New Daytona President seeks to avoid potholes in business model

Joie Chitwood searching for ways to draw new fans to racing in down economy

September 15, 2010|By George Diaz

RICHMOND, Va. — Joie Chitwood has a quirky sense of humor.

Before a meet-and-greet with the media at Richmond last weekend, he read a letter from NASCAR that was addressed to him on July 12, 1995: "While we certainly appreciate your interest in NASCAR, we regrettably do not have a position available at this time."

It was signed, "Doug Fritz, director of marketing."

Fritz, standing nearby, got a nice chuckle out of the story. Fritz is now president of Richmond International Speedway. And Chitwood has parachuted into NASCAR Nation rather smoothly since the days of that rejection 15 years ago.

He is now president of Daytona International Speedway.

He's a good fit, even if he is replacing another affable, approachable chief, Robin Brag, in a staff shake-up. The business model for NASCAR is under constant renovation, reflecting a more streamlined approach given the economic pinch here, there and everywhere.

The good news for Chitwood is that the Daytona track is undergoing a complete makeover using an estimated 50,000 tons of asphalt to repave more than 1.4 million square feet. The cost: $20 million. The target date for completion of the project is Jan. 1.

The not-so-good news is that the economy still stings, meaning fewer people might be on hand to check out the inaugural run on the new pavement during Speed Weeks 2011.

"You want to make sure you have an offering for anyone who wants to attend, whether it's families or rookies who have never been to a race, or experienced folks who want to be entertained," Chitwood said. "For us that's the important thing: If you want to attend an event, we have experience and a price point that works for you. And it's tougher and tougher nowadays because there's so much competition.

"The world has changed. We can't act like it hasn't."

And so has the business model.

Chitwood plans on attracting more fans by scheduling the " Preseason Days of Thunder" in conjunction with testing. No date is set, but it's likely to be mid-January. Preseason Thunder offers fans opportunities for meet-and-greet with drivers and other experiences.

Chitwood, like everybody else in NASCAR, has to work hard to bring back fans lost in the economic shuffle.

The entire back-stretch grandstand was shut down for the July Coke Zero 400 race at Daytona, and no attempt made to sell those seats.

If anything, Chitwood has a strong selling point to get fans back: There is no reason to fear a long delay in a race because a chunk of the track rips open (see Daytona 500, 2010)

"I hate to use the word guarantee, but I guarantee there will be no potholes," Chitwood said.

gdiaz@tribune.com

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