On NASCAR: Chitwood’s Greatest Thrill? Running the World Center of Racing

By Cathy Elliott
On NASCAR: Chitwood’s Greatest Thrill? Running the World Center of Racing

On the day Joie Chitwood III was born in Tampa, Fla., his father was not there. “My dad wasn’t at the hospital; he was driving a race car around Daytona International Speedway,” Chitwood says.

Like the famous sirens of seafaring lore, the call of the race track seems too powerful for the Chitwood family to resist. Joie’s grandfather was a Sprint Car champion who competed in the Indianapolis 500 seven times.

Perhaps a little closer to home for most of us, the senior Chitwood was also the originator of the aptly-named ‘Joie Chitwood Thrill Show,’ a stunt driving extravaganza that traversed the country for over 40 years, giving everyday Americans a taste of just how much fun watching cars could be.

In addition to being a racer himself, Chitwood’s dad, Joie Jr., continued to operate the Thrill Show after Joie Sr.’s retirement, and at the age of 5, Joie III joined the show and officially became part of the racing industry. Thirty-six years later, he’s still there – in August 2010, he was named president of Daytona International Speedway.

“I’m not sure this is ever where I thought I’d end up, but having been born and raised in Florida, having come here to Daytona when I was a teenager to watch the races, I think this job fits for me,” he says. “I get it. I think I understand the heritage and the history. I hope I can be a great caretaker for this property and do a good job. I’m excited every day that I get to come to work.”

While understanding the importance of the Daytona tradition, Chitwood also knows full well the necessity of having a clear vision for moving the track forward. As well he should – he took over his new position smack in the middle of DIS’ first repaving project in more than 30 years.

Construction and development are nothing new for Chitwood, who supervised the building of Chicagoland Speedway from farmland to its first checkered flag.

“I was named the vice president and general manager in April of 1999, the day before we closed on everything. It took us 22 months to build that property, and then I ran it for the first two seasons so I was intimately involved in everything related to Chicago. It was a heck of a learning experience for me,” he says.

That education was put to the test at Daytona, the most famous and revered speedway in the sport. The track’s new surface was probably the most closely-scrutinized asphalt in racing history. The process of pouring and smoothing it was even broadcast live on the Internet. In NASCAR terms, this is some seriously pivotal pavement.

“What we had to do at Daytona was fix something that was broken. There was no choice. We had a really tight window of opportunity to get it done, so there was no room for error,” Chitwood says. “At Chicago we had two years. We had time to make changes and enhancements and deal with issues, so the time stress wasn’t the same. You had room to operate. Here, I got named president, we were in the middle of the project, and a deadline is a deadline, so get it done.”

The project was done on time, but the work was not complete. The proof, you see, was in the pavement, and the final taste test, conducted by Goodyear in December, would determine whether or not the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers found the result pleasing to their competitive palates.

They did; the new surface proved to be fast and smooth, and everyone involved in the tire test predicted a barnburner of a Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.

The new track president, who had been holding his breath since summer, could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

“I cannot tell you how great it was to hear cars on the track. That sound, after four-and-a-half months, it was just like, ‘Yes.We did it,’” Chitwood says. “We still had GRAND-AM testing and motorcycle testing, but we passed the biggest hurdle. The biggest level of stress has left us. Now we just have to make sure all of the sanctioning bodies get their tire tests in so when they come back in the New Year they can put on a great show for the fans.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not still worried about things. But hearing those cars on the track put a big smile on my face.”

For speedway presidents, overcoming a particular obstacle offers only the briefest opportunity for celebration, because there is always a new challenge to take its place. The weather is unfailingly predictable in its unpredictability. Every hour of a race weekend throws you a curve ball, something you didn’t anticipate but must respond to quickly and correctly.

And in racing, there are no makeup dates. “That to me is always our biggest challenge – being on our game for our biggest day of the year, because we don’t get a do-over. The other ‘stick and ball sports’ have all those home games, so if you screw up an experience for someone, you can make it up to them by giving them tickets for the next game,” Chitwood says.

“That doesn’t work at Daytona. We work all year to make sure when we open our gates, we get this event right, every time. We have to be on our game all the time. We have to make sure we are doing a good job meeting our fans’ expectations, because I can’t wait 12 months to make it up to them. That’s our mantra; we have to make sure we do it right.”

Growing up as a stuntman in a family thrill show may seem an odd preparation for taking over the presidency of NASCAR’s landmark facility, but the two jobs are not so different when you really think about it.

As the Human Battering Ram, young Joie laid on the hood of a car, was driven at high speed toward a fiery wall, and would bust through the boards with his helmet.

As the Aerial Wing Walker, he stood on the side of a car while his dad drove it on two wheels. To prepare for the stunt, he says, he would practice climbing in and out of the window while the car was propped up on blocks, with his grandfather rocking it back and forth to simulate movement.

During one such practice, while young Joie was balanced on top of the car, his grandfather pushed it over on all four wheels, and he was thrown off. “I got up and looked at the chief – that’s what we called him – and said, ‘Hey, Chief, what’s going on with this?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to learn that, too.”

These early stunt moves -- the willingness to attack a wall until you break through, to survive a trial by fire, to get back up after being knocked down, to find the right balance, and perhaps to be just a little bit hard-headed – gave Chitwood an invaluable start on important life lessons which would ultimately serve him very well.

Being in the motorsports business is not easy. Schedules are not typical so-called ‘business hours,’ because when other people’s entertainment is your job, it requires a lot of work. The caretakers of a venue as legendary as Daytona International Speedway must combine equal parts education, effort and enthusiasm in order to give fans the ultimate racing experience.

Fortunately, Joie Chitwood III not only understands his guests’ love of the sport; he shares it.

“I think it was safer risking my life as a stuntman as what I’m doing now,” he laughs, “but at the end of the day I’m so happy to be where I am. I get to be involved with a special sporting event, a sport people are so passionate about. Absolutely, I am a fan. I think if you would have told me 20 years ago that this was the opportunity I would have, I would have said you were crazy, and that you would have had better odds buying a lottery ticket. But here I am.

“I count myself lucky every day.”

Cathy Elliott, former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.