Jamie Gomez was naturally curious when he played a telephone message six months ago with somebody identifying himself as the president of Daytona International Speedway.
He was even more surprised when he returned the call and actually spoke to Joie Chitwood III.
Now that fans have so many other options to spend their entertainment dollars, Chitwood is committed to reaching out to as many customers, including Gomez, as possible to make sure he provides a good experience.
“You always have to listen,” Chitwood said. “The minute you’re not listening, you’re not doing your job.”
Although his duties as the speedway’s president keep him busy, he always finds time to make cold calls to ticket holders from previous races.
The rest of his staff do the same, all trying to find ways to make each race more memorable than the last.
Gomez, who attended last July’s Coke Zero 400, was one of those surprised fans.
“I filled out a survey and he actually called me back to talk about it,” Gomez said. “He listened to what I had to say and he asked if I didn’t like anything else. It was strange he didn’t ask me what I thought was good.”
Changes in the economy, as well as other distractions, have forced Chitwood and his staff to ask fans what they expect when they come to the track. He knows if a fan has a bad time, he can always head down the road to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or Sea World, make a quick trip to the beach or give another speedway a chance.
That’s why there’s so much effort in leaving well enough alone and concentrating on making corrections.
Attendance and television ratings have stalled in the past five years. In the process, tracks have learned a valuable lesson – they rarely get a second chance.
“We’re in competition with other race tracks, sports properties, other entertainment choices,” Chitwood said.
“When they come to Daytona, you have to make sure they feel like they’re getting their value.
“I can never control the racing on the track. Everybody’s definition of a good race and a bad race is different. But what I can control is the other elements of their experience, whether it’s the pre-race, the intrigue, the infield atmosphere, the ancillary activities. I have to make sure I’ve done that well so matter what happens on the track, the fans have a good experience.”
Chitwood sometimes sits in the stands to get unsolicited ideas.
Other speedways have gotten the message, too, and have created fan advisory boards to suggest changes.
“Even the best venues need to retool from time to time in order to maximized the experience,” said Richmond International Raceway board member Brian Johnson.
Chitwood prefers a “mystery shopper” approach. The track reaches out to hundreds of fans after each event, including a mass mailing of surveys. When Chitwood finds somebody who is upset with his speedway, he sometimes asks for a second chance by offering them free tickets.
“The minute you think you’ve covered it all you’re not the person who should be running it,” Chitwood said. “You have to be prepared to make changes.”
Fans didn’t like smoking in the grandstands, so Daytona now is smoke free. They also didn’t like the congestion at the Turn 4 tunnel during the Rolex 24 at Daytona, so the track closed it off to car traffic and made it pedestrian-only.