Siegel charged with extending Earnhardt legacy

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Max Siegel leaned forward inside the small office next to the garage at Daytona International Speedway and listened to the list of compliments he has received since joining Dale Earnhardt Inc. two weeks ago.

"First of all, I paid everybody a lot of money to say great things about me," the new president of global operations at DEI said.

He was joking, of course.

No handouts are necessary to understand that Siegel, who will play a major role in negotiations to re-sign Dale Earnhardt Jr., has an impressive résumé.

It's arguably the most impressive in NASCAR for anybody who doesn't drive a car or own a team.

He is the first African-American to graduate with honors from the School of Law at Notre Dame. As the president of Zomba Label Group and Zomba Gospel, he has worked with Usher, Britney Spears and 'N Sync.

He has been featured in national publications such as the New York Times and Billboard magazine. He appeared on Oprah twice in one year.

He has handled large legal affairs for Fortune 500 companies and professional sports franchises such as the Seattle Mariners. He has managed the careers of professional athletes such as Tony Gwynn and Reggie White.

He has worked in high-profile positions with organizations such as the American Bar Association and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Among his close friends are Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.

Siegel, 42, also is no stranger to motorsports. He grew up two miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway and went to his first Indianapolis 500 as a 4-year-old.

He attended his first Nextel Cup race in 1987 at the Pocono 500 and was working with White to get into NASCAR before the Hall of Fame defensive end died in December 2004.

He met Dale Earnhardt while working as a sales rep for AC Delco.

"When people say he's not very experienced in this industry, he really is," said Richie Gilmore, DEI's director of motorsports. "He can relate to motorsports because it's all entertainment at the end of the day.

"That's been the thing that's impressed me the most the last two weeks, how much he knows about this sport."

Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's managing director of public affairs, said Siegel was a big hire not only for DEI but for the entire industry, which is dominated by white males in upper management.

The only other African-American in a significant team management role is Sam Belnavis, the chief diversity officer of Roush Racing.

"It definitely is a significant step," Jadotte said. "For the industry, it means we are able to attract talented business people from across the board. It's definitely a positive for the entire industry that we're drawing from a broad pool."

'Helluva breakthrough'
Earnhardt Jr.'s demeanor took an upward swing at the mention of Siegel. He called the hire a "helluva breakthrough" for DEI, saying Siegel brings integrity and credibility to any organization with which he's associated.

Gilmore agreed, saying Siegel has re-energized a company that needed re-energizing.

"He has a lot of determination," he said. "He reminds me a lot of Dale [Earnhardt]. Second isn't good enough. He has a calm temperament like me, but he can take it to another level very quickly."

Gilmore said Siegel has brought a sense of professionalism to negotiations with Earnhardt Jr. that was lacking because of the strained relationship between NASCAR's most popular driver and DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt, Junior's stepmother.

"He keeps the emotion out," Gilmore said.

And although re-signing Earnhardt Jr. is Siegel's top priority right now, it's not why he was brought to DEI.

He has been challenged with extending the legacy of Earnhardt and building on the growing legacy of Earnhardt Jr. He has been asked to bring a sense of structure to upper management that was left without its leader when Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500.

"We have a lot of great people at DEI," Gilmore said. "We just haven't had a lot at the top, managementwise. The company has grown so fast that we haven't grown in our management staff.

"Max came in and said the first thing we have to do is add to that. I told him, 'Max, we've added more people this winter than we have in five years and you're saying we need more?' Before that, it was basically me and Teresa."

Siegel will answer directly to Teresa, who has been described as an absentee owner by many because she is seldom at the track. He talks to her on a daily basis, bridging a gap that Gilmore has tried to span the past three years while overseeing the motorsports side.

Siegel appreciated Teresa's business savvy and said she is unfairly misinterpreted by many.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for her privacy and her decision to conduct herself that way," he said.

But Siegel doesn't believe management needs a complete overhaul.

"I would say based on what I've seen in the time I've been in the organization, the most we need is to tweak things," he said. "There's no need for a reorganization or rebuilding. Nothing major needs to happen."

Country lawyer
Siegel interrupted the question in midsentence.

"I feel like I'm being given a deposition," he said.

Siegel jokingly described himself as a country lawyer, but he sounded like corporate America when talking about negotiations with Earnhardt Jr.

He's smooth and careful to make sure he doesn't say anything to tip his hand. He insisted he didn't consider whether Earnhardt Jr. would be with the organization beyond 2007 when accepting the position.

In almost the same breath, he talks about the marketing potential of the driver who has appeared in everything from Rolling Stone magazine to Playboy, whose souvenir sales are far and away No. 1 in NASCAR.

"There's a reason why he's one of the most popular athletes in this sport," Siegel said. "I think if you look at any facet of entertainment, you'll have people who are in the world-class level and then you'll have people who just kind of rise to the top of that."

Siegel hesitated to compare Earnhardt Jr.'s marketability to others he has represented in the entertainment business.

"But I will say that his appeal is really broad and it, too, transcends motorsports," he said. "So that's a great testament of who he is and how he conducts himself and what he represents."

Siegel wasn't surprised that Earnhardt Jr. said majority interest in DEI was his top priority in negotiations. He would have been disappointed had Earnhardt Jr. taken a more passive approach, saying he'd be afraid to work with somebody who wasn't aggressive.

That the two hit it off almost immediately also wasn't a surprise.

"I'm into relationships, and I think that I gravitate to someone's character," Siegel said. "To become a world-class athlete and have the kind of charisma and appeal that he has, you have to have great character.

"We just hit it off, talking about life and things in common, and all of us have focused on results in the business."

Minority interest?
Siegel didn't draw any attention as he walked through the DIS garage, but he did stand out.

In a sport that thirsts for diversity, there are few African-Americans, from fans to crew members to team executives.

"I'm very proud to be African-American," Siegel said. "The most important thing for me to do is to be the best executive that this sport and this company have seen.

"Hopefully, through that, for those who haven't had the opportunity to work with talented African-Americans, it will let them know that there are plenty out there."

The only color Gilmore sees in Siegel is green. He said Siegel already has half a dozen great ideas that will bring new money into a sport that is challenged by economic struggles of manufacturers.

"That's the biggest thing," Gilmore said. "He can touch a lot of untouched markets in New York and California that NASCAR hasn't touched yet."

Gilmore jokingly said Siegel already knows more about cars than he knows about iPods.

"I love cars, but I'll let Richie do his job and stay completely out of his way," Siegel said.

Siegel laughed again. If negotiations are taking a toll, he hides it well. His wife and childhood sweetheart, Jennifer, recently told Siegel he sounded happier than ever.

"With all this stuff people consider chaos, I attribute that to the environment," Siegel said. "Everybody at DEI has extended themselves to welcome me. People have been very open about the tough issues we need to address.

"People have been candid and honest. That makes you want to work harder to make the organization successful."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.