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.