Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to explain how they reached their current position. This week, NASCAR Director of Industry Operations John McMullin Jr. — known to most as “Johnny Mac” — sheds some light on his career path in the sport.
Can you first tell us what your role is now for NASCAR and what you do on a given race weekend?
This is my 13th season with NASCAR. I’m the Director of Industry Operations for NASCAR. Basically, “Operations” is a very broad title. I’d say 80 percent of our workload is at the event, working with our tracks, our broadcast partners, our race teams, our partners, their sponsors — everything that goes into a race weekend logistically.
Some of the bigger assets at the track that we’re in charge of are the drivers meetings — the whole production of it, the introduction list (of VIPs), the layout, the video you see — and pace car rides. One of the more visible assets we control is running victory lane every single weekend for all three series — just the whole run of show and keeping everything going in a timely manner. So that’s obviously one of the more visible things that our job is. But we wear a lot of different hats.
Appropriate for the guy who is in charge of the hat dance.
There you go. Very appropriate . So yeah, we handle a lot of requests. I can’t even think of all the different things I’ve asked to do, help out with during the race weekend. But Dave Finley (managing director of NASCAR series marketing) who was my first boss, I always steal his line: He said we were “E to E” — everything to everyone at the track. If you needed something, you’d probably start with the Ops team first and you’d probably get it handled.
For those who are reading this and might be like, “Wow, that’s an interesting job. I wonder how he got there,” how did your career path get started? Did you have any racing roots growing up?
I did. I actually grew up in the sport. I grew up in Daytona Beach. My father was the president and general manager of MRN all through the 80s and then into the late 90s. So I grew up right in the midst of it.
And then my mom, she’s been at NASCAR for almost 37 years now. She was Bill France Jr.’s executive assistant for 26 of those years until he passed in 2007. She’s still with the company. So I grew up in it.
I was a fan. Never had any aspirations of going to work or being a driver one day, even though I enjoyed it. I played baseball. But when my A-ball career was done, I needed a job in my mid-to-late 20s.
I started at the very bottom as a runner for FOX at the 2002 Daytona 500, filling water coolers, picking up cigarette butts in the compound, driving people around and just kinda worked my way up with NBC. Did some utility work, and then Steve Stone hired me at what was then NASCAR Images.
I worked on the very first SPEED Stage show in 2004, the inaugural season of the SPEED Stage. I did audio and some other things around the stage, and met Rutledge Wood — who was our DJ in between shows. So to watch his career path is quite funny, since we kind of started around the same time.
But I started eying a job in NASCAR and Dave Finley’s Operations group was something that I really liked what they did. They were very visible, and I started talking to him and was fortunate enough that my mom worked for Bill France Jr. And when he had an opening, I had the opportunity and in January 2006, that’s when I started.
Let’s back up for a minute. So growing up in Daytona Beach, especially with both your parents being involved in the sport, I assume you went to races and things like that when you were little. Did you ever have a consideration for working in it, or it just wasn’t on your radar at all?
I was so caught up in stick and ball sports growing up. But I enjoyed it. Obviously twice a year when NASCAR was racing in Daytona, I was there, I was a huge fan. I got amazing access as a kid, and the old MRN offices were in the actual infield in Daytona — this was years before they moved to Charlotte — and I spent a lot of time running around the old garage area, even when there was nothing going on, and enjoyed it.
But growing up in Daytona, it’s not like the Charlotte area where you have the opportunity to run go karts and stuff. So I was more of a baseball player. But still loved the sport.
So you mentioned baseball. How far did you go in your career? What did you play?
I played college ball at North Florida Community College. Was not a good student. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart, but I was very lazy with my classwork — and I paid for it. I had several scholarship offers to D1 schools that I couldn’t take advantage of. Baseball is tough, they only get about 12 or 13 (scholarships) — at least back then — so once they saw you didn’t have the grades, they passed and they moved on unless you were a first-round draft pick.
So I had to go the community college route, did that, and like I said, I wasn’t much of a school guy. I had the opportunity to sign with an independent league team in A-ball out of Springfield, Illinois, and played with them. So I got a taste of what the minor league baseball life was like until I blew my arm out. That’s when I needed a real job.
So you mentioned that you sort of worked your way up through the broadcast side of it, and then got a chance on the operations side. So once you get that foot in the door with NASCAR and you start doing things, what is the path like to evolve to this point? Obviously, it sounds like you’re asked to do all sorts of things, many miscellaneous things that might not be in your job description.
Going back to when I started in TV with FOX, the SPEED channel and NBC, I did other sports (as well). I was on the Thursday Night Football crew with Doc Punch; I was a stage manager for a couple seasons. So I wanted to be in TV.
I grew up in high school doing PA announcing at the basketball and football games. I liked the radio side growing up around MRN and learned that the TV thing is pretty cutthroat, and I didn’t have the prettiness to be in front of the camera. And I learned real quick how the TV world is. It’s tough. Everybody’s kind of gunning for each other, even people who are your friends. It’s a tough world, so I kind of learned real quick that maybe that wasn’t for me.
I fell in love with being around NASCAR, being around the track every weekend, being in the mix — whether it was on pit road holding an RF pointer for “Stoley” (David Stolen) or “Goat” (Brad Hutton) who are still running cameras these days, being around the crew guys, being in victory lane with the drivers. So that’s when I saw that Ops job.
Now being the director and having hired three or four different people, I honestly look for those ex-college athletes. I think it lends a lot to what we do — the workload of being able to balance school, practice, games, that kind of stuff. And then just being able to stay level and calm in pressure-packed situations — which we have a lot of through television and radio, being that our schedules are minute-by-minute, down-to-the-second schedules. Or running a pre-race or running a victory lane, all eyes are on you and people are looking for answers. Being able to stay even-keeled, I think that athletic background really lends to what we do. So I think maybe that kind of was my connection that drew me into Ops.
I was going to ask you about that because most of the time I see you, it’s in victory lane. It’s the Daytona 500, it’s absolute chaos. You’re the center of the storm and you’re directing it. You’re saying, “This is what needs to happen next.” How long did it take you to evolve your skills to where you have that command where people are listening to you and are able to direct things like a conductor of a crazy orchestra?
Yeah. Victory lane is by far, of all the duties we have in Ops, it’s the one that takes you the longest to learn. Like you said, it’s controlling the chaos. These guys fight hard every single week to get to victory lane, so when they get there, they’re excited. But there’s also a run of show, whether it’s broadcast and sponsor elements and things the track needs. So sometimes the drivers are a little distracted. So that is a hard part to learn. It took a couple of years to master, but it’s all just two things: One, the confidence and knowing what to do, and Two, I was blessed with a very loud voice — which people comment on all the time.
But you know how crazy these scenes are. You have to be loud, and when you’re loud, they listen. If you’re soft-spoken or you’re not too confident in what you’re saying, they’re not going to pay attention to you. They’re going to be more interested in cracking back their beer or spraying their water. So that part is a lot of fun, being there. I get to be there most weekends. And just after years of doing the job, the drivers being familiar with you, the crews, their familiarity helps you out a lot. It just takes time.
I’ll mention Brad (Keselowski). Brad is always one that gets on me. He’s like, “Hey man, I just won. Let me relax and enjoy this. Stop trying to make me do the next thing.” So we’ve had a lot of give and take with each other there. But if they don’t know you or they haven’t seen you around a long time, it’s kind of hard to get them to do what you want them to do right then. So that’s definitely been perfected over the years, and I still enjoy it.
I feel like Brad has that reputation for being one of those people who takes a bit of a longer time to get through all his photos and go to the media center. Tony Stewart, it seemed like he used to completely do his own thing. I don’t know how you would wrangle some of these guys. Would you have to like yell at people in your situation?
You know, there’s a fine line. You want to let them enjoy the moment, obviously someone like Tony, now when (Kevin) Harvick wins or one of his drivers wins, they wanna talk. They want to download what just happened and they want to talk to their crew chiefs. So you kind of pick and choose your moments when to interrupt them, give them a few minutes, but then you kind of step in as politely as possible and they’re usually all pretty good about it. And that’s another thing that takes time, too, just knowing when to step in and when not to step in.
That sounds like a fine art. Where should somebody get their start if they are interested in eventually working up to where you are today?
I think definitely a marketing background at school. I wouldn’t even say communications is a bad thing to have, too, just because we’re the face of NASCAR at the track a lot dealing with people — whether it’ll be a driver, a race fan, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or a celebrity or an athlete. I mean, we’re usually kind of right there in the mix.
It still makes me laugh after 13 years that NASCAR classifies our account executive operations job as an entry-level position, because I’d be hard-pressed to find an entry-level job that allows you to not only be face-to-face with the brass of NASCAR, but our drivers and you mentioned the celebrities and athletes (who come to races as VIPs).
There’s a lot of perks to our job that might not see a lot of the financial success right away, but there’s a lot of fun things we can do. You’re in front of a lot of important people throughout the industry, and if you’re good at what you do, our track record in Ops speaks for itself of everybody that’s went on (to move up the ladder) — whether it’s mostly in this industry or outside this sport. They all got their start in Ops.
Definitely having a passion for events (helps) and obviously crowds can’t bother you, things like that. But I think marketing is a big thing for sure. Like I mentioned, someone who’s an athlete is someone I’ve always looked at because of the calmness effect there that you can bring to the job and not be too high, not be too low.
Yeah, that’s super interesting. And by the way, what are your parents’ names?
My mom is Geri McMullin and then John McMullin Sr. — so I’m a Jr. He’s still freelance with productions; anytime the K&N Series is on TV, he acts as the TV liaison — the bridge between race control and the broadcast. Karen Masencup did it a couple years after my father, but he was actually the first TV liaison and he was the one talking to — whether it be to Barry Landis (from FOX) or Sam Flood (from NBC) in the production trailer about what’s going on competition-wise up in race control. You know, why this caution was thrown or what are they thinking (with a call). So he’s still involved in the sport.
My mom, like I said, 37 years, that’s a long time. She’s seen a lot. She can write a really good book if she wanted to; she would never do it. But I’m just very blessed to grow up in the sport and have the opportunity that the Frances gave me — a washed-up pitcher who didn’t have a college degree.
And let me make that clear, you’re not getting hired by NASCAR unless you have a college degree. I was very, very fortunate to grow up around Bill France Jr., and I still appreciate and am thankful for the opportunity he gave me many years ago. I always told him, “I’m a lifer in this sport until you guys get rid of me,” so I’ve never forgotten that.