CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Kevin Thomas, owner of a water purification company in Vermont, won a fan contest that awarded him the opportunity to sample some different jobs in NASCAR.
There was nothing that stood out about Kevin in his Nationwide Series uniform during a July race at Daytona, but when he ran into Roger Penske, something seemed a little bit off to the longtime NASCAR team owner.
Kevin fidgeted, and pulled his hat down low as Penske peered in for a closer look.
``You look awfully familiar,'' Penske told Kevin. ``I know you.''
Kevin, it turned out, was not a contest winner at all.
He was NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps in disguise for the CBS series ``Undercover Boss.'' Phelps is the first executive from a major professional sport to take a turn on the reality program, and his experiences going undercover in the fast-paced world of auto racing is scheduled to air Sunday night.
The opportunity went to NASCAR's entertainment office in Los Angeles, and officials were interested because of the feel-good nature of the program and the ability to showcase NASCAR to the average 17.7 million viewers who tune into ``Undercover Boss.'' Problem was, Chairman Brian France and President Mike Helton were too visible throughout the industry to pull off the undercover assignment.
So it fell to Phelps, who brought a different twist to the popular program. The participants of past episodes have typically been a CEO, COO or president, and have always worked within their company.
Phelps is a NASCAR executive, and the bulk of the jobs he did were within the industry but not for NASCAR itself.
``This was about me going into our industry and giving it some new exposure,'' Phelps said. ``We thought it would be a great way to expose our fantastic sport to a new audience, and to give those who are already fans a unique view of what goes on behind the scenes.
``And I was able to give a view that every fan would want to do, while also learning things that can help me promote and market the sport.''
Phelps spent nine days in July filming the one-hour episode, doing a variety of industry-related jobs. He painted portions of Daytona International Speedway, worked with a pit crew for Hendrick Motorsports, was a tire assistant for Michael Waltrip Racing and sold concessions during a race weekend.
At each job, he was introduced as a race fan who won a contest to work in NASCAR and the camera crew following him around was for a potential documentary on his experience.
The experience was moving for Phelps, who is part of the senior executive group working tirelessly to end NASCAR's slide in attendance and television ratings.
``One of the key things I learned was there are 20,000 people who earn a living because of NASCAR, and they do this obviously because it's their job, but they also love their job,'' Phelps said. ``I think one of the key takeaways for me was that the people who work in NASCAR are some of the best brand ambassadors we have. I didn't really get that before. I love my job, but I didn't realize how many people have that same passion for their jobs. But they do.''
Phelps found that he could do none of the assigned jobs well, but that every one of them was critical to producing the best product possible for NASCAR fans.
``There are all these small pieces and each one is important to putting on the show,'' he said. ``Whether you are part of a crew or you are painting a sign at Daytona, everyone has a piece in all of this and that piece all comes out as entertainment for the fan. When you are embedded in those situations, it was driven home how each one cog is important.''

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