As the day-to-day overseer of NASCAR’s competitive direction, chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell is a man of action who spends most of his time listening.
Whether drivers, team owners, sponsors, media or fans, the 21-year employee of NASCAR constantly solicits the opinions of those who are impacted by his organization’s decisions.
“When you’re listening, you probably are going to learn something or gain a perspective you hadn’t heard about before,” O’Donnell said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “You have to make some tough calls. The toughest part is you’re not going to be everyone’s best friend. You have to make calls that drivers and teams don’t like.
“All you can do is hope they respect or understand why you made that call. The idea you’re going to be friends with everyone is something that’s tough and something you learn the hard way.”
O’Donnell gained an appreciation for the diversity of thought while growing up in Egypt, where his family moved to a town near Cairo from Massachusetts when he was in seventh grade.
Living amidst the volatility of the Middle East (one of O’Donnell’s close friends was Andrew Kerr, the younger brother of Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose father was assassinated in Beirut in 1983) brought real-world lessons in the importance of communication and compromise for common ground.
“It’s probably the greatest thing my parents have given to me,” he said about the exposure to “different cultures and traveling around the world.
“It was an interesting perspectcive to sit in a class on the Egypt-Israeli War, which Egypt clearly struggled with, and have an Israeli kid to your right, an Egyptian to your left, and both believe they destroyed each other in this war. It was fascinating to listen to those two kids who had a completely different perspective. You learned quick.”
Besides the lessons of human nature, O’Donnell also developed a worldly understanding, which he remains keen on in helping NASCAR’s international push. Citing the NBA as a model, O’Donnell believes NASCAR can put down roots by creating leagues in other countries to foster drivers coming to America as Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez did from the Mexico Series.
NASCAR also has circuits in Canada and Europe, and O’Donnell said China and India could be on the horizon.
“You look at the car culture just emerging there, and some of the things that were built around NASCAR, the family aspect, the automobile, are coming together in both those countries and even parts of South America,” O’Donnell said. “If we can, in a smart way, go with OEMs to partner to create a series where NASCAR is part of the development, that can be a huge opportunity for us.
“It’s got to make sense for U.S. partners where they’re trying to break into those markets. One of things you’ve seen in other series, they’ve taken a race to a certain country that doesn’t really help any team owners or sponsors, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense for us.”
During the podcast, O’Donnell also discussed:
–How NASCAR is seeking more technology with its next Gen 7 model and the timeframe for rolling it out;
–His role in being a public face of NASCAR and dealing with negative feedback on social media.
–Why he believes NASCAR drivers need more swagger;
–What’s ahead for several key topics – the overtime line, monitoring lug nuts, making pit speeds available in real time, debris cautions.
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