we know where we’re going, we know what we’re doing. The teams are all part of it. Now we’re just executing it.
Now the plan has actually expanded through 2026 with the engine program. So we know basically where we’re going between now and 2026. We’ve created this cadence with things. As soon as the season is over, we have a team manager meeting. At that meeting, it’s 20 percent about next year — and that’s more blocking and tackling stuff, procedural things — and the other 80 percent we talk about (two years from now).
So you always try to work a year ahead. You never want to obsolete parts, you never want to cost teams money that doesn’t need to be spent. Obviously there are things that happen throughout the course of a season you have to react to that might be expensive, but everybody gets it — a part failure or something.
But everybody was part of this plan starting in 2017 when we froze the manufacturer aero kits. This year, with the new aero kit, that car, everybody had input in it — even from a fan perspective, we put out drawings and renderings to get fans’ reactions and it came back very positive. So we’re like, “All right. Aesthetically, we’ve got our identity back. It looks like an IndyCar.” The manufacturer kits were great, but there was a whole different mindset to it. There was not an aesthetic thing to it, it was about downforce and performance.
This car is very much putting it back in the drivers’ hands, which is what we wanted. It has less downforce. We’ve got a new engine coming in 2021, which will be pushing over 900 horsepower. It’s funny, people ask: “What’s your niche?” Ours is “fast and loud.” And that’s OK — every motorsports series has its thing, and we’re going back to being fast and loud and these cars are hard to drive and cool to look at. And there we go.
You took quite an unusual path to your current job. But for people who would like to follow your footsteps someday, how would you recommend getting to where you are?
This wasn’t part of the plan, but if you look back, I’ve been on the sponsorship side, I’ve been on the racetrack side with IMS and IndyCar, I’ve been on the league side and then obviously the team side. So I think we’ve checked every box from a motorsports perspective.
We have interns who work for us who are phenomenal. They have the desire and the effort and they want to be part of it. You’ve got to be persistent. It’s amazing looking back — I never would have thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now. How does all this happen in your life? Things change, and I’m very excited to be where I’m at. We think we’ve got some good momentum, some good things happening. So just be persistent and don’t be afraid to do what you’re asked to do — and then do twice that. People will notice.