The Driven Life: Elton Sawyer on being a team player, managing curveballs and staying level

(Photo: Jerry Markland / Getty Images)

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Elton Sawyer, the former driver who is now NASCAR’s vice president of officiating and technical inspection.

Everybody has been in a work environment at some point in their life. This is a very dynamic one here at the racetrack because there’s all sorts of people who are under your purview and they’re trying to run a race and get everybody ready for a race. What are some of the things that you look at from your perspective as far as what’s important to building a team, letting them do their job and making sure it’ll still run efficiently?

As a youngster and a teenager, I played all the ball and stick sports. I played basketball, I played baseball, I played football. And what I gathered very early on was the discipline it takes to be successful no matter what we’re doing. Even at an early age, you’ve got to be at practice on time, you’ve got to be in uniform. We’re a team, we wear the same uniform. It’s about the team, it’s not necessarily about the individual.

What we do on a given weekend at NASCAR is the same thing, whether it’d be the race directors in the tower or our series directors that are running the garage from the day-to-day operations of what goes on there and the communication with their individual teams.

I think the real key is to be able to identify good people, put them in positions, give them the tools to be successful — and support them. Let them go out and do their job. There will be an opportunity…we will have our competition meetings and we will debrief on the things we did well, the things we didn’t do so well, and what are we going to do to get better. That’s our approach every week. There’s going to be items in each one of those buckets.

There’s going to be some things we’ve done well — and we don’t want to sweep them under the rug. I think it’s important that we all recognize and say, “We did a pretty good job here. But here’s some things we didn’t do very well.” We’ve got to identify them, we’ve got to attack them, we’ve got to figure out what we have to do to not let them happen again. And then the next week, there’ll be something else. But it’s kind of a reset after every event.

You mentioned the word “support” and you’re not trying to micromanage the people under you and the people who are tasked with these jobs. In a workplace, that’s one of the most difficult things people have to encounter, both with bosses and employees, because you have to trust the people that you put in the positions to be able to execute. Are there any tips that you’ve found over the course of your career for being able to trust in those people enough to do that? And how do you know when it is time to step in when they’re not doing things the way you would want them to?

I think the key there is experience. When you’re looking to bring someone on and put them on your team or bring them to your team, that interviewing process is really critical so they understand the challenges that are going to be presented to them — no matter what the task is, no matter what the role is. As long as they understand that and they’re coachable…

Some people have more bandwidth than others, and you have to recognize that as a coach, if you will. If I see a guy or we see an individual who is going to be really strong as a race director, then we’ve got to make sure we get him in a role where he can develop and be a good race director. Instead of maybe he’s not going to be very good as a series director or he’s not going to be very good as a track service worker.

It takes time, it’s not a perfect science by any means, but I think identifying if someone has that drive and that heart to want to be good at something, then you can make sure that you can get the tools around them and the support.

The support is key, sort of like training wheels on a bicycle. At some point you have to take the training wheels off, but you also have to understand they’re going to make some mistakes, and you’ve got to be comfortable with them. If you’re in the NFL, it’s no different than our sport: A young quarterback is going to throw interceptions. We have to be good with someone throwing a couple interceptions, but then we can’t go at them and say, “You can’t throw interceptions,” because you’re going to get them to where they’re not comfortable and they’re not going to be able to do their job at a high level.

So I think the number one thing is to be comfortable with them throwing the interceptions from time to time. But if I use a race director as a good example, it’s better to throw the interceptions on say one of our weekly shows or one of our support events. Although it’s not ideal (any time), we don’t want to be throwing interceptions on Sunday. That’s the thing that you, you’ve got to make sure of that you train them. When you put them in the game on Sunday to be calling a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup event, you’ve got to make sure they’re ready to go. They can still throw an interception, but we need to make sure that we’ve prepared them and had them ready to do (their job).

Elton Sawyer, then part of Red Bull Racing, speaks with Brian Vickers during 2008 NASCAR preseason testing. (Getty Images)

One thing that’s always fascinated me from a coaching standpoint where you’re managing people is sometimes there’s going to be conflict. There are so many different personalities and not everybody gets along the same way. How do you handle things when two people that you both value on your team are not seeing eye to eye? How do you know when to step in and how do you manage a disagreement with a co-worker?

You’re kind of the mediator. You’ll get the information from one side, you’ll get the information from the other side. There may be a conflict that you can just handle with them one on one, and I think to me that’s the first step. Then you say, “Look, here’s what we need to do going forward with both of you.” If that conflict continues, then we probably need to have the triangle; we probably need to bring both of them, myself or another management position to sit in on that discussion, and at that point you need to think from a company perspective, here’s what we need from you.

When we walk in the gate on Friday morning or Saturday morning or Sunday morning, we’re all here to do a job and to be part of the team. So I think the number one thing is to try to get it resolved on the first level there, and sometimes that doesn’t work and you have to continue to take the next steps. And then ultimately, you’ll get to a crossroads and say, “Well, I’ve got to make a move here.” You’re got to move them to a different department because they’re a good employee, this is just not quite working where we have them today.

If somebody reading this was having some tension with their co-worker at their job, would you encourage them to talk to a supervisor, or should they handle it with that person themselves? Is there any sort of general rule of how that’s supposed to go?

I think all situations are going to be different. If you as the individual feel comfortable going to your co-worker and saying, “Look, this is not working as well as either one of us would like to see it work,” then see how that step works. Or it may be, “I don’t feel comfortable that’s going to get me anywhere,” so then I would suggest going to your supervisor and getting some advice and then maybe they will turn it around say, “Look, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to try it this way, and then get back with me and see if we’re going in a better spot. If not, then we’re take a little different angle.”

I don’t think that it’s written in stone that you have to do it a certain way, I think every individual’s a little different, every situation is different. The personalities of each is something that you’ve got to take in and put it in the equation of how you feel like you need to handle it.

I really like that, because you’re not ratting someone out necessarily if you go to your boss — you can just approach it like you said and ask for a bit of advice on how to handle the situation.

Oh absolutely. And I think the other part of that is, you hear about the open door policy. I tell our guys and gals all the time: “When my door’s open, and even if it’s not, it’s OK to knock.” There’s nothing I’m doing that’s more important than listening to them if they’ve got a question about something. I put everything down that I’m doing, because if they are not comfortable and they need an answer about something, then the wheels are not turning in the direction we need them to. So I can always pick up what I’m doing at another time, I need to make sure that they understand and they can get them an answer so they can keep doing their job.

There’s a lot of moving parts here, literally, and things are in flux all the time. Little fires might pop up that you need to put out, little crises. How do you stay calm in those moments? Is that just your personality that you’re very even, or is there something you do like take a deep breath?

I think the key there is you take the deep breath, because you try to keep the emotion out of it. Step back (and realize) we’ve got a situation, we have a crisis. Whatever you have, if you keep the emotion out of it, then 99 percent of the time, over time, you’ve had some experience in those situations in the past. And it will give you a first step — here’s what my first step is, here’s the box I need to check on this one to help me make those decisions going forward.

As an example, we deal with weather (during race weekends). We wake up in the morning, and we talk with our partners at the weather company, we’ve got some input there, we’re going to have rain for x amount of time. So then you just start checking the boxes: It’s raining. OK. At some point, it’s going to stop. We’ve got that information that it’s going to rain all day and you may have some periods of time where you can get the track dry. So you start from there making your decisions on, “All right, it’s going to stop raining here shortly.” We’ll start drying the track, we’ll look at how long that’s going to take.

My point is, you to a point where you’re checking boxes on your decision making. Being frustrated or being upset or having the emotion in it, a lot of times will make it very cloudy in the way that you make those decisions. So stand back and just take a deep breath and be able to basically make those decisions with a calmer thought process.

What are some other general tips that you like to see out of your employees or you think that other people could use in order to be a good team player?

The number one thing for me I always use is I reset every day. What happened yesterday is history, it’s in the rearview mirror. Good or bad, I need to get a good night’s rest, I need to be ready to go the next day, look at what the schedule is, whatever event — if it’s a Truck race, if it’s a Cup race, if it’s Xfinity, whatever that may be.

Don’t get too high on the good days, don’t get too low on the bad days, and then be able to reset the next day — and that comes from not just a mental aspect, but physically as well. You’ve got to make sure you’re getting the proper rest and nutrition, because you’re asked to make some really important decisions throughout your day.

It doesn’t matter what role or responsibility you have within your company — you’re there for a reason. You’ll be the guy that’s there at 5:30 in the morning to make sure all the offices have been vacuumed and all the trash cans have been cleaned, but it’s an important task. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be on the agenda to be done.

Another thing for me as a ball and stick guy for years, athletes will get to the major league if they can hit curveballs. They’re not going to get there if all they can hit is a fastball. So I think in life, you’ve got to be able to hit the curveballs. Everybody can hit the fastballs, but you’ve got to be able to stand in there and be ready for the curves — and every day you’re going to get a curve. There’s going to be a curveball from the time you get up in the morning, there’s going to be one or two — there may be five or six — and you’ve got to be ready to adjust and hit the curveball.

And if you know it’s coming and expect it, then you’ll be better prepared.

You’ll be better prepared. Absolutely.

In this picture from 1998, Elton Sawyer and wife Patty Moise are shown in the Busch Series garage. Sawyer drove Fords for owner Bob Sutton while Moise drove for owner Michael Waltrip. (Photo by ISC Images and Archives via Getty Images)

Merchandise in NASCAR, explained

An attempt to dive into the very complex issue of NASCAR merchandise following a week of chatter on the topic.

So, what’s this all about?

On Tuesday, Kyle Larson tweeted something unusual. Someone noted Larson sold $13,000 worth of merchandise during an appearance at a dirt track, and the NASCAR points leader jumped on the comment.

Was that remark an exaggeration? Actually, probably not. According to NASCAR, Larson has sold more than $300,000 in merchandise this season, which is up 125 percent from 2016.

But drivers in today’s NASCAR keep only a small percentage of their sales — often 1-3 percent. A big-name driver I spoke to this week (who asked not to be identified) said he once sold $2 million of merchandise in a season and received just $20,000 as his share.

Driver contracts vary, but if Larson has a similar deal, then he’s perhaps made just $3,000-$6,000 this year off his NASCAR merchandise sales.

At the dirt track, though, Larson probably kept at least half the money. He has no overhead costs there (like paying a percentage to the track or employees) aside from the expense of producing the shirts.

I’ve talked to several people this week who say a T-shirt typically costs around $10 to produce — and Larson’s sprint car shirts sell for $25. So if Larson sold $13,000 worth in a night and kept approximately $6,500-$7,500 in profit, then that could certainly be more than what he’s made all season in NASCAR merchandise sales so far.

Are the drivers getting ripped off?

If you were a driver and saw hundreds of fans every weekend wearing your shirt at the racetrack, but only saw a couple hundred dollars in your paycheck for merchandise sales, you might be confused. A bit angry, even.

That was the tone of a meeting between drivers and exclusive trackside rights-holder Fanatics during the April race weekend at Richmond International Raceway, according to several people with knowledge of the gathering.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute briefing turned into a meeting of more than two hours, in which some drivers in attendance sought a detailed explanation as to why they receive such a relatively small amount of a sale.

As it turns out, the debate over whether the allocation is equitable has been going on since the mid-90s.

Here is the breakdown of a typical at-track sale:

— Fanatics gets 75 percent. There are numerous reasons cited for this: The overhead costs of bringing the superstore tent or haulers, the expenses of hiring people to sell the merchandise, the cost of producing the merchandise and the risk undertaken for an inventory that might not ultimately sell. According to people familiar with the business model, a hauler needs to sell $1 million of merchandise per year just to break even — and the tent costs were even more expensive. From a Fanatics standpoint, the company emphasizes it inherited the same percentage that has been used for more than 20 years.

— The tracks get 15 percent. The reason for this is the tracks are essentially assembling the customer base for the sale. A track executive noted without holding an event and bringing a crowd, there is no one to sell to. While 15 percent may sound like a high number, JR Motorsports vice president of marketing and licensing Joe Mattes told me that’s been the standard number since the late 90s — and some tracks used to take as much as 25 percent until his then-boss, Dale Earnhardt Sr., pushed back.

— The team gets 9 percent. But here’s where this gets tricky, because that “team” number is divided into many different slices. A typical arrangement over the years has been one third to the actual race team, one third to the driver and one third to the sponsor who appears on the shirt. Mark Martin told me that was the arrangement dating back to the prime of his career, and an agent told me that is generally reflective of today’s agreements. Of course, that one third can fluctuate depending on the driver’s bargaining power (Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely gets more than a young driver who is happy to sign whatever contract he can get).

— NASCAR gets 1 percent. The merchandise features the NASCAR logo bar and is sold at a NASCAR race, so most do not consider this to be an unreasonable amount.

Blake Davidson, NASCAR vice president of licensing and consumer products, told me the overall model hasn’t changed much in 25 years. But there has been one notable change, and it might be part of why drivers believe they should be getting more.

How we got here

Bear with me for a moment as we go through an abbreviated history of the NASCAR merchandise industry.

In the 90s, when everything in NASCAR was taking off, companies like Action Performance and Team Caliber had to compete for team rights (and even driver rights, after Dale Earnhardt Sr. secured the rights to his name, image and likeness in 1995).

During NASCAR’s boom years, souvenir companies ended up giving teams up-front, guaranteed money — in the millions of dollars — even though they didn’t necessarily sell that much in merchandise. In a scramble to secure the rights, they overpaid with the guarantees.

The companies merged into one (Motorsports Authentics) in 2005, but when NASCAR hit its slump last decade, the business proved to be unsustainable.

“If you want to sum it all up in one word, it’s ‘Greed,'” Martin said. “But if you want to point fingers at someone, you can’t. The fingers would point everywhere. Everybody got greedy.”

Motorsports Authentics nearly went bankrupt in 2009 and had to renegotiate deals with teams and get them to forgive some of the debt owed from guaranteed money. Nevertheless, today’s drivers have heard tales from veteran drivers about the millions that used to roll in — and wonder what happened.

In the wake of the near-collapse of the merchandise industry, teams formed the NASCAR Trust in 2010 — which for the first time combined industry rights to create one party for licensees to negotiate with.

That ultimately led to a joint agreement with NASCAR to use Fanatics as the primary retailer in 2015, because Fanatics was the only candidate out of 14 companies that could really manage what NASCAR’s Davidson called “the most complex retail space in all of sports.” Fanatics knows what it’s doing; it’s also the official partner of the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL.

Here’s the thing, though: While exact financials are unavailable, even Fanatics isn’t exactly making huge money off NASCAR.

That’s because no one is.

“It’s not that drivers are getting screwed over, it’s just there are so many players involved in a watered-down market that at the end of the day, nobody is really making any money unless there’s a huge volume sold,” Landon Cassill told me.

Splitting a smaller pie

That lack of sales volume is another major factor in why drivers are making less. You know the well-documented attendance decline? Well, that leads to fewer sales at the track, because there are fewer people to buy gear. In addition, the people coming to the track have less disposable income.

It’s made a significant impact. Martin told me he made more money off trading cards alone in the late 90s than he did off all merchandise combined in the late 2000s.

In turn, that has created a lack of motivation for drivers to promote their merchandise in the first place — because they’re making small potatoes compared to their actual salary.

Larson hinted at that this week through another tweet, but many found it to be tone-deaf.

Here’s a translation: According to one agent, some drivers can make between $5,000 and $25,000 for an hour of time by doing appearances at the track.

So if a driver goes to his NASCAR merchandise hauler or the Fanatics superstore and signs autographs for an hour while people buy his gear, even $5,000 of merchandise sold might only equal $100.

To a driver making millions per year, a couple hundred bucks is like seeing a penny on the sidewalk. It’s not even worth stopping.

So in the dwindling spare time a driver has at the track — between being in the car, team meetings, contractual sponsor obligations, media commitments and family time — the idea of using an hour to do something that creates so little tangible gain is hard to justify.

One driver I spoke to (who also asked his name not be used) acknowledged drivers could perhaps sell more merchandise if they put an effort behind it — but there’s simply not enough incentive to do so. Another driver said spending that time would just be lining the pockets of executives, not those putting in the work.

Drivers look at the bottom line and don’t feel they are getting their fair share.

“I’m pretty sure they’re not buying the shirt because it’s NASCAR; otherwise they’d just buy a shirt that says ‘NASCAR’ on it,” Danica Patrick told me last year. “I feel pretty screwed in that department.”

NASCAR, however, believes a driver making an appearance at the point of sale can have a tremendous impact on the future. If fans can have a conversation or interaction with a driver while purchasing the merchandise, NASCAR believes it can pay off with loyalty in the long run.

“If you can have even 60 seconds worth of interaction with a driver at a NASCAR event and you’re buying their gear, I don’t know there’s a stronger bond than that,” Davidson said. “That’s unbelievable you could have that kind of interaction with your favorite athlete — buying their gear right there, putting it on and having them sign it or get a picture? That’s an amazing experience you’re going to remember for a lifetime. We want a lot more of that.”

Drivers, though, feel they are already connecting with fans in different ways — whether through social media, trips into the infield or signing autographs on the fly. There’s also a disconnect, because fans might expect a driver to feel a sense of gratitude for putting money into their pockets with a merchandise purchase — but the driver knows the majority of the dollars went to other people.

Other sports, by the way, are not that different in terms of the athlete personally benefiting. For example: In the NBA, all jersey sales are pooled together and evenly distributed to all members of the players union. And in the NFL, players get a portion of their individual jersey sales — but it isn’t much, as Adrian Peterson tweeted in 2012.

What’s next?

There are two reasons for you as a fan to buy a T-shirt: First, you might actually like the shirt and want to wear it to show your allegiance. Second, you might be buying a shirt because you want to be supportive in a way where the driver personally benefits.

If the primary goal is the first reason, then you likely don’t care how much money the driver gets. But if you’re making the purchase based on wanting to help the driver make a living, then you should know your at-track dollars are likely not helping that cause very much.

A better solution in that respect is to buy from a driver or team’s online store. If you see a shirt that has no NASCAR logo or no sponsor image, the driver is likely getting much more of the proceeds.

For example, Joey Logano’s store has his “JL” logo without any NASCAR, Team Penske or Shell marks.

Some drivers don’t have a team of people helping them, though, and have to sell merchandise by hand. Landon Cassill launched a social media campaign last year to sell a package for $38 (his then-car number) which included a vintage T-shirt, sticker, signed hero card and sunglasses.

He then packed and shipped all the shirts himself.

“Of course I want people to buy my Fanatics stuff — it’s not that I don’t endorse those items,” Cassill said. “But if people want to know they’re supporting me because I don’t have millions of dollars in backing, then when you see stuff on my site, I’m going to make a bigger royalty on it.”

That may be the direction the industry is headed, according to someone who handles driver contracts. Drivers will look to personal merchandise online, because even if they wanted to invest in bringing a hauler, Fanatics has exclusive on-site rights.

In the meantime, Fanatics indicated it is doing everything it can to make the at-track experience better for fans — including starting to sell more merchandise inside the tracks themselves.

The best course of action

So what should drivers do? The issue blew up on social media this week, with drivers like Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin chiming in. But in general, is it worth caring about if they could spend energy elsewhere — particularly in an ever-changing industry?

Mattes, who has been in the industry for more than 20 years, has always followed Earnhardt Sr.’s mantra: “Take care of our sponsors, take care of the race fan.”

That attitude, he said, results in an intensely loyal fan base that is built over the course of many years. And a loyal fan base translates into sponsorship, which he described as “the heartbeat of what we do.”

So if drivers have to undertake additional obligations with the big picture in mind, Mattes said, “that’s just smart business.”

“You have to give back to the fans,” he said. “The money is the gravy. The loyal fan base is the whole entree.

“T-shirts will never be the focal point. I think you’d piss off a lot of drivers, but the truth is, I know how hard it is to run the damn thing, and I’m not running it on T-shirt revenue — I’m running it on sponsor support.”