NASCAR's Undercover Boss, Steve Phelps, Has a Tricky Challenge
How do you create an 'Undercover Boss' situation when the vast majority of the people who work with your product are not your actual employees? That was the challenge faced by Steve Phelps, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for NASCAR, the sanctioning body of the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States. NASCAR doesn't actually own any of the cars, race teams or stadiums. It's a little like the NFL, where Phelps used to work. The NFL doesn't own any of the teams or stadiums or talent contracts either.
At least Phelps didn't have to worry about blowing his cover. He's not exactly the face of NASCAR, and he doesn't have direct management duties over any of the people he worked with. "All I had to do was grow a little scruff and dress in the right uniform," he told AOL Jobs. "I didn't even have to grow a full beard -- which is good, because I can't," he laughs.
It made his cover story simple as well. Workers were told that he was a fan who had won a contest to work behind the scenes in NASCAR, and they were shooting some fun footage of his experience. As a fan, he wasn't expected to be particularly adept at anything. He did have to worry, however about running into some of his NASCAR colleagues at the track, fearing they might call him by his real name and spoil things.
Food for thought and profit
Since giving the workers a raise or a promotion would not an option for Phelps, you couldn't help but wonder how Phelps would thank and incentivize the workers. "It wasn't as hard as you think," Phelps says. For example, many of the concessions vendors at the stadiums are volunteers who work for free, and keep 10 percent of the proceeds for their causes. Cindy, who Phelps worked with, had three adopted daughters, and her sales go to support their cheerleading team.
In the episode. Phelps didn't help her sales quite as much as he hoped he would, since he wasn't too adroit at processing chicken nuggets, corn dogs and French fries. He even found drumming up new customers to be challenging. When she found out who he was, however, he was able to double her proceeds from several races to the tune of about $10,000. He also gave race tickets to Tom, Cindy's brother, who was always helping in concessions, and was sorry to never get to see any of the action on the track.
Moving more than equipment
Most people take signage for granted, but it's a huge and important part of every NASCAR race. So Phelps felt it was important to see just how it's accomplished, by working with Glen, the head sign artist in Facility Operations at Daytona International Speedway. In the dauntingly humid heat, Phelps painted white and yellow boxes in the start/finish line, then dealt with a sign about two stories high on a really steep part of the track. His co-workers had infinite patience with him when he dropped sign and posted it upside down.
Phelps expressed his appreciation for Glen's hard work by helping his son Daniel, who is battling leukemia. He gave him an official race helmet that all the drivers had signed, but even better, offered to take care of Daniel's extra expenses that aren't covered by insurance. Glen was moved to tears.
Phelps gets physical
"I really came to understand the physical nature of some of the NASCAR jobs," Phelps admits, noting that many of the people in the pit crew train and work out every day to stay in shape for their demanding jobs. Phelps tried to keep up with them as they worked out in the hot sun in order to be ready for the demanding pit stops, but found it extremely tough. He shadowed Dion, a former football player and one of the first African American pit crew members for popular driver Mark Martin's pit crew. Phelps was dumbfounded to watch the crew change all four tires in under 13 seconds, and attempted to help in a practice run, but failed to place the tire correctly after several times. Phelps felt lucky to get out of the pit alive. "At least I didn't hurt myself or anyone else," he said.
Dion told Phelps that he worried about his future with NASCAR. Because of its physicality, he said there are always younger, faster guys coming up through the ranks who wanted to take his place. Once Phelps revealed his true identity, he told Dion that when he felt he was done with the physical work as part of a pit crew, that he would have a job with the NASCAR corporation, and in the meantime, he would be the charter member of a new industry council where he could share his ideas.
Phelps also worked with Scott, a tire manager for driver David Reutimann's pit crew. Although time is not of the essence in that segment, he found it quite physically taxing to stack tires on a dolly and transport them to different areas for tread measuring so they can cross-reference the information during a race to see how the tire wears. Scott told Phelps he worried that NASCAR is becoming more corporate than family-driven these days. Scott is away from his family a lot during racing season, and when they're home together it's tough to get tickets to the races. In the end, Phelps offered to send Scott's family to the race of their choice, and also get tickets for all crew members' families when they're racing in their home towns.
Scott travels with the team and is away from his family almost 38 weeks a year. Phelps can relate: During the season, which lasts from February through November, he's away from his Connecticut home at least four days a week as well, mostly working at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach. "It's a sacrifice," he says. "But my family has come to love the sport as much as I do"
It's not just the money
Phelps admits that NASCAR is a very expensive sport, heavily dependent on sponsorship. And when the sponsors' business suffers, the amount of money they spend on NASCAR naturally drops. Also, when fans are on a tighter budget, even the most devoted cut back on the number of races they attend. But while numbers were down last season, They're expected to hold steady this year and even improve gradually, like just about everything else.
"As the chief marketing officer, I went into this wanting to find out how we can better connect with our fans, and create new fans," Phelps says. "I came to realize that the best brand ambassadors for the sport are the people who work for it. I saw that the people who work in the NASCAR community have a great love, loyalty and passion for it--just like the fans."
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Lisa Johnson Mandell is an award-winning multi-media journalist and author of Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want. Her work has been translated into 20 different languages, and she is a frequent expert guest and commentator on news and talk shows. She has been featured in The Wall St. Journal, on the CBS Early Show, NBC Today, CNBC, Fox Business News, Dr. Phil, Oprah.com and many other media outlets. Lisa discusses her AOL pieces each week and interviews vital guests on the web TV show, This Week in Careers. Learn more on LisaJohnsonMandell.com.