This marks the debut of a new weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about their journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on JeffGluck.com. Up first: Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
Before we get started, can you tell us about what is required of your job in NASCAR?
Day to day, I’m up in our Concord (N.C.) office and oversee our Research and Development and competition groups. So really it’s all the rules and regulations in the sport and kind of what goes on during the weekend. Then all of the marketing and sales and promotion would be obviously under a separate group with (chief global sales and marketing officer) Steve Phelps.
So it’s a great team of people. I guess I’m tasked day to day from the poll that goes out from Jeff Gluck on if the race is good or not — that’s how I’m judged — and then safety, and then really the relationships with the industry.
I understand you grew up in Egypt, or at least for a time — I listened to Nate Ryan, he had a great podcast with you last year and you talked about that. How did you get to this point in your life?
A lot of twists and turns. I was in Egypt for high school and, candidly, wanted to play college baseball. I ended up at Rollins College, a small school in Winter Park, Florida, and obviously got to know NASCAR a little bit more being in Florida and being near Daytona. I really wanted to be in sports and wanted to figure out how do you do that. And I ended up working in minor league baseball and over at the Citrus Bowl, and saw that NASCAR was really taking some roots.
I started out in the marketing department (with NASCAR), so I was the victory lane guy, I was the hat guy (who hands out various sponsor hats to the team for photos). I did a lot of the pre-race ceremonies, got to know the drivers, the contingency program. So that’s where I started out, and that’s where I probably learned the most and got to meet the most folks as well. That was kind of my entry point into NASCAR.
So you helped with the hat dance? Is there old victory lane footage of you and we can spot you if we go back?
If you want to look around, you would I think find from 1996 to 1998, you’ll find a number of times, Jeff Gordon in victory lane in Pocono — I was the guy and got sprayed with champagne for sure. And I got yelled at a few times. But it was cool because you got to know people. Most of the sponsors obviously are in victory lane. And then the pre-race ceremonies, coordinating with the track, it was good and bad.
What they told me when I started in NASCAR was if you’re a somewhat decent person, you’ll survive in this job because you’ll get to interact with all levels. If you have a big ego, you’re probably out in six months because word gets around. So it was a good experience for me.
Are there any incidents from then that you’ve stuck in your mind? Like do you go back to somebody and say, “I remember when you yelled at me that time, and now I’m Steve O’Donnell!”
I’ve never done it that way. (Laughs) But I remember way back in the Gatorade days with Ed Shull. Ed used to run the Gatorade program, and NASCAR used to have a program with them. One of the tasks was when that car drove into victory lane, the Gatorade bottle went on the car.
We were in Indianapolis, and Indy does it a little differently. So I’m in victory lane, and the head of the track sees me with my Gatorade bottle and he says, “If you put that on the car, you’re out of here. I will throw you out of victory lane.” And Ed Shull tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re putting that on the car.” And so I did.
It was another Jeff Gordon win (1998), and I was summarily thrown out of victory lane. I was escorted to the hauler (to meet) with Mike Helton. And at the time, I knew Mike, but not that well. It was me and I think the senior track guys and Mike, and luckily Mike defended me — which was great.
Another one was way back in the day at the Milwaukee Mile. Steve Bird was the crew chief and I was getting the driver ready to get out of the car and he said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m with NASCAR,” and he said, “Get the hell out of my way.” He kind of shoved me out of the way.
So I’m on the plane with Mike Helton, and I’m relaying this story. He said, “Birdy pushed you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “We’re fining him!” And I said, “Oh no, no, no, I don’t wanna be part of this.” It was funny back in the day.
Overall, how many years have you worked in NASCAR now?
This is my 21st year. I’ve spent about 12 years probably on the marketing side and then three or four — I did all of our weekly racing series, so similar to minor league baseball, and I traveled to all of our short tracks. We had 100 at the time, and that was part of my job managing that and the touring series. And then (working) straight competition, probably the last four to five years I would say.
At what point did you want to make the switch? I’m sure you have an appreciation for the marketing department, but obviously there was something about the competition that drove you to that side. What was it?
I always liked the operations part and what went on from the track and how we put on events. And then I loved what happened on track, and I knew I didn’t have the full engineering background, so I didn’t push for a lot of that. But I knew I was pretty good at managing people and a team, and was candidly given the opportunity to get into the racing operations side — which was more working with the team owners on some of their agreements, just what we’re doing day in and day out with the track. It was not necessarily the rules and regulations of the sport. But Mike Helton and some of the guys gave me a shot to do that with the R&D Center and that really evolved into, “Hey, can you manage this group of people?”
And I said, “Well, that’s new for me from an experience standpoint. What if Jeff Gluck asks me some in-the-weeds questions?” And they said, “That’s OK, we’re gonna hire the right people, it’s more putting a good team together.” So I think that gave me an opportunity to get more into competition, which, candidly, I love. At the end of the day, it’s all about what happens on the racetrack. That’s the aspect I love of this part of the job.
What would you describe as the big break in your career and who gave that to you?
When (former chief operating officer) George Pyne worked here, we had NASCAR’s 50th Anniversary and we were gonna look at “What do we do? How do we brand this? How do we really make this a celebration of NASCAR?” I was kind of the victory lane guy and I sent George a note and said, “I’m looking at getting involved in some more things. I don’t have experience in licensing or some of these other things, but put me to work if I can be of help.”
(Pyne) created a committee and kind of threw some stuff at me more and more, and it kind of evolved to where he trusted me. It became an, “As we have opportunities, Steve’s the guy we may want to look at.” And that helped me get to the weekly racing series and then from there, I worked hard. Every manager I’ve had has been great. Jim Hunter was a big influence on me and him and George helping me, so I would say that one project helped at least get on the radar internally. And then from there, it evolved to where you’re working with the (France) family and hopefully doing a good job.
So did you ever envision yourself in this role? Could you have dreamed of that when you first started with NASCAR?
No. But I’m not a guy that came into a job and said, “I wanna be the XYZ of NASCAR.” Don’t get me wrong, I have ambitions and want to work hard, but I just liked what I did, and I wanted to continue to do that and as more things came in front of me. I was like, “OK, I’ll go after this and hopefully do a good job and if not, I’m sure they’ll tell me and I’ll be on my way.”
But I love the sport, I love the people and felt like if I could contribute and could continue to be part of that, I was happy to do that. There’s been some times, candidly, where I was like, “Am I over my skis a little bit? This is new to me.” And I think the industry has really has been good to me to help out. What I found is as long as you talk to people and listen, you can get most good ideas just from listening to people and trying to corral where we’re all trying to go.
What’s next in your career? Obviously, you’re still fairly young. You have a long career with many years ahead of you. Do you see yourself doing this the rest of your career? What else do you want to accomplish for yourself?
I’m a big family guy and I think part of the one challenge of the job — and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining — but I had young kids when I started. I was away a lot.
I’ve got a son now who’s a sophomore in college and a daughter who’s about to graduate (high school), and a wife who’s like, “What are we gonna do?” So I think it will also be an opportunity where — she’s a big race fan as well – maybe wants to come to some more races.
I try to be at every baseball game and did pretty well at that, but I think I’ll have some more time to get up (with people) on a social aspect, go to dinner with a driver, spend some more time with a team owner and try and make maybe some more informed decisions. Some of the times you make a call and you haven’t maybe talked to as many people as you would have liked to.
I love what I’m doing. I think for me the key is setting NASCAR up for the next generation. We’ve got Scott Miller, we’ve got Gene (Stefanyshyn), we’ve got John Probst who just joined us — but who’s that next group of people so that we put this company in a (good) position?
(In the past) NASCAR was a place on the competition side where if you came from a race team, you were probably on your way out or retiring, and it was just, “Hey you don’t wanna go there, you’ll be out of the loop.” And I told Scott Miller if we could ever make this change, that we can get people from a race team (who) actually want to go work here and feel like they can go back and forth (between NASCAR and a team job), we will have succeeded. We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to see that. That’s really my focus, is to just continue to get the right people that everyone in the garage trusts and it’s a place where we’re all working more together.
There’s some famous career advice out there where to find your dream job, find someone who’s already in that job and then try to understand how they got there. If someone out there is reading and is like, “I’d love to do what Steve O’Donnell is doing someday,” how should they get started? Is it something where they should go to their local track and start, or should they try to get into NASCAR in the ground level? What’s the ideal path to get to where you are?
I’ve had people who gave me a shot, so I’m not gonna sit here and say, “Hey, he’s the most skilled person ever.” I’ve been really lucky people believed in me. But for me, what I’ve always seen is internships show that someone really cares and they’re taking the initiative. If you’re in college or whatever and you’re saying, “I’m gonna spend my summer and I’m gonna go try and work here.” — forget even grad school — for me, when I look at a resume, I’m like, “That person took initiative.”
And then when I look back at my career, I was afraid maybe to call some people (because I thought) “They don’t wanna hear from this young person.” I would say, anybody who’s in a position of where I’m at who doesn’t call back someone who took the initiative to reach out for a job is an absolute jerk. Because we were all there.
So I would say make that effort, and don’t be afraid; if it’s a friend of a friend and you’ve got a shot, use your resources. Because at the end of the day, it’s gonna be, “Jeff Gluck knew John Smith and Jeff thinks this person is a good person, so I’m gonna give him a shot and talk to him.” So I’ve always found that that’s a big part of this.
And then the other part is, don’t let people say no. If you are passionate about what you’re doing, stay after it, because people will see that. And if you hate your job, get out, because it’s a long life, hopefully. I did some jobs before NASCAR — I was a sales guy, I’m selling long distance door-to-door in New York City for a year. It was a tough job, got yelled at a lot, learned a lot, but I knew, “I hate this and I can’t do this for the rest of my life.” So I went and did unpaid internships and it worked.
So you already had started your career in some ways and then to reset, you said, “I’m just gonna completely start over?”
I graduated from college and I didn’t know you could even work in sports, but I kind of heard, “Hey, you might be able to work in minor league baseball, it doesn’t pay a lot.” But I was like, “Wow, this could be great.” And went out to (a seminar in) El Paso, Texas, and it’s all the general managers of the minor leagues, and I looked around and it’s 40 people looking for a job.
And at the end of the seminar, they gave everybody the microphone and they said, “You have one minute to say why we should hire you.” I think I did OK to get an unpaid internship in Iowa, but I didn’t have money (to accept it) at the time, so I ended up moving back home.
I was in New Jersey, and I got a sales job literally selling long distance to businesses. So I would cold call, go in, and then I’d get the, “Are you an f’in sales guy? Get out!” But I grew up quick, so it’s like, “Gotta make some money here and try and figure this out.” You learn about people a little bit, and I ended up getting an unpaid internship down in Orlando. I was like, “You know, I’m gonna try this.” I made enough money to kind of survive in the summer and did that, and I turned it into a couple more gigs and then led to NASCAR.
So when the media comes to you with some difficult questions, it’s nothing compared to being yelled at by some New York business guy?
No, I think I actually enjoy that part of it. I know in that role, it’s part of what we’ve gotta do. And I also learned, you know, I know sometimes I can be defensive with some drivers and it’s hard — I wear my emotions on my sleeve and sometimes I don’t even know it. Our communications people are like, “You looked really ticked during that.” I’m like, “What? Really?”
So I enjoy that part. I watch a lot of press conferences of other people (and observe) how they handle things. When you think, “Boy, that guy looked really mad,” from a media person, I’d write, “That guy’s a jerk!”
You (reporters) have a job to do and I respect that. You’re not asking me because, “I’m gonna bury this guy.” Sometimes you may have to, but I respect that that’s your job. And my job is to do the same: Try answer as honestly as I can.
That’s one other thing: No one in this industry has ever gone away. You can be a jerk and try to win that one argument, but two years later, you probably need something from that person — and then (the previous argument was) not worth it. I think you try and work hard, but here’s some advice: Work hard and be nice, because at the end of the day, people will hopefully respect that.