The Pace Setter

The intensity on the track and emotions on pit road are nothing compared to what Steve O’Donnell ’91 deals with as a lead man at NASCAR.

Steve O’Donnell ’91 at Daytona International Speedway (Photo by Scott Cook) Steve O’Donnell ’91 at Daytona International Speedway (Photo by Scott Cook)

At the moment, this does not have the look, feel, or sound of a great job. The smell of something burning is in the air. A driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been nudged into the wall at 200 mph. One bump—it’s the difference between a trip to Victory Lane and a plunge to 27th place. And now the driver is charging, on foot, to have a discussion with the guy who’s supposed to fix everything, the guy with said “plum” job: Steve O’Donnell ’91, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer. The door to the NASCAR trailer nearly comes off its hinges. The driver is hot enough to singe the eyebrows off O’Donnell’s face. Here we go.

Let’s tap the pause button. What kind of person would you want on the receiving end of this incoming heat? Confident, humble, stable—all important attributes. Ideally, a team player who cares about relationships so scenes like this don’t build into infernos, because emotions seem to spill into NASCAR’s mobile executive office on most Sundays.

Press play. The driver slams the trailer door shut. There’s O’Donnell, all 6-foot-3 of him, standing up. He offers the driver a bottle of water and a seat. Then an ear and some understanding. As anyone in NASCAR knows, venting precedes cooling. No one knows this better than O’Donnell, who, despite being a high-ranking member of NASCAR’s senior executive team, comes off as one of the guys.

“He’s so disarming,” says a member of O’Donnell’s 200-person competition staff. “It helps that he has a physical presence, but Steve just has a way with everyone. Drivers come in ready to tear things apart, and they leave on good terms. Everyone knows the future of the sport is in good hands with him.”

We see NASCAR’s frenetic pace on Sundays. For O’Donnell, the pace rarely slows. Officially, the organizational chart says he oversees “all operations in NASCAR’s Research & Development Center, including racing development and innovation, as well as competition.” In layman’s terms? He’s in charge of the sport’s immediate and long-term growth. Which is why O’Donnell takes it upon himself to process feedback and ideas—good ones and outlandish ones—from a melting pot of NASCAR stakeholders—drivers, track officials, teams, television executives, and fans.

So, at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, he’s already networked on Twitter, had a lengthy conversation with the president of Roush Fenway Racing, and set up meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he spends most of his work week.

“I enjoy being in the middle of it all,” O’Donnell says. “To me, this is the fun part of the sport. Things are constantly moving and we have to stay ahead to be relevant.” He stops the conversation to emphasize the most important part of his schedule: “I checked in with my wife and kids this morning.”

While he devotes much time to moving the sport forward, O’Donnell does take occasional moments to look back. Beyond his climb up the ranks. Beyond his entry into NASCAR as a marketing services representative in 1996 (he made sure drivers sipped the right drinks and wore the right caps in Victory Lane). Beyond his first “dream” jobs with the Daytona Cubs minor-league baseball team and Florida Citrus Sports. Back to the roots of it all.

O’Donnell is one of three sons (his brothers, Brian ’93 and Matthew ’93, are also Rollins graduates) of Steve and Sandra O’Donnell, both career educators. He was born in New Jersey, finished high school in Egypt, and had plans to return to the U.S. and play college baseball in the northeast. Then a friend of his mother mentioned a small liberal arts college near Orlando with a tight community of students, faculty, and alumni.

“The idea of warm weather didn’t hurt,” O’Donnell says. He chose Rollins sight unseen. “The Rollins experience absolutely shaped my life. The liberal arts program exposed me to fields like music and philosophy. The emphasis on leadership allowed me to head up the intramural sports program. I realized that I could turn my passion for sports and competition into a career. At the center of it all was relationship building.”

O’Donnell discovered it all at Rollins. Friends. Mentors. Leadership opportunities. But the most important find was his wife, Erin Higgins O’Donnell ’91. They met right here, on the college campus where the weather is warm and relationships can change lives beyond imagination. The fact that their son, Ryan ’20, is a freshman at Rollins might be the greatest testimonial of all.

O’Donnell sneaks a look at his phone. He stands up to politely walk a visitor to the door. A few other people are waiting to have a word with him.

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