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Siegel's NASCAR future in doubt after merger

November 24, 2008
Max Siegel's life has been full of adversity and challenges. The former Baker & Daniels attorney turned NASCAR team executive should feel right at home at the ever-morphing Dale Earnhardt Inc., which is making cuts that could land Siegel back in Indianapolis.

The company for which Siegel has served as president of global operations since early 2007 announced this month that it will merge with Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team. The combined six-car Earnhardt-Ganassi team will be trimmed to four next year. Already, Siegel has cut 116 of about 300 employees from his staff. Ganassi officials declined to comment about changes to their staff.

"It's gut-wrenching to go through and make those decisions," Siegel said. "You're balancing the best interests of the business and the impact you're having on somebody's life. It's very emotional."

Everyone cut at DEI got severance packages and outplacement counseling, Siegel said. But that hasn't made it easier.

"It was a very tough week," he said.

No one in NASCAR thinks the cuts are over at DEI. Many wonder if Siegel, the first high-ranking black NASCAR executive, will be next. Siegel said he's unsure what his future holds, but is committed to staying at DEI at least until the merger is complete.

Sources within both teams said Siegel's fate will be determined in the next four to six weeks. One source close to the merger talks said an announcement could come as soon as Thanksgiving.

"There's no doubt there will be serious streamlining at both DEI and at Ganassi," said Speedway Illustrated Executive Editor Dick Berggren. "No position is above scrutiny."

Siegel is prized for his expertise as both a business operator and a marketer. But Steve Lauletta, president of Ganassi Racing, is also a star marketer, having worked stints for Miller Brewing Co. and New York-based Radiate Sports Group.

Few doubt Siegel would fall on the sword for the good of his company and his employees. Most hope that won't happen.

"He's built a reputation as a solid businessman who will do whatever is needed for the good of his company," Berggren said. "He's become very well-respected in a short time in NASCAR. This guy doesn't have a single enemy."

If Siegel, 43, does get axed, NASCAR sources said someone else should find room for the highest-ranking minority executive on the stock car circuit.

"Max Siegel is a keeper in this sport," said Zak Brown, president of locally based Just Marketing International, which has brokered several sponsorship deals in NASCAR. "His background in diversity and cultural marketing adds a lot to his team and to NASCAR."

There's also speculation that Siegel could be sought by a number of Indianapolis-based sports — and entertainment-related operations.

In his two seasons at DEI, Siegel improved internal communications and accountability systems, started a minority driver development program, and diversified the team's marketing to broaden DEI's fan following beyond NASCAR's traditionally white audience. Siegel did all this while dealing with the rift between team owner Teresa Earnhardt and her stepson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale Jr., arguably NASCAR's most popular driver, left the team in late 2007 after Siegel failed to broker a deal between the two. Junior reportedly sought a majority ownership stake. When Teresa Earnhardt declined, he left and took about $30 million in sponsorship revenue with him.

"[Siegel] has accomplished a lot while dealing with some pretty difficult circumstances," said Mel Poole, president of Sponsorlogic, a Charlotte, N.C.-based motorsports marketing consultancy.

Dealing with difficult circumstances is nothing new for Siegel. Born in Indianapolis, young Max and his sister were at the center of an ugly divorce. Max's mother gained custody, but his father took 5-year-old Max and his 2-year-old sister and fled. About six years later, Max Siegel's father became ill and died. He and his sister were reunited with their mother, who was struggling financially.

Siegel put himself through school and in 1992 became the first African-American to graduate with honors from the University of Notre Dame's law school.

After working at Baker & Daniels for three years, Siegel formed Indianapolis-based SCA Sports & Entertainment Group LLC, where he represented baseball player Tony Gwynn and football star Reggie White. In 1998, he became a music industry executive, initially working for New York-based Tommy Boy Gospel, before helping New York-based Sony BMG launch Zomba Gospel. Under Siegel's watch, Zomba became the world's largest gospel record company.

Siegel split time between Indianapolis and New York, then Charlotte, before moving with his wife and three young children to North Carolina full time in late 2007.

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