Kelly Antonelli and Megan Fessel-Schumacher are breaking barriers as NHRA executives in a male-driven industry
Two title-contending teams in the NHRA's top two professional classes have one thing in common -- women in top management positions.
Kelly Antonelli is the operations manager for John Force Racing, which is in first place in the Funny Car point standings and second in Top Fuel. The 47-year-old with an undergraduate degree in business management had planned to become a paralegal or a lawyer when she started college. Instead, she ended up in racing and has been with JFR for 20 years.
Megan Fessel-Schumacher, on the other hand, grew up around racing and always envisioned her future in it. After earning a bachelor's degree in business and a masters in marketing, the 28-year-old became vice president of Don Schumacher Racing, which is third in the Funny Car standings. Yes, Don Schumacher is her father, but he made it clear he wasn't giving his daughter any handouts. He told her she needed "to take the business away" from him.
"And she's doing that through decisions she continues to grow into and decisions that she makes and how I rely on her for input," Don Schumacher said. "She's more of a people person possibly than I am with the staff. That's been a positive, but it's also been a learning experience for her ... to learn that you can't have your employees actually be a friend. It has amazed me that she's gotten to this point."
Fessel-Schumacher wasn't surprised when her father told her she had to take the business from him. She expected it.
"He gives us (his children) this platform and this chance to do it, but it's up to us to actually do it," she said. "He works constantly, so I knew at a young age that was how I needed to conduct myself to be successful down the road."
Both women are instrumental in implementing their race teams' marketing programs, making sure sponsorship activation runs smoothly and that the social media platforms are covered.
"I like seeing visions come to life," Fessel-Schumacher said.
For DSR, that includes its two charity teams started by Doug and Terry Chandler. Prior to Terry's death in July 2017, she used the NHRA to promote the Infinite Hero and Make-A-Wish foundations. She funded the Funny Cars driven by Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr., bringing publicity to each of the foundations. Today, her husband continues the program and funds the two race teams.
"I worked hand-in-hand with Terry as she built the program from the start," Fessel-Schumacher said. "For us to be able to continue on what meant the world to her means everything to me.
"I have always learned from Don how important it is to give back, but being able to talk to these soldiers when they've come home and hear about their experiences through the Infinite Hero Foundation and seeing [everything] the Make-A-Wish kids and their families have to go through, it really puts in perspective what life is about."
DSR has granted four wishes specifically related to their drivers or racing. Last year, a girl wished to make and eat pizza with Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett. For the three other kids, the wishes were more straightforward: One wanted to race, one wanted to win a race, and another, a blind boy, wanted to race a Pro Stock motorcycle.
"He got to get on a Pro Stock motorcycle. They fired it up so he could feel the vibrations and feel as if he was driving it," Fessel-Schumacher said.
A high energy level is required for their jobs, since both women work long hours and are constantly multitasking. But Antonelli's quiet but strong personality has provided an "everything will be OK feeling," she said, even in tumultuous times at JFR. It's that personality that enabled the organization to prepare its new Top Fuel team, with driver Austin Prock, just five days before the season opener at Pomona, California. That included providing proper uniforms, the awning, a decaled transporter and a car -- a job that normally takes months to complete.
"John [Force] doesn't realize everything that's done. He just knows it gets done," Antonelli said. "There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that John's not involved in, day-to-day things that make the place function."
She initially was brought into John Force Racing to handle licensing and sponsor relations. Today, she oversees the computer system, uniforms, making sure the teams are doing what they're supposed to be doing. At the track, that means managing all of the sponsors attending the event and working to coordinate appearances for all of JFR's drivers.
"I am the face to the sponsors, interact with them, make sure we're doing trackside what we should be doing," Antonelli said. "We have a huge hospitality program now. I help oversee that.
"When I started here we were a two-car team. Now we're a four-car team. When the girls (Ashley, Courtney and Brittany Force) came on (the team as drivers), it brought us to a whole different level because people were interested in females. That elevated the marketing opportunities and changed how we approach things. Gave us something new to promote."
Antonelli works closely with Force's daughter Adria Hight, who is the team's CFO. Like many of the NHRA teams, it's a family operation. Force is the CEO, Adria's husband, Robert Hight, is the company president, and Ashley Force Hood is the vice president.
"He's (John Force) very selective. He's very involved in the hiring of key people," Antonelli said. "He tries to make it more of a family atmosphere, and when he picks someone for a key role, he wants to know that they're going to fit in with his family and the people that are already here."
Antonelli's calm demeanor is the opposite of John Force's. She said it took her four or five years to learn Force's way of doing things. She then tried to stay a step ahead of the 16-time Funny Car champion. Still, it took three or four years for Force to allow Antonelli to be involved with a sponsor agreement or sponsor negotiations.
"I totally understand that. It's his livelihood that he built from scratch," Antonelli said. "Robert, [Force's] daughter Adria, and I all kinda fit that role of people that if he tells us to go work out something with a sponsor, he knows we're not going to say or do the wrong thing. We all have his best interest in mind of what's best for the company. There are only a handful of people he trusts if we have to negotiate and give in a little bit on something."
Since John Force and Robert Hight both compete as drivers, Antonelli tries not to bother them with business issues until the race is over. They have sponsor meetings and discuss business on qualifying days. There also is a master schedule listing everyone's weekend responsibilities and appearances on a computer in one of the team's vehicles. It's not unusual for Antonelli to entertain more than 100 people, many of them sponsors, on a single day at the track.
"Flexibility is the key," Antonelli said. "You have to be willing to go with the flow and be accommodating."
The racing part of it has become so backseat to the social media, the marketing, promotions, store promotions, doing business with each other.Kelly Antonelli
Antonelli got to know John Force Racing when she was working for Mac Tools. She saw a need for her talent and knowledge at JFR and proceeded to show the organization how it could benefit from hiring her.
"When we needed John, we went directly to John," Antonelli said about her 10-year tenure with Mac Tools. "I always felt there needed to be a marketing person. I saw the need and I thought I could fill that role. My duties have changed quite a bit since I started, but I guess it's because I've been willing to take on more. [Force is] a go-getter, and he wants someone with that same mentality, someone that can keep up with him and his energy level. He wants someone who has the same work ethic that he has."
Marketing and social media have moved to the forefront in the NHRA. Sponsors look for business-to-business opportunities more than ever before. Antonelli described the "off-track stuff" as "critical."
"The racing part of it has become so backseat to the social media, the marketing, promotions, store promotions, doing business with each other," Antonelli said. "We could win every race, and if we're not getting them (sponsors) business or doing the promotions, then it's not working for them.
"When I first started [with JFR] it was about newspapers and TV. Now it's social media first, television second, and if you get the newspapers, that's great. We still do press clipping reports every quarter, but a big part of that is the social media report. As drivers and a team, they want us actively engaging in social media."
Even though the two women's leadership styles are different, they both have the same advice to anyone wishing to follow in their footsteps -- work hard, and don't burn any bridges.
"Everything I have done, I have really worked hard at, built relationships at the same time," Antonelli said. "Don't get frustrated and have the ability to travel."
Colleges and universities offer marketing and sports management programs, but learning by experience, keeping an eye on what's occurring in the world and keeping an open mind are essential.
"Don't expect to come into the role, but earn the role," Antonelli said.
Deb Williams has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She was the 1990 and 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.