SBJ/October 18-24, 2010/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NASCAR's Phelps goes 'Undercover'

Marketing boss tries his hand at track jobs on hit CBS show

Steve PhelpsCBS
“This is a feel-good show that’s going to showcase our sport," NASCAR CMO Steve Phelps said about appearing on the CBS reality series "Undercover Boss."
Steve Phelps furrowed his brow and looked blankly at the man standing across from him on the track of Daytona International Speedway last July.

“Kevin,” Daytona’s sign maker and painter Glen Morris said, looking right at Phelps. “Kevin.”

Phelps looked at Morris confused. ‘Who’s this guy talking to?’ Then Phelps remembered. ‘Oh, right. He’s talking to me. I’m Kevin Thomas. Residential installer and seller of water purification units from Burlington, Vt.’

“What do you need, Glen?” Phelps said.

Following some instruction, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer found himself painting Coca-Cola’s signage, coating the track walls, and touching up the finish line at Daytona for the Coke Zero 400.

Just another day’s work as an “Undercover Boss.”

Phelps is the first major league sports executive featured on the CBS hit show. His appearance in a one-hour episode of this Sunday’s “Undercover Boss” will mark NASCAR’s deepest integration into a mainstream television show since the sanctioning body opened a Los Angeles office in 2000. It follows six months of frantic planning and a challenging, weeklong workload that saw Phelps work out with a pit crew, load a hauler, serve concessions, act as a Nationwide Series spotter and pretend to be a pit row tire specialist.

None of it was easy for Phelps, especially because he prefers to operate outside the spotlight, but the sacrifice was worth it in order to showcase the sport.

The saga that led to the show began last February when NASCAR’s entertainment office fielded a call from an “Undercover Boss” executive producer, Chris Carlson of Studio Lambert, which produces the show. “Undercover Boss” was in the midst of a remarkable first season that attracted an average of 17.7 million viewers who tuned in to see executives with Waste Management, Hooters and 7-Eleven exit the comforts of the corner office to work alongside average employees performing everyday jobs.

The show’s popularity earned it a second season on CBS and the producers were interested in expanding the types of companies they featured to include sports organizations. NASCAR’s popularity and diverse fan base made it one of the producer’s first targets.

“It’s such a huge sport, so popular and so exciting, and we knew if we could do it with NASCAR we would have an extraordinary episode,” said Stephen Lambert, also an executive producer. The show is averaging 12.4 million viewers through three episodes of its second season.

Eric Nyquist, who oversees NASCAR’s Los Angeles office, relayed the opportunity to Phelps, who sent it on to NASCAR Chief Executive Officer Brian France. NASCAR’s top executives studied the opportunity for nearly three weeks, weighing the pros and cons. “Undercover Boss” had great reach and offered great exposure, but it required NASCAR turning over control to an outside group it had never worked with for an unscripted show where anything could happen.

“Any time we’re participating in an unscripted show, it takes longer to assess it,” said Zane Stoddard, NASCAR’s managing director, entertainment marketing and business development. “You have to be more careful about protecting your brand.”

Because “Undercover Boss” was a feel-good reality show, not a gotcha reality show, France, Phelps and others ultimately decided it was a safe gamble and agreed to do it. That left one problem: Who should be in it?

Everyone agreed that the most senior figures in the sport — France, NASCAR President Mike Helton and ISC Chair Lesa France Kennedy — were too well-known and recognizable to go undercover. The decision-maker they ultimately settled on was Phelps.

“I came to the realization it would be a good thing for the sport quickly,” Phelps said. “This is a feel-good show that’s going to showcase our sport. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the brand. It’s a little too much me for my liking, but that’s part of it.”

NASCAR pitched Phelps to the show’s producers with some trepidation, realizing the show had never shown a chief marketer. But that didn’t trouble the producers at all.

“Marketing is a huge part of what NASCAR is, so it’s not like he had no power to make things happen,” Lambert said. “He had authority from Brian France and Mike Helton, and the world of NASCAR was so big and exciting and different that we were more than willing to take the risk and do something slightly different.”

The producers and NASCAR decided to build the episode around the July 3 race at Daytona. They also agreed to tweak the idea of the show for the episode.

Typically, the show features executives working everyday jobs at a company, like the DirecTV CEO installing a satellite dish or answering calls from customers. But the producers wanted Phelps to work not just at NASCAR but across the industry.

More than 30 jobs were discussed, ranging from Nationwide official to ticket taker to driving a race hauler. Ultimately, the producers settled on seven jobs: track maintenance, pit crew member, hauler loader, concessionaire, merchandise sales, Nationwide Series spotter and tire specialist. (Only four of the jobs made the episode because of cuts and edits.)

“It was less about being exciting and more about finding things where Steve could get in there and see an aspect of the business he hadn’t seen before,” Stoddard said.

The crew filmed Phelps for nine days. At each job, he was introduced as a race fan who won a contest to work in NASCAR. A camera crew, a member of NASCAR’s public relations team and Stoddard followed him under the premise of filming the day for a potential documentary.

Phelps said the hardest job he did was working out with the pit crew of the No. 5 car driven by Mark Martin. The crew was doing heat training that day, rotating through one- to two-minute stations of push-ups, jumping jacks, sprints and tossing a medicine ball.

Through it all, one pit crew member named Dion Williams taunted Phelps.

“Come on Ben & Jerry’s,” Williams said because Phelps’s character, “Kevin,” was from Vermont. “Keep it up, Maple Syrup.”

“We put him through the ringer,” Williams said last week. “It was a hot day and we had him running and doing push-ups. He’s an older guy, but he’s in good shape.”

While that was difficult, the thing Phelps struggled with most was not being truthful to remain undercover.

“I’m not a big liar. It was hard for me,” Phelps said. “You’re trying to get into the character, and it’s weird because on the one hand you’re being truthful about the name of your wife and the number of children you have, and on the other hand, you are portraying someone else and lying about your identity.”

The most challenging thing for the crew was moving Phelps, a five-year veteran of NASCAR, around Daytona speedway without having anyone expose him and unknowingly become a spoiler. There were two close calls. At one point, Phelps was introduced as “Kevin” to longtime team owner Roger Penske, who obviously would have known Phelps. At another, he was introduced to a group of 43 Nationwide Series spotters who included team owner Richard Childress’ son-in-law, Mike Dillon.

“I was looking at him thinking, ‘What contest did you win?’” Dillon said. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s spying on us.’ I was a real good spotter that day.”

Like every episode of “Undercover Boss,” the one featuring Phelps will end with him sharing what he learned from the experience and revealing his true identity to the people he worked with during filming.

Phelps said that going into the process he expected to pick up some ideas for marketing the sport better. Instead, he came away from it with a deeper appreciation for what it takes to put on a NASCAR race.

“When I went into it, I was hoping to find better ways to connect with the fan base by doing these jobs,” Phelps said. “What places could I identify that would make a better fan experience. I don’t know if it’s the length of time or how the show unfolds, but it really became more of a connection with the people who work in the industry than it was just the fan connection.”

One of the biggest changes the experience led to is the creation of an industry council for employees. NASCAR has had a fan council, 12,000 members strong, that offers feedback on the sport. Phelps said the passion employees like pit crew member Williams and Daytona paint roller Morris have for the sport inspired him to create a similar council for industry employees.

“We’re going to listen to them,” he said. “They’re stakeholders in this sport, and they’re important ones.”

Phelps, who hasn’t seen the episode yet, nor has anyone with NASCAR, plans to watch it in Connecticut with his wife and three kids. He’s bracing for the ribbing from friends and colleagues that he knows will follow and plans to deflect it all by announcing his retirement as an actor.

“It was a great experience, and it’s great for the sport,” he said. “Would I do it again? No. I’ll leave it to people who are good at this kind of thing. … I’m just happy to get back to my day job.”
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