Akouris: Chicagoland Speedway holds special memories for Chitwood
By Tina Akouris firstname.lastname@example.org July 7, 2013 4:06PM
55th Daytona 500
Updated: August 9, 2013 6:10AM
Joie Chitwood III remembers the day it finally sunk in that Chicagoland Speedway wasn’t just a sketch on a design board or a plot of farmland.
Chitwood was riding in a helicopter, heading back to the Joliet track from an event downtown before the first NASCAR Nationwide race at the track in July 2001. That’s when he finally had a chance to see the vastness of the facility and what his team helped create.
“When we got back to the property and the sun was setting and I saw the track I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we did it. How cool is this?’ ” Chitwood said. “I’m in a helicopter over the race and you just say, ‘I can’t believe we did it.’ That was one of those cool things I remember.
“I lived in a Hampton Inn off of I-80 with my wife and son,” Chitwood continued. “It took 22 months for us to turn that farmland into the Speedway.”
These days, Chitwood is the president of Daytona International Speedway, the crown jewel in the International Speedway Corp.’s group of tracks, which also includes Chicagoland Speedway.
Every time the Joliet track and neighboring Route 66 Raceway host an event weekend — such as the recent NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 Nationals or the upcoming STP 300 Nationwide race — auto racing fans have Chitwood to thank.
He spent 22 months overseeing the project and remembers the bumps and bruises along the way.
The biggest worry was the potential for a harsh winter. If it snowed too much or got too cold, construction had to stop.
“The clock was ticking. We had the stress of the weather, but the winters were mild and we didn’t really have anything during that time that derailed us,” Chitwood said. “But I do remember that the last two weeks were a panic.”
What he also remembers is a major design change that happened early in the process.
The grandstands at Chicagoland Speedway face east. During the planning stages, designers wanted the grandstands to face west. Chitwood said, “I don’t think so.”
“They turned the facility so there was a chance to see the skyline,” Chitwood said, “and on a clear day, you can. In the design phase we asked, ‘Why not consider it?’ and we changed it. We had conversations (about tweaking the facility) all the time, but that was the big one.”
Chitwood left Joliet in 2002 for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he served as president and chief operating officer. It was a bittersweet move, but one he knew he had to make.
“It’s tough to give the keys to the castle to someone else,” Chitwood said.
He, his wife and son had grown close to their neighbors in the small subdivision down the street from Joliet West High School. There was a fish fry every Friday night during Lent. And when the Chitwoods moved in, a neighbor made a map with the names of everyone on the block, including names of children and pets.
Chitwood tries to come to Joliet when he can. The last time he did was two years ago. He said he will try to help out with the September race weekend in Joliet, when the Speedway hosts three races, including the first race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
“It was like a version of ‘Pleasantville,’ ” Chitwood said. “I jammed a lot of stuff in those 3 1/2 years. That was a really cool part of my career.”