Joie Chitwood took over last month as the president of Daytona International Speedway, making him just the second person to have been track president at both DIS and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He's also a former stunt driver for his family's famed auto thrill show. Thursday, the 41-year-old Tampa native shared his thoughts on the repaving at DIS, which is well underway in the wake of February's pothole-plagued Daytona 500, what Florida means to him, and what it's like to be a human battering ram.
Q: You have had a lot of jobs in your career but a lot of people, when they hear the name Joie Chitwood, think of your family's stunt show. You were involved with that from age 5. What exactly does a car stunt-driving show do with a 5-year-old?
A: (Laughs) Well, I'll even back up and tell you how we got to Tampa. My grandfather started the stunt show back in 1943 (they ran it from 1943-98). It was originally based out of Reading, Pa. My dad went to high school there. My grandfather loved playing the Tampa Fair so much that he thought it would be a great place to move the show; we wold do the show from June to October. When we got back to Pennsylvania in November, it was not good weather to work on the cars and equipment. So he moved everybody to down Tampa in the '60s and I was born here in 1969. At an early age, at age 5, I was a performer in the stunt show. I drove a little mini go-kart, a miniature Corvette. I'd ride with my dad when he would perform stunts, I would be with some of the clown acts just as a time-filler. When I was age 8 I drove a miniature Indy car that was given to us by Evel Knievel. Evel Knievel credits seeing my family's stunt show at the fairgrounds in Butte, Mont., where he grew up, as his inspiration to be a stuntman.
Things got really serious for me when I was 14. I was in Delaware at the state fair and the TV show That's Incredible was coming to film us. So I did a couple of stunts that day. I did something called the aerial wing walk. My dad would drive the car on two wheels; he would drive the car up the ramp, catch the balancing point and drive around the track while the car was on two wheels. I was in the passenger's seat, I would climb out the window, stand on the side of the car and I would basically almost surf. So that was my real initiation into being a Chitwood and being a stuntman.
I did something called the human battering ram. I would lay on the hood of the car, I had a firesuit on and a helmet, and they would drive me through a fiery wall. I would break the boards with my head. When I sit back and I think about my preparation to be in motorsports management, I can't think of anything more appropriate than learning how to do the human battering ram to prepare me to be the president of a superspeedway. There are a couple of days when you bang your head against the wall and can't break through. But you can't stop trying.
My family has owned tickets to the Daytona 500 for over 26 years. I can remember going over when I was a young man and enjoying it. So now the chance 20-some years later, I get to be the president of Daytona. For a kid growing up in Tampa, being involved as a performer, I never thought I'd be on this side of it. So for me it's a great opportunity.
Q: What was the rest of your life like growing up in Tampa?
A: I went to Jesuit High School (and) St. John's Episcopal School. So I would go out on the road in June and drive until Labor Day weekend, I would start school late. I had a fairly normal existence, I was on the wrestling team in high school, ran around with my buddies, had a good time. When I was in college at the University of Florida (degree in business administration and finance) my last couple of years I would stay on the road through October and just do the spring semester (at UF). I was performing almost everything in the stunt show at that point.
In 1993 I was out of school and I had distinct ideas about what we should do. My father and my Uncle Tim were thinking a bit differently and we really couldn't come to an agreement. So I decided to leave (and) get a graduate degree at USF. Then in the summer of 1995.
I decided to send out two resumes. The two biggest names in motorsports I could think of, Tony George (then head of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and Bill France Jr. I got hired by Indy to help build Walt Disney World Speedway, met the right people, shook the right hands. They gave me a full-time job in the Indy Racing League. I was (involved in) Chicagoland Speedway and what was interesting about that was that it was a partnership between the Hulman-George family and (the Frances). I get named vice president and general manager. I'm working for both families. I have to go build a $135 million, 75,000-seat racetrack in Joliet, Ill. I was 30 years old. Talk about pressure. And here's all I could think of: I screwed it up, I'd have to pick a new industry, because there's no one left to work for. (Later on) I was promoted to president at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After 41/2 years I felt like it was time (to leave). What else is out there? Lo and behold I got a call from the folks in Daytona Beach, and I was offered an opportunity to be vice president of business operations at (International Speedway Corp.) They thought I was doing a good enough job that they made me president at Daytona.
If you had told me I would have built a racetrack, I would have run Indianapolis, and I would be running Daytona, I'm not sure I would have reached as high for those goals. But I'm really excited. I think I'm more excited now than ever before because I can do it from my home state. … I lived in the Midwest for 14 years. There's nothing better than being in Florida in February. I think that's what Daytona's got going on.
Q: Do you feel like you're competing against more things than ever?
A: Oh goodness. We're competing with everything. And it's even tougher now. Unfortunately for our customers, they have no clarity in the future. And so it's tough for them to make a purchase well in advance of an event. I think a lot of people have changed their buying habits. So what's most important right now? Being employed. Making mortgage payments. Making sure the basics are handled. And so for us that sports decision, that discretionary income spent, is now farther down the list. So we have to hope when they're able to make that buy, that we are the right choice for them. But it's as tough now as it's ever been and everyone is feeling the pain. … Sports tend to take a back seat to putting food on the table.
Q: Do you feel like the track is still recovering from what happened in February (when a pothole opened in the track during the Daytona 500, twice delaying the race)?
A: I think if there's a No. 1 thing for me to do, it's (to) make sure that I help rebuild our customers' confidence in the experience at Daytona. We are a phenomenal racing facility that has put on some of the best shows in NASCAR history. Unfortunately the red flag and the pothole did not allow us to give the fans the show they deserve. So our goal this year is to make sure with the repaving that we give the fans what they expect, which is a first-class event in Daytona Beach. We have so many customers who have made it a family tradition to come to our event. We have to make sure that we rebuild the trust so they can keep doing it. I will tell you this: They're not going to change the date of the 2011 Daytona 500. It's happening whether we're ready or not. We're going to be ready. But it's a massive undertaking. We started in July, tearing up the asphalt and rebuilding the racetrack all the way from the base through four layers of asphalt.
Q: One positive is the weather here. If this happens at Dover or New Hampshire, there are four (winter) months where you can't do anything to the track.
A: Thanks goodness that we're in Florida. If the weather cooperates like it should we can work around the clock. We've completed the frontstretch and backstretch with four layers of new asphalt. We have two layers done in Turns 3 and 4… Everybody understands the stress of the project. This is NASCAR's biggest and best event and it has to be done exactly right. We have to be 100 percent, 99 percent isn't going to cut it. There's an expectation of perfection and that's what we're going to strive for.
Q: You were not the president when the pothole incident happened, what were you thinking at the time?
A: I was in race control. Part of my role was to oversee all the tracks (with ISC). It was a very stressful environment. The weather was working against us, it was about 45 degrees and it had rained the day before. I then was out on the track supervising the material they put in it during the second red flag. So I was very intimate with the details going on. I was not a rookie but I didn't have the total responsibility on my shoulder like the former president (Robin Braig). But you know what? At the end of the day I'm a stuntman. I know what's it's like risking my life for a job. Part of this job is a little bit of risk but I'm okay. We can handle that.
Q: What was your biggest impetus for leaving the Indianapolis job?
A: I had been there for 61/2 years and accomplished so much, I brought a MotoGP (motorcycle race) in there and was able to create plans for their centennial. Unfortunately they were going through some family challenges (when Tony George was forced out as CEO).
Q: And Tony George was your ticket into the job.
A: Yes he was. But I think having been born in Florida, and my son was 8 at the time, I just felt like, what's next? So I had started to talk to some sports properties outside of racing but (by) blind luck, I got a call from someone in Daytona. So I think it was only a natural progression. It was unfortunate that the (Hulman-George) family went through such a public display of the inner workings of their company. That really had nothing to do with it; I had already started my process.
Q: Did you feel that (Tony George) situation coming?
A: A little bit, but I never though it would play out the way it did so publicly. I was in a family business in which I chose to leave. Families are tough enough when you're in business together; to play it out in the media can really be challenging. I thought my timing was probably pretty good to move on to a new opportunity.
Q: Do you think there's a fundamental difference between a NASCAR audience and an IndyCar audience?
A: No doubt. I think it has to do with a generational experience. NASCAR's growth has captured a little bit of a younger crowd, a crowd that was just learning about racing. And those people were looking at Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon as their icons. I think the fans of IndyCar racing are going to name an A.J. Foyt or a Mario Andretti. They tend to have a star from the past where a NASCAR fan is more current because you have current stars right now who are so popular — Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon.