Indianapolis native Max Siegel is used to breaking barriers.
In 1992, he was the first black student to graduate from the University of Notre Dame law school with honors.
In 2001, he became one of the youngest high-level executives at New York-based Sony BMG, taking its Zomba Gospel division to sales records while still in his 30s.
And after being named president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Dale Earnhardt Inc. Feb. 1, Siegel, 42, is now the highest-ranking minority executive in NASCAR.
The stock car racing circuit, with its Southern roots, seems an unlikely place for the former Baker & Daniels attorney and gospel music whiz kid to have landed.
"Racing is its own world," said Zak Brown, president of Indianapolis-based Just Marketing, one of NASCAR's biggest sponsorship brokers. "This is a very senior position, and he'll have to make connections very, very fast. I've seen more corporate people not connected to the sport come in and fail than succeed. I would say the industry as a whole is a little skeptical."
Siegel holds the No. 2 post at DEI, answering only to Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., for whom the firm is named. Though Earnhardt died in a Daytona 500 crash in 2001, DEI remains one of the top cash-generating teams on the NASCAR circuit.
DEI has more than 300 employees, fields three Nextel Cup teams and a Busch series team, and has its own airline to ferry the teams across the country. DEI also includes a strong licensed merchandise division, an auto dealership, and the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, developed to carry on charitable work in education, children's initiatives and environmental causes. Siegel will oversee all of that.
His first order of business is to sign driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has sometimes been at odds with his stepmother, Teresa, to a long-term contract.
Earnhardt Jr. is seeking a larger stake in the organization, and has indicated that if he doesn't get it, he'll consider starting his own team. If he walks, he'll take millions in corporate partnerships and merchandise deals with him.
"[Siegel] has his work cut out for him," Brown said.
Siegel is undaunted.
"We have every intention of signing Dale Jr. to a long-term contract," Siegel said. "We're having positive discussions about it. We want to put all this to bed."
Siegel promises the Earnhardt contract will be just the beginning of the big things he plans to accomplish during his DEI tenure.
Almost became owner
Siegel admits to having the appearance of an outsider, but said he's followed the stock car circuit closely since becoming a fan in 1989 while working as a district sales manager for General Motors Corp.
Siegel investigated starting his own NASCAR team in 2003 with former NFL team owner Eddie DeBartolo and Hall of Fame football players Reggie White and Ronnie Lott. Siegel made rounds with executives from some of NASCAR's most powerful teams, including Hendricks Motorsports, Roush Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and DEI.
But White died suddenly in 2005 just as Siegel's group was about to unveil plans to launch a team.
"After Reggie died, it just didn't seem right," Siegel said.
Siegel, who from 1992 to 1994 helped build Baker & Daniels' Sports and Entertainment Law Division, continued with Sony BMG while keeping tabs on NASCAR. Siegel became president of Sony's Zomba Gospel label, overseeing the division's global strategies.
After he joined Sony BMG in 2001, a dozen albums went gold, selling more than 500,000 copies each. In 2006, Zomba boasted a company-high 14 Grammy Award nominations.
Siegel also was on the executive team that produced pop stars Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, N'Synch, Usher and R. Kelly.
Teresa Earnhardt said she was attracted to Siegel by his entertainment experience and his sports background. During his time with Baker & Daniels and later as president of Indianapolis-based SCA Sports & Entertainment Group LLC, Siegel worked with NFL defensive great White, Major League Baseball star Tony Gwynn, the Seattle Mariners, and organizers of the Olympic and Goodwill games.
Though NASCAR has made a push for diversity over the last four years, Teresa Earnhardt said Siegel's minority status was not the deciding factor in his hiring.
"Max Siegel has the intuitive sense of what works and is innovative in an ever-changing business and social climate," Teresa Earnhardt said.
Siegel, who was born in Indianapolis to a black mother and white, Jewish father, is aware of what his minority status means for NASCAR and other minorities.
Though some crews have a sprinkling of black mechanics and other mid- to low-level minority workers, there are few minority administrators in NASCAR.
The circuit's fan base is estimated at more than 90 percent white. And the occasional Confederate flag can still be seen waving at NASCAR tracks, especially in the Southeast where the sport was born.
Siegel told the search firm that contacted him that if race was an issue, "we had to get it on the table." He said it never came up again.
Siegel said he has three primary goals at DEI: Win championships, exceed current fans' expectations, and introduce NASCAR and DEI to a new fan base.
"There are people in New York, and not just minorities, that don't even know what NASCAR is all about," Siegel said. "I think there are a lot of African-American fans of NASCAR that NASCAR has not connected with."
Though NASCAR's rapid growth has tapered off in the last two years, Siegel thinks the sport could be slightly repositioned to reach even greater heights.
"NASCAR continues to have healthy growth, but I think there's unlimited potential growth working with all minority groups," he said.
Siegel also pledged to help create internships and across-the-board opportunities for minorities within NASCAR. He promised, however, not to diversify at all costs.
"I think diversity is healthy, but diversity for the sake of diversity hurts if you don't bring in quality people," Siegel said. "I have been given every assurance that Teresa Earnhardt didn't set out to make a minority hire, and that's very special to me.
"The best thing for me to do is do a great job and have a great impact on DEI. That will open people's eyes more than anything, and open the doors that will make NASCAR more inclusive on a number of levels."
Marrying sports, entertainment
In his previous jobs, Siegel has been a media magnet, appearing multiple times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and being quoted often in The New York Times and Crain's business publications. Already, his hiring at DEI has drawn coverage from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and numerous racing publications.
Siegel's list of attributes is long, said Jack Swarbrick, a Baker & Daniels partner who hired Siegel out of law school. Aside from his intelligence, leadership and passion, his ability to meld entertainment and sports will be critical to growing DEI.
"Max is at the very top of the list of national leadership of merging entertainment and sports," said Swarbrick, a founding father of the Indiana Sports Corp. who has been instrumental in bringing myriad sports events to Indianapolis. "That skill can't be underestimated in this era of convergence. Max was thinking and talking about these things 20 years ago.
"I have no doubt he will have the team excelling on the track, but he will also turn them into a leader in marrying sports and entertainment."
Siegel already had ideas to create DEI-branded television and film properties; produce specially made NASCAR/DEI record releases, including compilations of drivers' favorite songs; and expand DEI's Web site to include downloadable racing-related computer screen backgrounds, cell phone ring tones and podcasts of race recaps and driver commentary.
Siegel, who has split time between Indianapolis and New York the last nine years, will now maintain homes in Indianapolis and Charlotte. His wife, Jennifer Satterfield Siegel, will continue to operate her growing north-side pediatric dental practice.