On NASCAR: From a fan to The Man

By Cathy Elliott
On NASCAR: From a fan to The Man

Roger Curtis is strolling through the opulent lobby of the Bellagio Hotel, wearing Skechers with his sport coat.

It may seem an odd choice of outfit for the event to which it is being worn – the Myers Brothers Awards Ceremony, held annually during NASCAR Champion’s Week in Las Vegas. But for Curtis, the incongruity makes perfect sense.

This, after all, is the same guy who as a kid read the entire encyclopedia from A to Z – several times – then cut photos of the 33 starting drivers in the Indianapolis 500 out of the newspaper each year and staged mock races on the oval rug in his living room.

“I was always a huge race fan,” says the Terre Haute, Ind. native. “Even as a little kid I knew how big the Indy 500 was for us. It was still the greatest spectacle in racing. We didn’t have diecast cars or any cool racing toys for kids like they do these days, but I would cut out all 33 pictures and I would race the pieces of paper.”

Even way back then, Curtis was willing to do whatever it took to be a part of racing.

Indiana has no shortage of professional sporting events. Other than the obvious Indianapolis 500, the Colts and the Pacers have enjoyed major success over the years, and the public adulation that comes along with it. And Curtis did participate in organized sports during his school years, describing himself as “OK at basketball and track, but not so good at baseball.”

There often seems to be no rhyme or reason to our personal preferences. Some people think a Thai chili pepper makes a tasty treat, while others have an insatiable appetite for sweets. Some can’t get enough of cheerful yellow, while others prefer a more tranquil blue.

Whatever the reason, it was the racetrack that called Roger’s name. He saw his first live race when his uncle took him and his cousin to The Action Track, a half mile of dirt located on the Vigo County Fairgrounds, when he was about 12 years old. “That was it. I wanted to go to every race I could get to,” he says. He and his cousin would save up their allowance money to help pay for gas. As teenagers, when his sister was sneaking out of the house to go to parties like other kids her age, the boys were sneaking out to go to the racetrack.

“I don’t know what it was about the speed and the cars and the excitement. I saw Ken Schrader and guys like that racing in places no one’s ever heard of when they were teenagers and in their early 20s. The Indy 500 was just so big that I became enamored with it, and that quickly translated into NASCAR. This was back when they showed 20 laps from Darlington on ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports.’ We didn’t have cable, and when CBS started covering three races live (Daytona, Talladega and Michigan), to get to see those three races was just phenomenal.”

Curtis went on to study engineering at Purdue University for a couple of years, which he describes as “a very expensive lesson in what I didn’t want to do,” and earned a degree in marketing from Indiana State University before heading off to California for a job in the music industry. Later, he moved to North Carolina and worked hard at making his customers happy in the Mexican restaurant where he waited tables.

These days, his job still revolves around making his customers happy, although their ‘plate’ tastes run more toward restrictors than refried beans. Roger Curtis is the president of Michigan International Speedway.

Those tacos, by the way, did manage to accomplish one good thing. Roger met Marla, whom he would eventually marry, when she came into the restaurant to apply for a job. Marla, it turned out, was a NASCAR fan whose dad had been attending races at his local track since it opened.

Coincidentally, if you believe in such things, that local track was Michigan International Speedway.

Despite his love of the sport, Roger had never attended a NASCAR race. He saved up enough money to surprise Marla on her birthday with a couple of tickets to the upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Charlotte. He couldn’t afford tickets for the Nationwide Series race, but they went up a day early anyhow, and spent Saturday afternoon ambling through the midway, checking out the souvenir selection and getting the general lay of the land.

Marla mentioned to her ‘rookie’ date that after the Nationwide Series races ended, the Cup guys generally went on the track for a final practice session. “No one was at the gate, so we went in and the cars had not even gone on the track. They were just sitting there on pit road, idling their engines and waiting.”

That’s when it happened, that moment when time seems to stand still and you feel a part of something greater than yourself. “I don’t know what it was, the enormity of the facility or the sound of the engines, but this was my moment. This was the moment when I went from being a fan to thinking, ‘This is going to be my career. Done. Monday I’m going to start finding a job in NASCAR,’” Curtis says.

Unfortunately, the process tends to take a bit longer than the decision. Curtis bought a copy of the weekly racing magazine “NASCAR Scene” and started making phone calls, trying to convince the people he actually succeeded in reaching that he was serious about racing as a career, not just a fan looking for the proverbial inside track. This included respected racing writer Deb Williams; Karen Woodruff, who worked in the public relations office at Charlotte Motor Speedway; and driver Dave Marcis.

“Dave had no sponsorship at the time. He didn’t know what to think of me. I started calling companies and trying to find him a sponsor.  I typed my proposals on a typewriter and left spaces in them for pictures I cut out from magazines, and I made color copies at Kinko’s, “ Curtis says. “Karen saw me doing all this and after several months she said, ‘OK, you’re sincere. Your proposals – while crude -- are good.’ She got me an interview with Bobby Allison Motorsports, and I ended up getting a job.”

Granted, it wasn’t exactly a glamorous gig. Curtis was hired for one purpose and one purpose only – to find sponsorship. That task was no easier then than it is today, but after months of doing banquet setup at the Holiday Inn in Wrightsville Beach and eating macaroni and cheese on a card table while Marla worked three jobs just to pay their astronomical phone bill, it was a $17,000 start.

“They handed me the Yellow Pages and a telephone. I didn’t go to the races. I couldn’t even get a Hut Stricklin T-shirt out of them. They did give me a box of Tic Tacs, though,” Curtis laughs.

Fresh breath may take you far, but fresh action will take you farther. One day, while hanging out with the guys in the parts department, a shipment arrived. The big, yellow boxes were hard to ignore. “What’s this?” Curtis asked. The answer – “It’s a new tool we ordered from this DeWalt place. It’s a division of Black and Decker. They make stuff for contractors. Hey, maybe you should call them.”

He did, and something unexpected happened; he got through. “You would always call and ask for the head guy but you would never get anyone but a thousand gatekeepers. So I called and asked who the VP of marketing was and I asked if they could put me through, and then a guy picks up on the other end and says, “This is Tracy.”

Tracy Bilbrough, director of marketing for DeWalt and the current president and CEO of Quality Home Brands, LLC, not only took the call, but was receptive to the caller. “He liked my attitude, he was interested and knew the demographics were a good fit, and he wanted to go to a race,” Curtis says.

Ultimately, DeWalt clicked with the sport, but not with the team, and Curtis was faced with yet another decision. He had a sponsor, but no team; what to do?

“I decided that a person I thought was trustworthy was Bill Davis. Jeff Gordon was running for him at the time. They were getting ready to move up to the Cup level, and so I called Bill,” he says.

Curtis’ bravery did have its limits, however. He didn’t want to get fired so he took somewhat of a clandestine route. NASCAR was racing at Darlington that weekend so he gave Davis a fake name and asked if they could meet halfway at a restaurant on Friday night. Incredibly, Davis agreed, and Curtis told him the whole story … sort of. “I told him I’ve got this sponsor. They don’t want to go with the team I’m working for, and they really like you. Bill must have thought I was a complete idiot … but he stayed.”

Davis had a question of his own, though – “What do you need from me?”

“I kind of need a job. You’re going to have to trust that I’m telling you the truth,” Curtis replied.

Davis called on Monday morning and made an offer, and Curtis sang like a canary. He said, “Bill, here’s my real name, here’s who the sponsor is, and if you don’t want to hire me, I understand.”

“Nope, let’s go get it done,” said Davis.

Soon after, Jeff Gordon decided to leave Bill Davis Racing, which picked up both Bobby Labonte and a full-time sponsor commitment from Maxwell House. DeWalt agreed to sponsor a full season with Bobby Dotter in the Nationwide Series, but two days before Christmas, Roger got the call that after a last-minute budget meeting, the race program had been cut.

“I had just gotten home from buying my wife a really nice necklace, and I was going to make a nice dinner, and I was devastated. That was one of the lowest points in my life up to then. I couldn’t believe how much I had put into this and now it was over,” he says. “I immediately called Bill. He said ‘Roger, don’t return the necklace, make dinner, I’m gonna keep paying you. You’re on to something; keep digging.’

“I’ll never forget that. He didn’t have to do that. He was going Cup racing, and he had Maxwell House; he had everything. He and Gail did that out of the goodness of their hearts, and it carried me through. I would not be here now if not for them.”

These days, if a team owner received a call like that, he would most likely scratch his head and say, “Huh?” Such mentor-type relationships are rare in today’s corporate environment. They are not rungs of a ladder that you climb, but the building blocks that form a foundation that props you up and keeps you stable as you continue on your journey, wherever it may take you.

That foundation of friendship continued to propel Curtis forward. One week prior to Speedweeks at Daytona, DeWalt agreed to sponsor Dotter’s car for the first five races of the season. That handful of events led into the rest of the season, and the season after that.

Eventually, Curtis went from the team to the track, working as the director of marketing and sales at Watkins Glen International, the senior director of marketing and sales at Richmond International Raceway, and the vice president of sales and marketing at California Speedway.

His return to California was less than triumphant, from a personal standpoint. The job was a stepping stone to places where he really wanted to be – proposed new tracks in Seattle, Wash. and Denver, Col. – but as time passed, and the economy faltered, it became evident that those projects would not come to fruition.

“I called (International Speedway Corporation President) John Saunders and said, ‘You should know as a friend how miserable I am. I’m not asking you to do anything for me, but it’s that bad.”

On Curtis’ return from a vacation in Utah, the unthinkable happened yet again. He went to the office the next day hoping for good news, but there was nothing. Then, during lunch with his co-workers, his cell phone rang. The caller was Sean Belgrade, vice president of marketing for ISC at the time, who said. ‘Roger, the president of Michigan has just resigned. You should call John.’

As if on cue, another call came in; it was Saunders. “He said, ‘Roger, what’re you doing this summer?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know; you tell me.’ And he said, ‘How about becoming the president at MIS?’ And that’s how it happened,” Curtis says.

Like a certain brand of car, or that perfect pair of shoes, some racetracks seem to fit just right.  “I love the Michigan area. I love the outdoors. I love nature and being away from things. This is a beautiful part of the country. It got us closer to our families, so that was great. But I’ll say this; when we got the call, my first phone call was to Marla, and I said, ‘I have good news, and I have bad news. The good news is I got this job, but the bad news is that we’re going to struggle and I hope I don’t get fired because MIS is going to be in trouble the next few years. It’s going to be a long, long road in Michigan.’”

Roger and the recession hit Michigan at roughly the same time, and the road has indeed been challenging. But another life-changing moment showed Curtis how to navigate these new obstacles.

“The first day I walked in and I actually could stand and look out the window for a minute, and I saw the seats I sat in to watch the races. That changed everything,” he says. “It just hit me -- I sat right there as a fan. I remember how much those seats cost, how long the lines were, how bad the traffic was here. I hadn’t gotten a driver’s autograph in ages. I hadn’t seen them out on pit road. Wow. We needed to change things, and we were going to change them here.”

And just like that, a new philosophy of racetrack management was born, one where the facility and the staff didn’t just play host to the fans, but actually became one of them.  Major concerns were addressed, and in fact, fans now consider MIS as one of the best NASCAR venues in terms of traffic management.

In corporate America, there is a certain set of unwritten rules it is assumed you must follow. Things like the bottom line is the most important item on the page, or that you can’t be both an administrator and a fan, or that when faced with a decision between enthusiasm and professionalism, you can choose only one. But is this necessarily the case? Just ask the guy in the Skechers and the sport coat.

From a business standpoint, Curtis says the track can still hit a bottom line, but it will be because every decision and every action at MIS is based on the guests.  “We know that we will never be perfect for our guests, but they are seeing that we are sincere in our efforts and genuinely care about the fans.  This view of our business is changing the track/fan relationship for the better; not just at MIS, I hope, but for our entire sport,” he says. “To roll out a vision statement of creating lasting memories for every person, every time, has literally become our culture, what drives our budget, our marketing, what we do every day. Within the family of NASCAR tracks, Michigan is different. It’s the reason why, in the 50th-worst economy, we still had 100,000 people at each of our Cup races last year. It is genuine, honest, and sincere.

“It’s not just some statement hanging on the wall in a frame. It is real.”

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