How I Got Here with Steve Phelps

Steve Phelps, seen here in 2017, was named NASCAR president on Sept. 20. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.”

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.

Steve Phelps, far left, attends a dinner with Chase drivers and NASCAR executives in 2005. (Photo: NASCAR)

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.

Steve Phelps appeared on the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” in 2010. (Photo: CBS)

Media Tour Day 3: To promote or not to promote?

Hey, did you see the quotes from the NASCAR Media Tour this week?

Oh boy, the barbs were flying.

Kyle Busch said NASCAR’s suddenly intense promotion of younger drivers was “stupid” and “bothersome,” adding he’s “not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”

Then Kevin Harvick said those comments were “like the child that is whining for some attention.” Bubba Wallace let out an exaggerated laugh and said Busch’s comments were “so dumb” and “so stupid.” Ryan Blaney said Busch was being unfair because “doesn’t want to do anything” when it comes to promoting the sport.

Wheeeee! And the season hasn’t even started yet. NASCAR!

But in reality, that summary is a very shallow interpretation of Busch’s comments — and the reaction to them.

What’s really going on here? Well, there’s a lot to it — and it’s worth exploring before making a judgment.


Let’s start with Busch’s premise: That NASCAR is putting its promotional muscle into the younger drivers at the expense of established, successful veterans.

That seems hard to deny based on all we’ve seen and heard about Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson over the last couple seasons — and now that William Byron, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon and Alex Bowman have replaced veteran drivers, the young stars seem to be everywhere.

But can you blame NASCAR if it’s leaning heavily on the new generation? The superstars all just retired in a span of a few years — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart — leaving NASCAR scrambling to keep millions of fans from feeling disconnected.

Officially, NASCAR insists it is promoting both young and veteran drivers (NASCAR executive Steve Phelps said the strategy was a “mix” of both). But it is certainly counting on the new class to carry the future.

Last May, the week after Earnhardt announced his retirement, NASCAR sent Larson, Blaney, Elliott and Jones on a media tour to New York City — and why not? There’s a lot riding on their shoulders now.

Busch, of course, has noticed — along with the rest of us — that NASCAR really wants fans to get attached to one of the new drivers so they can grow with them over the next 15 or 20 years. But Busch is wondering where that push was when he was a young driver himself.

And actually, NASCAR’s Phelps said, Busch has a point.

“Until four or five years ago, most of our marketing was about the racing itself and pretty pictures around the racing,” Phelps said. “It wasn’t about the stars of our sport.

“So do I think that’s fair. When he came into the sport and started winning right off the bat? Yeah, I think it’s a fair statement that we did not give that kind of support.”

It’s true. NASCAR didn’t give the same promotion to Busch or Denny Hamlin or Carl Edwards like it’s doing with the current crop of new drivers. You can argue the Gillette Young Guns were a thing, but that was a sponsor program — not a NASCAR initiative (it also had drivers who were established and even some in their 30s).

Even after NASCAR began focusing more on the “star power” initiative, it did so by pushing the drivers who were already big names in order to sell tickets and try to stop the bleeding with TV ratings. You can’t really fault that strategy.

But it also caused Busch’s class of drivers to get passed over, and in the process created sort of a lost generation. Now it’s too late to suddenly start convincing fans to make Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano their guy.

Hamlin said today’s young drivers are “very lucky” they’re coming in during a time where fans are actively looking for a new person to pull for. It’s sort of a clean break.

“Most likely, (a fan’s next driver) is not going to be someone who raced against their (old) favorite driver; it’s going to be someone new that comes in,” Hamlin said. “They’re picking someone from the start just like they picked their driver who retired from the start.”

There’s nothing wrong with NASCAR picking up on that, because it is trying to plant the seeds for the future — albeit a little late.

And Busch — despite his sharp-tongued comments — definitely understands that. My theory is Busch’s frustration comes from wanting the attention for his sponsor, not himself. As the years have progressed, Busch understands his livelihood is tied to M&Ms continuing to feel like it gets enough bang for its buck. That’s why he’s willing to do things like record a wacky touchdown dance on video. So if he’s in the latest NASCAR ad campaign, that gives his sponsor exposure and, in turn, helps his job security.

But there’s a second part to this whole discussion, and it’s one where the veteran drivers could take some lessons from their younger peers.


Behind the scenes, NASCAR is always communicating with drivers and their representatives about promotional opportunities.

Would you like to do a radio hit on an Orlando sports talk station?

Would you be willing to appear on the Kansas City FOX affiliate’s morning show?

Any interest in a cameo on a new TV series that’s coming out next fall?

Want to be a voice in Cars 3?

This probably won’t surprise you, but NASCAR has much more success getting younger drivers to accept these types of invitations.

Ryan Blaney, in particular, is known as someone who says yes to most of the things NASCAR asks him to do.


“You have to think of the end game,” Blaney said. “I would rather make other people happy than myself. If I have to sacrifice time, it is just time. I would rather do something meaningful to the sport than to go sit on my couch.

“Very rarely do I say no to things just to sit on my couch. I can do that at night and I can do that when I retire. I want to do as much as I can right now to make it work and make other people happy and make this thing the best it can.”

So you can understand why it frustrated Blaney when he heard Busch say the younger drivers are “bullied into doing more things” for NASCAR because the veterans say ‘No’ a lot more.

“We’ve been there, done that and have families and want to spend as much time as we can at home,” Busch said.

Blaney said he agrees to those opportunities not because he’s coerced, but because “I think it is good for the sport and myself.”

“I can tell you personally that (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so that is why they don’t ask him to do a lot of stuff,” Blaney said. “That kind of made me upset how he bashed that part of it. To each his own. If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it.”

This is where the younger drivers have a major edge over their older counterparts. They’ve come into NASCAR during a period of struggle, which has given them the mindset of needing to do whatever it takes to stay relevant.

“Certain drivers…when they get to this certain level, they stop doing stuff,” Bubba Wallace said. “… It’s kind of like pulling teeth when you get well-established in the Cup Series.”

Wallace told reporters they could pinch him if he ever acts that way.

But many veteran drivers entered the sport during the glory years and have lived through the decline. So they feel discouraged, as if there’s not much one driver can do to make a difference. That makes them more likely to turn down some of the promotional work a new driver might accept.

It’s hard to fault them, either. For example: Let’s say NASCAR asked a driver to do a satellite media tour — where they sit in a studio for a couple hours and talk to various local TV stations all over the country every 15 minutes. Is that really going to do anything to impact NASCAR’s health? What about a radio spot on KISS 98.5 or 1080 The Fan?

“The reality is what I do today to promote the sport most likely makes very little difference in this time span and this era,” Keselowski said. “I am not saying it makes no difference, but very little difference.”

Keselowski emphasized he believes promoting the sport is part of his job. And his intention is to leave the sport well-stocked for the future, which he’s done in areas outside marketing — like developing future talent in his Truck Series team.

But the truth is, times have changed for everyone. The downturn many others in NASCAR have felt over the last 10 years is finally hitting drivers in their wallets. And it’s not going to get any better with the status quo.

So the drivers — both young and veteran — have two choices. They can either ride it out as long as possible without doing much, hoping to make it to retirement; or they can actively try to play a role in building NASCAR back up to help future generations receive the same sort of lucrative opportunities they’ve had along the way.