BY JAMES HARPER
Joie Chitwood III has had more than his fair share of public relations nightmares during his reign at the Daytona International Speedway.
First, he was hired in August 2010 to replace popular former track president Robin Braig, which caught many in the industry off guard.
Potholes on the track, a major repavement project, a jet dryer explosion during a race, cars flying into fences injuring at least 30 fans, and state legislators refusing to pass a tax break bill for frontstrech renovations are just some of the issues he has had to work to put a positive spin on for the public and media.
“I have a lot of experience in crisis management,’’ Chitwood said Tuesday before a group of public relations professionals at an event held in the media room at the Daytona International Speedway (DIS).
The DIS president told about 50 members of the Volusia-Flagler area chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association (FPRA) that he has been dealing with crisis management since he was 18 when he began working for his father “managing individuals my father’s age.”
Stefany Strong, public information officer for the Volusia County Health Department and incoming president of the association, told the Daytona Times the main purpose of the media day was for public relations professionals to build relationships with the media.
“We can’t wait until the last minute. We don’t want our first meeting with the media to be when an emergency occurs involving our employers,” said Strong, who gave kudos to FPRA member Andrew Booth, Senior Manager of Media Relations for the DIS, which hosted the event.
Along with Chitwood, Daytona Beach News-Journal Editor Pat Rice, was an invited speaker.
The Daytona Times was among the media representatives taking questions from members of the FPRA.
Chitwood’s most recent crisis and disappointment was Florida legislators’ refusal to vote on a bill during their last session, which ended May 3, to guarantee DIS $70 million in tax breaks, refunds and rebates on the contingency that the Speedway spend at least $250 million renovating the track’s frontstretch.
He was asked by one of the public relations professionals what the future holds for the renovation project since the bill didn’t go through.
Chitwood said that last day of Florida’s legislative session was an emotional day with a lot of tension in the air.
Initially, he and others at DIS were optimistic that legislators would be on their side and pass the bill sponsored by State Rep. David Santiago and a companion bill submitted by State Sen. Dorothy Hukill.
“It was extremely frustrating. We were sucked into this sports quagmire in terms of the process,” he noted.
Other dashed hopes
Also hoping for tax relief during the legislative process were the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, seeking $3 million a year in sales tax rebates for 30 years; the Jacksonville Jaguars wanted $2 million a year for 30 years for EverBank Field in Jacksonville; and the Orlando Lions were seeking $2 million a year in sales tax rebates for 30 years for the construction of a stadium in Central Florida with a goal of attracting a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.
After reading a series of stories in the Daytona Times, Daytona International Speedway agreed to implement a coordinated community outreach program, including advertising, trade fairs, training and meet-and-greet opportunities, to ensure all qualified local women and minority firms would participate in the $250 million redevelopment project.
“We are willing to invest a quarter of a billion dollars (in the community). We would like consideration,” said Chitwood, adding he was prepared for an argument with legislators about whether the project should be subsidized, one of the reasons he made several trips to Tallahassee lobbying for the bill submitted by Santiago and Hukill.
Forced to reassess
Chitwood said DIS brings in more people to the state than any of the other sports franchise owners who were also seeking the tax breaks.
“I went up to Tallahassee four times. It was a long drive. Now we have to suck it up and decide what we will be doing next,” Chitwood said to the attentive public relations professionals.
Chitwood said the $2 million a year in sales tax refunds they were requesting over the next 30 years and $10 million for construction may not seem like a lot considering what they were planning on spending, but “I have to make a good business case.”
In a statement Chitwood released before the public relations event days after no decision was made on their bills by legislators he said, “We are clearly disappointed by the outcome last week in the Florida Legislature. We made a very compelling case for what could have been a successful public/private partnership with the state of Florida to create jobs and generate real economic growth. We also had substantial local, regional and statewide support.
“However, given this setback to our project, we are forced to reassess the proposed redevelopment and closely examine a number of factors such as its timing, size and scope, before we decide on next steps.”
During the public relations event, which was dubbed a media day for the professionals, Chitwood elaborated saying, “We have to make sure we do it (the renovation project) the right way. Politics was involved with the other sports teams. We couldn’t keep (our project) separate from other sports teams,” he said, adding that the minute they have a new plan he will share it with the public.
Chitwood also commented on the horrific crash at DIS during a Nationwide Series race this past February when more than 30 people were injured after Kyle Larson’s racecar went airborne and slammed into the fencing, sending his engine, a tire and debris through the fence and into the stands.
To calm race fans’ fears about sitting in the grand stands during a race track, Chitwood’s public relations move was to show the fans he wasn’t afraid to sit in the same area – which he did the next day for the Daytona 500 for the first 30 laps.
“The last thing I want is our fans feeling uncomfortable,” he said, adding that DIS received advice from two experts to fix the fencing problem.
Chitwood said his next biggest challenge is competing against social media.
He noted that it’s his job to fill the seats of the grandstand but with apps, cell phones, and other social media it’s a struggle because “we want them (fans) to come here to enjoy the event.
He said this is the reason the renovation project is so important. “This is a 50 year-old property. We have to work on the experience – work on the amenities,” he concluded.