News & Media

Six Pack of Pop: Daytona president visits troops on their home turf

July 04, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Chitwood spent night on aircraft carrier in Atlantic Ocean to talk racing

Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway, answers this week's six questions.

1. You recently spent some time on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier in the United States naval fleet now doing a tour in the Middle East. What was that like?

Chitwood: You never really know what you're getting into when you sign up for some stuff like that. But who's going to turn down a chance to fly out to the Atlantic, land on an aircraft carrier, spend the night out there and fly home the next day?

Joie Chitwood presented a signed Daytona 500 green flag and an American Flag to the USS Eisenhower and both were used while the carrier was in the Middle East. (DIS)

But what was really neat was just meeting the men and women who serve our country. And all I had to do was ask two questions: Where are you from? And what do you do? They could talk 20 minutes just answering those questions and talking about how proud they were to serve the country. The average age on the boat was 21, and these men and women are defending our freedom every day. I tell you what, it's pretty impressive. I left there with a much greater impression and appreciation of the U.S. Navy and what their aircraft carriers do for our country.

2. What was it like to land on the carrier, where your plane comes to a stop in a mere 340 feet?

Chitwood [chuckling]: When you land, you're sitting in this transportation plane for cargo and people. And you're seated in it facing backwards. So you're facing the tail of the plane and there are very few windows, if any at all. So if you're not near a window, you don't know where you are in relation to the aircraft carrier. All you see when you get ready to land is one of the gentlemen in the back wave his hand, which means in 30 seconds you're landing.

The interesting thing is when you land, you go full power -- whether you hook the [landing cable] wire or not -- in case you miss the boat and have to take off again and go back around. So at some point, it feels like there is this tremendous tug of war going on, and then they power down. But yeah, it slams you down on that deck and you go from about 140 [miles per hour] to zero in a couple seconds. It was pretty intense.

3. And what was it like when you took off from the ship, where they launch your plane from a catapult?

Chitwood: The catapult was different, because you get fired off the end of this boat so fast. And then when you go off the end of the boat -- even though you're still accelerating -- you're not accelerating as fast as you were when you got shot off the catapult. So in essence, the minute you get off the boat, you have this feeling that you're sinking and you're not going to make it. I swear, there is about a five-second period where you feel like you're going down and you're not going to make it.

You think about these guys doing these landings and takeoffs in daytime, nighttime -- well, even the captain, Marcus Hitchcock, who is an aviator, they all hate the nighttime landings and takeoffs because of how challenging they are. But they're firing off planes and landing planes every couple of minutes. It was very impressive and something I'll never forget.

4. And you presented Captain Hitchcock with an American flag that they flew over the ship and that has since been returned to you for display this weekend in the track's Sprint FanZone, right?

Chitwood: I gave him a green flag signed by all drivers in last year's Daytona 500, and I gave him an American flag and asked if they would actually fly it over the USS Eisenhower and send it back to us so we could put it on display. So what he decided to do was wait until their very first day of a nine-month assignment to the Middle East -- and on that very first day, they flew the American flag over Ike and it currently is being shipped back to us for us to put on display at [this Saturday's] Coke Zero 400.

And the other thing is when you take off on an aircraft carrier, the final person to give you the signal is called the shooter. He's the person at the front of the plane who gives you the signal and moves his arm and tells you to take off. So the first day of the deployment, they used our green flag to send the first plane off the deck. The fact that they used both of the flags we sent them like they did is very cool.

5. Any stories you can relate about men and women serving on the ship who turned out to be NASCAR fans?

Chitwood: The gentleman who walked us around on the top of the deck was a huge NASCAR fan from New Smyrna Beach, Fla. He's a shooter, so he was one of the ones who would send the pilots on their way. He was a huge [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] fan.

And the captain, Marcus Hitchcock, his wife is from Daytona Beach, Fla., and his mother-in-law, still lives there. So there were these subtle connections we made all along the way, and we met a lot of NASCAR fans. I tell you, they just love to talk about NASCAR. Of course all I wanted to talk to them about was the aircraft carrier; and all they wanted to talk to me about was racing. So it was kind of funny. Each wanted to know about the other's world.

6. Every year the Coke Zero 400 at DIS is a patriotic event. What other things do you have planned for this race weekend in that regard?

Chitwood: We're going to honor four Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. We're going to get to tell their four stories for our fans in pre-race. ... You think about the July 4 weekend and you think about all the freedoms we get to enjoy in this country, and here are the individuals who know what the ultimate price of freedom is in terms of risking their lives to protect what our country stands for. So it is with great pride that we approach this weekend and that we get to celebrate these gentlemen and what they've done for our country.

I tell you, it puts it perspective. You think of NASCAR and Daytona and running this race under the lights on a Saturday night on July 4 weekend, and it's as American as it gets. And we get to do that because of the sacrifices men and women make every day in the U.S. military. So it's a great place to wrap yourself in the American Flag, and I really like that tone of what the Coke Zero 400 is.