NASCAR's Undercover Boss, Steve Phelps, Has a Tricky Challenge

undercover boss nascar steve phelpsHow 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

undercover boss nascar steve phelps"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"

AOL Jobs Asks
Undercover Boss Steve Phelps
5 Quick Questions

1. What was your first job? Newspaper delivery boy

2. What inspires you? My family -- I was inspired by my parents' hard work and dedication, and now I want to do what's best for my own family.

3. What is the most important trait needed to succeed? Hard work and the ability to listen

4. What is your biggest challenge? Balancing family and work. (Phelps has four young children)

5. What is the best career advice you ever received? If you find it hard to break into your field of choice, pay your dues in another field, then return and try again.

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."

Want more Undercover Boss? Read all 'Undercover Boss' Interviews

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Jose Mariani

Bryan K. Bedford
President and CEO, Republic Airlines

Dear Sir,

I just got let go from your Flight Attendant Training in Indianapolis, scheduled for October 25 – November 17. In my opinion, this was due to the lack of good trainers and updated material --something you should know about.

I would like to let you know that I'm not writing this email out of anger or anything personal between myself and any of the trainers, but you need to know what is going on in your Flight Attendant
training facilities. As and ex-Flight Attendant for a major and excellent airline (American Airlines), I should have listened to my colleagues that are flying for Republic when they told me that training was a joke. I was hoping that this was not true but came to realize it is.

Your trainers are not trained well enough to train anyone. The FAM Flight Attendant Manual is completely out of date with current regulations. It is this Manual that we are taught from and studied from; however, it was common to hear – and became an ongoing joke in the class – “don't go by the manual.” Can you explain this to me? During demonstration sessions, the trainers are running all over not seeming to know what to train or what to say. They seem completely disorganized, not knowing what training module was next or who was to present it. This included door drills being rush through just to finish and to be able to leave. I heard frequent comments that indicated that they were anxious to leave because they have a party to go to, passing students just to get out of there early. One trainer often made faces while students were trying to practice a procedure and lots of attitude with every one, rolling eyes and making smart comments (I also heard comments indicating or joking about student’s sexual orientation).

After being unable to demonstrate a procedure properly, I was told to come back in 30 days -- an insult knowing that I would have to go through the same thing again. How depressing after being here and completing testing and demonstration successfully for more than two weeks

After seeing you on Undercover Boss and knowing how much you care for your company’s success, I am surprised to see trainees – your future employees – treated with such disrespect and disregard; quite a contrast from the way your employees were portrayed on Undercover Boss. I resigned a perfectly good position to better myself and now hope that I can get my job back – no mean task in this economy. I hope that the attitude shown to us as potential employees is not the same face shown to your customers. If it is, you will surely not be successful.

Isn't the FAA suppose to be present for some segments of this training? We certainly never saw anyone in our class room.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me by email or by calling me.

Jose L. Mariani
cell – 302-383-3135

P.S. – I want you to know that I am disappointed enough to report what I consider deficiencies in training to the FAA. I feel that the safety of the flying public is first.

November 11 2010 at 2:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When race teams had outgrown how it started and needing 20 million dollars to run a car all season the guy brought up that the sport got away from it's roots. Maybe this guy has found a new venture for NASCAR. These tracks sit empty most of the season. Why not start a league for the weekend racers and put a cap on the amount that can be used to prepare a car for a race. Get Joe the mechanic getting his weekend race car to the track and make it a competitive league with a few divisions. No crate motor costing a million dollars with engineering price tag added. Just make it a league that guys can go out and have some fun like they did years ago.It worked years ago, why won't it work now ? Make the little guy part of racing again. No air guns, tires come off the same way as if you had a flat on the road. I think people would support a league like that.

October 29 2010 at 11:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

At the end of the episode, it stated that Steve was creating a similar contest for a fan to spend time with the crews as he did. I cannot find that contest ANYWHERE! Anyone know how/where to enter?

October 28 2010 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nascar has seen it heyday people are not paying to go see something that boring , good grief look at grandstands on tv when cup race is on.they don,t race no more .no more side by side action because they are scared it,ll mess with thier ayrodynamics. the drivers are biggest bunch of whinners and overpaid
.i watched last few weeks kevin harvick & kyle bush always crying bout something it,s bad for a sport that was built by rugged men. i see better side by side action on local freeway here. but i have 1 good thing bout nascar now days (it,s a sure cure for insominia .i just turn race on sundays and go to sleep

October 25 2010 at 11:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to brutus's comment

Good points. NASCAR seems intent upon insuring the demise of their sport. Templates, measurements, conformity rules, etc, have ruled out the ingenuity of the old days. Sometimes that "ingnuity" bordered on cheating, but it is from that quarter that we see progress.
Expending so much effort on "conformity" makes one wonder why they don't just go back to IROC.
And, while I'm at it, this "Race to the Chase" idea stinks. Return to the days when all races counted. The current system insures that many fans will see their favorite eliminated from The Chase (for whatever reason) and, if his fortunes change, ineligible for the Championship even if he won every one of the races of The Chase. Makes the final part of the season just a little less interesting - and, just one channel away - is a more interesting football game.

October 26 2010 at 5:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

HAHA.. you do know that making your boss do your job is suppose to be communistic. Everybody equal!

October 25 2010 at 10:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

mark needed the help to get out

October 25 2010 at 6:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Actually NASCAR owns several of the tracks they race on.

October 25 2010 at 5:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to GB's comment

Including Daytona! Well, it's NASCAR's sister company, but it is still controlled by France.

March 06 2015 at 10:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think the show it staged and everyone is in on it.

October 25 2010 at 5:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to claire's comment

I don't think they are staged, but they certainly cherry pick who the undercover boss will work with. Obviously everybody knows they are going to be on television so things might look a little bit unnatural, but I think the directors go out, review employee backgrounds and look for the employees who are either trouble makers or have their own sob stories. That is what makes the shows interesting.

March 06 2015 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Very good show. Really enjoyed the behind the scenes up close.
You were honest and up front about tickets being down. Very nice what you did for employees at end of show. Enjoyed show very much and thought it was the best Undercover Boss yet. Ive seen them all.

October 25 2010 at 5:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Allan Davis

Just when did a propane or mapp torch become a blow torch? When people write or talk about subjects they know nothing about they look stupid! Kinda like OBAMA!

October 25 2010 at 4:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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