Friday, August 13, 2010

Chitwood has come from Tampa stunt shows to run American racing’s two biggest arenas

(2005 article from when Chitwood was in his second year as president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

BYLINE: BRANT JAMES

St. Petersburg Times, 2005

Joie Chitwood admits his 36 years have been unusual. Born into a family that barnstormed the country for four decades as the stunt-driving Chitwood Thrill Show, a staple of state fairs and dragstrips, Chitwood grew up in Tampa, attended Jesuit High School and went on to earn a bachelor's degree at the University of Florida and an MBA at USF.

Daring to think big, and yearning to use his education to return to his family roots in racing (his grandfather raced seven Indy 500s from 1940-50), he applied for jobs at just two places when he finished school: Daytona International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hired by Indy Racing League founder Tony George to help open a speedway at Walt Disney World in 1996, Chitwood has climbed the company's ranks until being named president and chief operating officer of IMS last year.

It has been a long journey from the go-cart he drove in the family show as a 5-year-old. This week, Times auto racing writer Brant James talked with Chitwood about his memorable life and career.


How did the family come to be the Chitwood Thrill Show?

My grandfather (also Joie Chitwood) was a race car driver, raced in the '40s. During World War II, racing was outlawed. There was a gentleman out there that ran a stunt show and his name was "Lucky" Teeter. He died performing a stunt in a show, and his widow went to my grandfather and asked if he would help her sell the show. He was an out-of-work race car driver (so) he decides to buy the show. By 1950, the stunt show is barnstorming. He has shows going all over the United States at fairs and speedways, so he retires as a driver and becomes a full-time stunt man.

He had two boys, Joie Jr. and my uncle, Tim. I'm Joie III. At some point during the early '60s, my grandfather moved the family down to Florida. We need a place to work on the vehicles (during the winter) and being in Pennsylvania doesn't really work well when your schedule is May to October.


 

What was your role in the show?

When I was 5 I started driving a go-cart. When I was 8 I started driving a mini-Indy. At age 12 I started driving a Chevette, and after that I started doing everything, whether it was standing on the side of the car when Dad was driving it on two wheels, or driving the car on two wheels, or performing reverse spins, or doing a 180.

You're the caretaker of a venue that millions of fans are passionate about, more like a Fenway Park than a normal speedway. What's that like?

I've run other racetracks and it's always about generating attention for your property. But here at Indy, if we do anything it's newsworthy, and if it were to occur at another track, no one may care. But whether we repave the track, or we grind the surface or we change a day or a schedule time, there's always a consequence. Is it going to cause this or that? People are very passionate about this place. They have great memories. They always talk about, "I remember when I saw (A.J.) Foyt win his fourth race" (or) "I was there when they broke 200 mph." And so that passion translates into attention.


 

What I probably enjoy most is (that) I feel like I have a connection to this place. Because my grandfather raced here - he finished fifth three times, he is credited with being the first man to wear a seat belt in the Indy 500 - there is that special connection. I feel like I have some history here, and it's not just a job for me.


 

I would imagine there are some amazing perks to your job.


 

No. 1 is during the prerace activities. We typically drive some old cars around the track from the museum. One of my grandfather's race cars that he drove in 1946 is in the museum - it's called the Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special - and a couple of years ago I got to drive that around the track. So give or take 50 years of history, I'm driving around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the morning of an Indy 500 in a race car that my grandfather finished fifth. So that, by far, is the greatest of activities.


 

Will the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race be back after the disaster this year (just six cars raced after tiremaker Michelin advised its seven entries that their tires would be unsafe without last-minute changes to the course)?


 

We've made a significant investment in that sport. With what it took to build the road course and Gasoline Alley suites and all the improvements to make it an FIA-acceptable road course, we made an investment that we're not looking to be over. But (we) have to make sure having (the event) here is good for us, the city of Indianapolis and the fans. Obviously, the quality of the last race wasn't up to anyone's expectations. We don't want it to go away, but we have to make the right decision for all involved, and right now we're trying to see if it's possible.


 

Is it Indy or nowhere for U.S. venues?

My feeling is there is no other place than Indy where an F1 race could be successful in America. In terms of our property, our ability to hold fans, the history, the uniqueness, I don't think having an F1 race in Las Vegas or wherever would really match up to what we have here. So I think it really would be very tough to be successful anyplace else.


 

What do you most miss about Tampa?

So many things. Spanish food. I love Cuban sandwiches, deviled crab, stuffed potatoes, black beans, you name it. It's something Indianapolis doesn't have much of. I miss the water. I used to live five or six blocks from the water in South Tampa right near the WestShore mall. I miss the SEC. I always enjoyed that Tampa, although it's a good-sized town, it always felt like a small town to me. I always had that good feeling about it. My wife (the former Susan Garner) is a fourth-generation Floridian, from Arcadia, and they're quite rare, and she misses it very much.

I always miss it. I've always assumed at some point I will be back in Florida. I don't know when, but I would love to make it back there, whether my career here is over or whatever. But Tampa is still home to me.

2 comments:

  1. Shirley ButtacavoliAugust 14, 2010 at 10:13 PM

    I remember the Chitwood Thrill Show at The Florida Fair Grounds.

    Enjoyed reading the article again, Brant. Along with your piece on the Reutimanns, its a classic.

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