Joie Chitwood is a man on the move these days. Catch him if you can.
He is calling from Charlotte, N.C., on a Tuesday morning, taking a quick break from updating NASCAR officials on one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the sport: a $400-million makeover on the frontstretch of Daytona International Speedway.
As president of the track, Chitwood has embraced this baby like one of his own. And like any good parent, he is thinking long past the due date of 2016 when the project is set to be completed for the Daytona 500.
The concept of stock cars rolling round-and-round is obvious to the naked eye. But Chitwood sees the bigger picture: college games, NFL games, major concerts. Just recently, Chitwood said that two major concert promotion companies have looked at the venue. There has been some rumblings about an MMA event, too.
And just last week, Chitwood joined driver Jamie McMurray for a Coke Zero 400 promotional pit stop at the Jacksonville Jaguars training complex, where he speculated about the natural tie-in with bringing a Jags game to his refurbished venue.
The Jags, who play in one of the smallest markets in the NFL, already are scheduled to play one home game a year in London through 2016 and are actively seeking to build brand awareness regionally as well.
Anything and everything is on the table when it comes to Daytona Rising.
“There’s no rush,” Chitwood said. “If we do add an event, I want it to be done exactly right. It’s an interesting conversation now with this massive renovation.”
Chitwood — who used to be launched out of a cannon back in the day when he worked for his family entertainment business — is the perfect man to oversee this project.
There will be some roll of the eyes at the thought of spending all this money on renovating a NASCAR track. Just look at the other monsters that sprung up during the NASCAR boom a little more than a decade ago. The empty seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway and other tracks reflect the struggle to bring in those massive crowds that were once the norm.
But Chitwood sees things differently. He sees fans buying into amenities like 14 elevators and 40 escalators that will bring fans no farther than 20 rows from their seats.
There will also be more than 101,000 wider and more comfortable grandstand seats plus more bathrooms. Another modern twist: Adding “social neighborhoods” the size of a football field to allow fans to gather while watching the race.
“We’re creating the future,” Chitwood said. “We’re planting the flag. No one has done anything like this. We’re true to the core and representing the brand. It’s what we need to do to be there for the next 50-plus years.”
The makeover prompted racing icon Richard Petty to say during Speedweeks: “Looks like Daytona’s doing a really good job of saying, ‘OK, guys, rest of you speedways is got to get in line and we’ve got to get a stadium instead of just a racetrack.”
Petty’s grammar may make English teachers cringe, but he is exactly on point.
Bring on the racing. And some football games and concerts, too.
Joie Chitwood is on the move, but he’s always ready to talk business.
JUNIOR FORGETS NEWMAN
Memo to anyone in NASCAR’s inner circle looking for a ride some day:
Don’t ask Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt left Ryan Newman stranded at an airport in Charlotte last Friday morning, forgetting that Newman had arranged to hitch a ride to get to the race at Michigan International Speedway.
“Weekend started off on wrong foot. Left @RyanJNewman at the airport. Forgot he was riding with us. Imma pay for this one,” Earnhardt tweeted on Friday.
Earnhardt confessed he simply messed up.
“I didn’t look at my calendar and when I got up this morning, I didn’t look at the clock. I just got in the shower, went downstairs, got in the car and drove to the airport and got in the plane,” Earnhardt told reporters. “I forgot about Ryan.”
Newman was able to hitch a flight with Dale Jarrett, and made it to the track on time.
“It was just an honest mistake, I think,” Newman said. “He forgot. I don’t think it was by any means on purpose.”
Jeff Gordon is having a bit of buyer’s remorse when he tried to sell people on the notion that he would retire if he won his fifth Cup championship, and first since 2001. He mentioned that in passing during Speedweeks in Daytona in February.
So far, he’s right on course, leading Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson by 15 points atop the standings.
“Man, I’m just trying to go out on top,” he said, laughing in Michigan last weekend. “I have always said that the combinations are being healthy, being competitive and just enjoying myself out there. I felt like if those first two things are working for me, then the last is going to come as well. As long as that is there, then I want to keep doing it. Obviously, I’m enjoying myself a lot right now. “
RAY FOX REMEMBERED
The NASCAR family lost another beloved member this week in Ray Fox, considered one of NASCAR’s top engine builders and mechanics in the 1950s and ‘60s. Fox, 98, died at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona on Father’s Day, with his family by his side.
Fox worked with such distinguished company as Junior Johnson, David Pearson and Buck Baker. Although he was credited for just 14 victories as a car owner, he was the lead engine builder and mechanic for a considerably larger number of victories.
“Ray Fox was one of the individuals who helped form the foundation of our sport, with a personality that was every bit as important as his on-track accomplishments,” NASCAR said in a statement. “His place in our record book is secure, but no one should ever view Ray Fox solely in terms of statistics.”
Fox had spent his last years living in Daytona Beach and serving as an ambassador of sorts for the sport. He recently celebrated his 98th birthday at the Living Legends Museum in South Daytona on May 24.