Editor’s note — This profile of Steve O’Donnell is the second in a two-part series on NASCAR grappling with its season restart during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thursday’s entry on the inside story of how NASCAR restarted its season can be found here.
It was during a meeting between NASCAR drivers and series executives at Daytona International Speedway in July 2019 when Steve O’Donnell and Kevin Harvick exchanged sideways glances.
A feud that began a few months earlier – in a SiriusXM satellite radio interview, O’Donnell intimated drivers might have sabotaged group qualifying to force its abolition; a day later, Harvick angrily called him out by name during his program on the same channel – suddenly exploded into a heated face-to-face discussion that de-escalated only after officials stood between them.
For O’Donnell, there were no lingering hard feelings – just another reminder that an oft-thankless job even can put him at odds with Harvick, a driver whom he has “the most respect of all because he gets it as much as anyone.
“Harvick and I have gone at it many times, almost to blows,” O’Donnell told NBC Sports. “But he also has told me, ‘If I was you, I’d be the most hated man in NASCAR.’ Because your job is just to take shit and then make a decision. He’s a guy who taught me that you don’t have to like each other all the time, and that I can’t be liked by everyone, which is hard for me to grasp. All I can hope for is to be respected.
“I like most of (the drivers). I want to hear from them. But I also realize I’m the guy who has to make the call when we fine them.”
As the executive senior vice president and chief racing development officer, O’Donnell often winds up making many critical calls on which tracks that NASCAR will visit in the future or the aerodynamic and horsepower rules that govern how its cars will race.
And despite his epiphany that those duties can preclude making friends, forming bonds might be the greatest strength of a 25-year NASCAR employee who has risen to the top of the sanctioning body while working in nearly every department (marketing, operations, competition) and offices across the company (from New York to Daytona Beach to Charlotte).
The relationships that he built have proved especially useful this year as O’Donnell spearheaded an unprecedented display of cooperation among workgroups across the NASCAR industry during the nine-week layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, helping course correct the 2020 season back on track while also charting next year’s slate of racetracks and a NextGen car rollout.
“The job he’s done has been incredible,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps told NBC Sports. “That’s due largely in part to his leadership. Steve would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got good people around me,’ and that’s true, but it really comes with the relationships he has with the garage.
“He’s earned the trust and respect of the teams because he’s a man of his word who does what he says he’s going to do. Steve and his team have just done such a great job of getting the industry aligned. He’s just got good relationships with people and nurtures those. People trust him. When our format changed with the stages, Steve was the architect of that and bringing everyone together who should have a seat at the table.”
Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith jokes that he usually texts O’Donnell only to “tell him something good” about a race or a call being made because Smith “doesn’t want to add to other issues.
“I don’t think anybody in sports has a tougher job than Steve O’Donnell because he has so many important people to answer to,” Smith told NBC Sports. “He’s got his bosses in Jim (France), Lesa (France Kennedy) and Steve (Phelps). He’s got the promoters like me. He’s got Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske and Coach (Joe) Gibbs on the team side. And then every driver, crew chief, manufacturer and TV network.
“Steve is the one everybody has on speed dial if they have an issue. He leads the most important part of our sport, and that’s competition because everything follows from its quality. So he has to handle a lot of hot potatoes, and this year has been his best year. NASCAR has done a really good job of building the executive team to handle these tough situations, and we’ve got our best relationship now than we’ve ever had with NASCAR as a company.”
Phelps notes that O’Donnell is “not a racing guy” unlike many other past and current NASCAR competition executives who have spent a lifetime working in garages – but it’s meant as a compliment in this instance.
“Steve is very, very passionate and always wants the sport to shine and excel, and he takes it personally when we don’t,” Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark told NBC Sports. “He is very good at taking a whole laundry list of issues and prioritizing what’s really critical for all the stakeholders. The key is Steve has that rare combination of technical expertise and an in-depth understanding of the business side. Steve bridges those two worlds and because of that, he’s able to collaborate with broadcasters, tracks, drivers, teams and his bosses at the league and try to make sure we come out with the best solution.”
The list of those who have overseen NASCAR’s competition like O’Donnell is fairly short, with the primary names being Bill France, Bill France Jr., Les Richter and Mike Helton.
There are many ways O’Donnell, who moved into his role five years ago, is different. He didn’t arrive with a pedigree, nor a high-profile resume.
None of his predecessors had to deal with the incessantly screeching din of social media (where O’Donnell’s Twitter account frequently is deluged with angry fans after lackluster races).
And technology also puts O’Donnell in more constant contact with drivers through a text chain that he started. It’s helped him find some go-to drivers for advice such as Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch, and it’s a more effective method than the quarterly meetings of the now defunct Drivers Council (which O’Donnell said required too many members, dulling its effectiveness with ambivalence).
But it also comes with some daily headaches.
“To have this open line of communication had never happened before,” Fox Sports analyst Jeff Gordon told NBC Sports. “And Steve gets beat up all the time that way by drivers who have had bad days, and he has to take that abuse and still make the decisions that can affect them. Yet, I also think because of that text chain, we’ve gotten further with safety. We’ve gotten further with fan engagement and the racing. I think the sport has improved because of it.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve texted him and said, ‘I’m glad I don’t have your job,’” Logano told NBC Sports. “I don’t envy his position at all, but I respect him for it. He’s smart enough to know he’s not an expert in every area, and he’s humble enough to take everyone’s opinion and make decisions. He cuts through the B.S. to understand who’s really trying to help and who’s trying to help themselves but also in trying to figure out what is best for the sport by a bit of a committee.”
Though he’s a consensus builder, O’Donnell also is known to be combative when he feels unjustly criticized. “He’s not afraid to have the hard conversation or voice his opinion,” Phelps said.
During the race manipulation scandal in the 2013 regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway, Gordon “fired off a very heated opinion” about NASCAR’s handling and was surprised when O’Donnell immediately shot back in defense.
“I saw the fiery side of Steve, but I also got to see how much he cares,” Gordon said. “We were always good from that point, even though we have the moments we don’t agree.”
O’Donnell also can be a sympathetic ear when needed. Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson said when the manufacturer struggled mightily during its first season, a motorhome meeting at Texas Motor Speedway with O’Donnell helped assuage Toyota’s frustration that it lacked “a healthy relationship” with NASCAR.
“I articulated in a very transparent way a number of these concerns we had,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “Steve was amazing in that he was embarrassed about it, and it was unacceptable. He expressed candidly that a lot of these things were endemic of the sport at that time, and he genuinely shared his determination to change those things and give Toyota a sense that it would have a shot.
“You can have a beer with Steve and enjoy his company while shifting between talking shop and socializing. He’s always been good at that and giving you a sense he cares.”
One of O’Donnell’s favorite expressions is “That’s fair,” which comes up multiple times over the course of an interview that runs more than two hours.
So does Twitter, which has been a sore spot. O’Donnell was among the first in NASCAR to join the platform but recently took a sabbatical because of too much fan negativity (including some threats).
But he concedes that he also could be overly engaged, particularly in taking umbrage at how a race was perceived or how fans absorbed an overhaul to the engine-horsepower combination aimed to improve racing at 1.5-mile intermediate tracks (which NASCAR tacitly has backed off on while reducing the number of intermediates on its 2021 schedule).
“I’m too sensitive, and I take things too personally,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve tried to work on that.”
He also can be self-critical to a fault and has fretted about falling short of knowing drivers as well as the late NASCAR PR guru Jim Hunter, a mentor to O’Donnell and many NASCAR stars.
“Jim Hunter did a much better job than me of communicating,” said O’Donnell, who went through a period of inviting Cup drivers over for dinner. “I struggle with this, but I don’t look at myself as a guy who should be able to pull Ryan Blaney aside and just say, “Man, how’s it going?’ But I look at Hunter and the respect that he had with Tony Stewart and Harvick, and that’s really cool. How do I get that? That’s been one I’ve struggled with, and listening is more of my fallback of, ‘Hey, got any ideas? Let me run with it.’ ”
Hamlin said O’Donnell has done well with balancing what drivers want vs. what NASCAR needs despite the inevitable confrontations that can arise from that.
“We aren’t afraid to call each other out,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I hold Steve and his team accountable for things they’re not doing right, and they do the same thing with the drivers.
“It looks like we’re butting heads, but we’re also having open conversations that people can’t be afraid to have. That’s how you grow by continuing to listen. And I think Steve really has done a good job of balancing what drivers believe is better for competition to what NASCAR thinks is better, and he’s been implementing it. He’s listening to us, and that’s been a difference. His leadership on the competition side really has been a big improvement from early in my career.”
O’Donnell, 51, started at NASCAR in 1996 after working in minor-league baseball and the Citrus Bowl. His first job in racing was with NASCAR’s marketing services helping run victory lane, moving on to managing the Craftsman, Winston and Anheuser-Busch accounts while also working as a jack of all trades. When NASCAR was shoring up its New York branch that was overwhelmed with sponsorship pitches in the late 1990s, O’Donnell spent six weeks answering phones at its Manhattan office while temporarily living in Brian France’s Upper East Side penthouse.
He shifted into competition and oversaw NASCAR’s weekly racing series, a collection of more than 90 short tracks across the country that kept O’Donnell constantly on the road. He was moved to the R&D Center, NASCAR’s competition hub in Concord, North Carolina, in 2007 and recalls how his arrival was greeted in the first meeting: “Who the hell is this marketing guy and how does he fit into this group?”
But others of import took notice. Team owner Richard Childress cold-called O’Donnell and offered to fly home with him to North Carolina after a race in 2006, and O’Donnell would spend three days at his house while touring Richard Childress Racing and attending its competition meetings to learn more about competition.
When NASCAR attempted to change its rules on springs a few weeks later, O’Donnell fought and won a battle to keep things static because he knew it would be a multimillion-dollar change after seeing an RCR warehouse full of springs that cost several hundred apiece.
“That helped start my credibility,” O’Donnell said. “Richard took it upon himself to say, ‘For you to succeed, you need to learn what the hell we do.’ ”
O’Donnell has a natural aptitude for education. Born in New Jersey and raised in Massachusetts, he is the son of a principal and a kindergarten teacher who moved their family to Egypt in sixth grade. He learned the principles of being an active listener in the supercharged environment of being a high school freshman whose Egyptian and Israeli classmates passionately debated diametrically opposed views on the Six-Day War. The overseas exposure also has fueled O’Donnell’s passion for racial equality.
“It gave me a perspective to listen to other people’s perspectives and cultures,” he said. “It’s just been part of who I am. I enjoy talking to people. I don’t think I’m the smartest guy in the room, so what can I learn.”
He feeds his intellectual curiosity by exclusively reading nonfiction and watching documentaries (a recent viewing was on Heini Zachariassen, the founder of the wine app Vivino). He also is a voracious consumer of podcasts (he is a fan of “Flying Coach” with the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, whose brother, Andrew, was one of O’Donnell’s best high school friends in Egypt).
He is a rabid sports fan (the Yankees, New York Giants and Tottenham of the Premier League are among his favorites) who constantly benchmarks NASCAR against other pro sports in both competition and outreach – particularly with the need to showcase drivers’ personalities.
During a conversation about NASCAR’s restart, O’Donnell frequently posed open questions about the steps taken by the U.S. Open, Major League Soccer and the NBA and what could be learned and applied to NASCAR (he also mentions NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood and NASCAR chief marketing officer Jill Gregory as important sounding boards for his ideas).
“He’s got a creative mind, and it’s unusual to have a 25-year employee that is willing to change as much as Steve is,” Phelps said. “He always challenges us – and we need him to – with ‘How can we do this better?’ He’ll be honest and say when he doesn’t think we had a very good race, and he’ll put it all on the game board to see if there’s a better way to do it, drive results “without being a hard charger and making people feel uncomfortable.”
Before every race he watches from NASCAR scoring tower, O’Donnell sits down beside official Mike Phillips with a playful greeting: “Don’t screw up.”
Among the things that bothers him is a garage reputation that he doesn’t smile enough. “I feel like my favorite thing to do in life is make people laugh,” O’Donnell said.
He also brings a new notebook to every race he attends, filling them with observations about how NASCAR handled officiating and scoring situations. He rarely steps in during events, saving the feedback for debriefs the next week.
He wants more diversity within the NASCAR competition department, which he believes could be achieved in part by pushing for more scholarly analytics mathematicians to drive competition decisions through building five-year statistical trends. NASCAR’s youth also is a major focus for O’Donnell, who quotes a podcast he recently heard in which former NCAA basketball coach George Raveling said he hangs with younger people because “people my age, all they talk about is dying.”
“I have completely failed if I haven’t identified the next leadership team at R&D that all the industry believes in,” O’Donnell said. “So that drives me.”
His current competition department is hand-picked with Scott Miller, competition director Jay Fabian and senior innovation VP John Probst all having joined over the past four seasons. O’Donnell believes it’s brought NASCAR credibility.
“We’re never going to out-engineer a team, but if we have the right guys who at least they respect, that’s huge,” said O’Donnell, who also relies heavily on NASCAR operations manager Tom Swindell. “And I’ve seen that, and it’s been a godsend. Jim Hunter taught me this. Hire people who are smarter than you, and you’ll be good. If you try and run it, you’ll be dead”
Miller was hired after being suggested to O’Donnell … by Harvick (who had worked with Miller at RCR).
O’Donnell said he put things right with Harvick shortly after the blowup at Daytona.
“We’re on the same page a lot more often than not and are alike in many ways,” he said. “Because I know where he stands. And when he says, ‘Hey, you should look at this,’ we will.”