During my recent visit to the Daytona International Speedway (DIS), I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Gurtis, SE Regional VP of Track Operations for NASCAR and Frank Kelleher, President of DIS and the SE Region of NASCAR.
There’s more to the Daytona International Speedway (DIS) than meets the eye. And there’s no way to tell its story in one short article – it would take volumes. With that challenge in mind, I’m going to cover some highlights and hopefully pique your interest enough to go and experience it for yourself. Of note, the next DAYTONA 500 is this coming February. In any event, it’s worth spending some time on the DIS website to learn of the rich history and evolution of DIS and NASCAR itself.
Upon our arrival, Andrew warmly greeted photographer Ryan Harding and me. Our meeting had a somewhat humorous beginning. I wore my University of Michigan logo shirt and didn’t think about it until we were there and too late to do anything about it. I had the uncomfortable thought, “What if Andrew is a U of M hater?” Or worse, “What if he attended a rival college?” Guess what; he’s a graduate of archrival, Notre Dame, and Andrew didn’t miss the logo on my shirt. His opening comment was a jab about the shirt. After some friendly teasing, we got down to the interviews and the behind-the-scenes tour.
The first thing I learned is that NASCAR owns a total of thirteen tracks throughout the US. In addition to DIS, the SE Region includes Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. We were fortunate to be at DIS on a day that both Andrew and Frank were there and could make time for a tour and interviews.
The enormity of the venue is beyond description – but I’ll try. It occupies 447 acres adjacent to the Daytona Beach Municipal Airport. Andrew commented that the proximity to the airport has proven to be beneficial over the years, “It’s nice for the community that two noise-generating facilities are confined in one area. Also, with the proliferation of private jets over the years, the airport is super convenient for track attendees, sponsors, race teams, and other visitors.”
While much of the site’s acreage plus offsite space is devoted to parking and facilities maintenance buildings, equipment storage, and corporate offices, only one word can describe the size of the track and grandstands – massive.
The NASCAR track is a 2.5-mile, tri-oval (D-shaped) configuration with four banked turns, two of which are 31 degrees, allowing cars to attack them at full throttle. Crews removed over 1 million square yards of soil from the infield to build the banked turns. Due to the high water table, “Lake Lloyd” was created. It’s twenty-nine acres, stocked with a variety of fish, and is occasionally used for various water sports events.
Other track configurations of various shapes and lengths are within the primary track, including a NASCAR road course, a sports car course, a motorcycle course, a motocross course, a 24-hour road course, a dirt flat-track, and a short oval. Some of these tracks utilize portions of the main track. Of course, the 180-acre infield also accommodates the pits, garages, and parking for the race teams’ motorhomes and equipment/ car trailers. Not to mention the prestigious VIP “Ruoff Mortgage Victory Lane,” and viewing-suites and lounges.
A Brief History of Racing at Daytona
For many years, before the development of DIS, the Daytona Beach Road Course was the home of racing. The hard-packed sands of the beach were used for road track racing, and the beach was the original location used for setting land speed records until they moved them to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1930s.
NASCAR founder William France, Sr., began planning DIS in 1953 to promote NASCAR better. His dream was to have the highest degree of banking possible to allow cars to reach high speeds and give fans better views of the race. I didn’t know this, but the drivers are at full throttle through all 4 turns. The track was patterned after the high-speed test track at the Ford Proving Grounds in Detroit, Michigan.
The Daytona Beach City Commission approved the plan and leased the 447 acres to France’s International Speedway Corporation. The lease runs through 2054. With a combination of financial support from wealthy investors, corporate sponsors, 300,000 shares of stock sold to local residents, and by mortgaging his home, construction began in 1957 and was completed in 1959.
The first practice run was on February 6th, 1959, and the inaugural running of the DAYTONA 500 was just 16 days later, on February 22nd. It took three days to decide the winner of that first race, a photo finish between Johnny Beauchamp and the declared winner, Lee Petty.
DIS was the fastest stock car track until Talladega Superspeedway opened ten years later. During our interview, Andrew smiled and commented, “Talladega is faster because it’s longer and the banks are steeper. We affectionately call it Daytona without the mistakes.”
DIS has undergone four renovations to improve the fan experience and promote driver safety. It’s also evolved in terms of capacity (higher and lower) until settling into its present configuration, holding 101,500 grandstand seats. In 1998, lights were installed around the track to run the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at night. At that time, it was the world’s largest lighted outdoor sports facility.
Andrew was excited to tell us about the last renovation. On July 5th, 2013, they broke ground on the project named “Daytona Rising.” The purpose was to remove the backstretch seating and completely redesign the front stretch seating. The emphasis was to improve the fans’ experience. The project included expanding the number and size fan entrances (called “injectors”), comfortable seats, more restrooms, and more concession stands.
The behind-the-scenes services like food prep, catering, facilities maintenance, and janitorial were also relocated to a lower level concealed from the fans’ view. In the past, fans and service personnel often shared the same paths and elevators. Andrew explained, “I’ve often visited other entertainment venues like Disney World to get ideas. I noticed that things like bathroom cleaning, emptying trash cans, and the like all seemed to occur invisibly. It’s like things just parachute into place and are never intrusive on the guests. That’s what we wanted for our guests as well. Now we have separate elevators and service corridors for our guests.”
A Little Insight Into Andrew Gurtis
We talked about training and cross-training being vital to a service culture. Andrew said that his leadership objective is to provide his team with a culture that encourages open-mindedness and the ability to see one another’s perspectives, always supporting each other. He explained, “We need to provide great internal customer service if we want to provide an outstanding guest experience. This includes everything from ticketing to toilets to traffic.”
He continued, “Even the exiting process from the parking lot after the race is critical. It’s their last experience; so, we want it to be a good one. We work very hard on making that happen.” (That’s something we should keep in mind in our shops. The car delivery is the last impression your customer experiences. It should be a priority to make it a good one.)
He called the mission, “Delivering ambiance by emersion.” He explained, “NASCAR is more than a visual experience. It includes all our senses – sounds of the roaring engines and cheering crowd, smells of the burning rubber and fuel, feelings of the vibration within your chest from the barely controlled explosion of the engines, and the tastes of the food and beverages.”
For emphasis, Andrew summed it up, “DIS is a fully functioning entertainment center. We’re busy year around with about two hundred days of events and races (some major and some minor) throughout the year. Of course, DIS is most famous for hosting NASCAR’s crown jewel, the DAYTONA 500.
“With over 500,000 people descending on Daytona Beach during the week of the 500, it’s vital that we work together as a team. This includes coordinating, cooperating, and communicating within our onsite team as well as with the community’s residents, businesses, and government agencies. We treat the Daytona Beach community with the utmost respect – they’re our partners.
“It’s critical that we work as one unit to deliver a great experience to our guests from arrival to departure. By our guests, I mean everyone, including those who had to scrape together enough money to get here and those arriving on their private jets.”
Andrew is an outstanding ambassador for Daytona and NASCAR. It was clear from his enthusiasm and things he shared that the key to providing an extraordinary fan experience is rooted in what we at ATRA call a customer-centric service culture. It’s refreshing to meet someone like Andrew Gurtis. After over 30 years with DIS and NASCAR, Andrew acts like his journey is just beginning.
My Interview with Frank Kelleher
Andrew arranged a personal meeting with Frank Kelleher after the tour. Frank just became the President of DIS and the SE Region of NASCAR last April.
Ironically, Frank began like many of us in the auto repair industry. He grew up in a bluecollar environment, working in the family-owned service station. His grandfather Larry Kelleher started the business in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1927. To this day, Frank’s dad and uncles still own and operate the business.
Frank recalled, “The business was more than just a typical service station and repair garage. We sold tires and even had a tire retreading factory. I did everything from cleanup to oil changes and repairs until I was old enough to drive. Then I moved into tire sales and deliveries and started running the tow truck and snowplow. That’s when snow days went from fun days to workdays.”
One of Frank’s uncles raced “late models” at a nearby regional track. Frank was only about thirteen when he started helping in the pits. He was underage; so, they’d hide him in the trailer until they were in the pit area. He says that’s where he fell in love with cars and racing.
He began racing Go-Karts while he was still in high school in 1996. He continued racing Go-Karts into his college years, competing in the World Karting Association Pro Series, winning two National Championships.
Frank attended Marywood University in Scranton, majoring in Retail. He said it was essentially a Fashion Marketing Program and knew that Fashion was the largest retail industry. So, that’s where he thought he was headed. However, through a combination of racing connections, he was offered an internship at DIS for the summer of 2002. He shared, “I attended Catholic Schools and studied Fashion at Marywood; so, I was used to dressing in jacket, shirt, and tie. Apparently, this helped me stand out, and it’s served me well. I was offered a position at DIS after graduating. To this day, I take pride in my appearance.”
At the age of twenty-five, after working with the corporate marketing team, Frank became an account manager. He says that this is where he learned to work with large corporate sponsors like Sprint, UPS, and Dodge. Frank’s success nearly caused his demise. He was promoted to Sales in 2006. He recalled, “I went from working in a warm market with established accounts to having to make cold calls and hearing more noes than yeses. But eventually, I found my stride. One of my secrets was to look for ways to help the accounts improve their businesses in ways unrelated to what I was selling. This helped to build better relationships with them.”
Like most corporate executives, Frank’s career path took him through virtually all aspects of sales and marketing within DIS and NASCAR. He was consistently successful with everything he touched. Here’s an excerpt from the April 6th, 2021, NASCAR Press Release about Frank’s appointment to President of DIS.
In his previous role as NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Sales Officer, Kelleher oversaw a team responsible for business strategy and revenue generation. His team played a critical role in driving both media and partnership sales for NASCAR and its tracks. Kelleher helped secure the founding sponsorships to Daytona International Speedway’s highly visible “injectors.” As only the ninth track president in DIS history, Kelleher is well-suited to step into this important position.
“For nearly two decades, Frank has demonstrated the ability to foster meaningful relationships and lead critical areas of our business,” said Lesa France Kennedy, Executive Vice Chairperson, NASCAR. “He is a dedicated member of the greater Daytona Beach community, a true team-builder, and most importantly, he has a deep-rooted passion for motorsports and promoting the fan experience. We are incredibly excited to have Frank leading Daytona International Speedway.”
Frank and Andrew share the same “whatever it takes” commitment to delivering the best possible guest experience. Perhaps Frank’s closing story illustrates this best, “Last weekend at the Talladega Speedway, the race was delayed a day because of rain on Sunday. Much of our service team couldn’t stay because of other commitments, leaving us shorthanded. So, last Monday, I worked in the concession stands and catering – I was like meals on wheels.” He continued, “I was raised with a strong work ethic and the belief that you go to work every day, do what you say, and a handshake means a lot.”
As I wrote this article, I was thinking that our readers could apply some of what they’re doing at DIS to help provide an extraordinary experience in their shops.
The DAYTONA 500 is set for Presidents’ Day Weekend, Sunday, February 20th, 2022. Tickets are more affordable than you might think. So, if you’re struggling with Christmas gift ideas, why not consider a trip to “The 500?”