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Monster Mile Journal: Denis McGlynn Q&A

Editor’s Note: The Monster Mile Journal will be a monthly behind the scenes look at the people and the stories at Dover International Speedway, the world’s fastest one-mile oval.

First up is a Q&A with Denis McGlynn, the chief executive officer and president of Dover Motorsports, Inc.

Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports Inc., has been part of the Dover racing scene since 1972. In this golden anniversary year, we asked him to reflect on his experiences.

How did you get started at Dover?

I was finishing a tour of duty at Dover Air Force Base, and I knew there was a strong connection between the Air Force and this property. I heard about a job opening here. I didn’t know anything about auto racing or horse racing, but I didn’t know anything about airplanes when I joined the Air Force either and I did OK. They hired me, and I started doing publicity, group sales and just about anything that needed to be done. There were only 14 of us working here.

What was it like in the early days?

We had 22,000 seats and we struggled to fill them. Trying to sell a Southern sport in the Northeast was a pretty big challenge.

When did that change?

In 1979, with the Daytona 500 on national television when there was a big snowstorm in the Northeast. Sports fans had nothing but NASCAR to watch on TV that day. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison were fighting for the lead, they crashed into each other in the final lap and they got into a fistfight on the infield after the race. After that, interest in NASCAR really took off. It was literally the perfect storm for us, in a good way. Then came the start of ESPN, the Nashville Network and all the other cable networks that were looking for sports content. That really turned the corner for NASCAR.

What’s it like to you to watch a NASCAR race?

Some people say it’s just a bunch of cars running around a track on TV, but when you stand out there, and cars go by at 170 miles per hour, and they vibrate your bones, suck the air out of your lungs and make you dizzy and you want to fall down, well, that’s a whole different experience.

What is a race day like for you? How much of the race to you see?

I spend a lot of time interacting with various guests, so I don’t see much of the race. I guess the term is ‘I’ll Tivo it,’ and I’ll go home and watch how the TV people were treating the race. On race day, you want to be talking to the fans, to our sponsors, to our various partners. You want to interact with them because they’re our customers too.

What is your greatest race-day memory?

It has to be the fall race in 2001, right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was tension-filled, emotion-filled. There were no big sporting events in the country for a week or so, and we had the largest event in the nation the first weekend after sports resumed. All week we were working with the Secret Service, the FBI, the police, getting feedback from every available agency. We were getting reports about suspicious-looking people in Wilmington, in Sussex County. For security reasons, they shut down aircraft activity over the track.

MBNA was our primary race sponsor, and we partnered with them to buy 135,000 American flags and hand them out to everyone who came to the race. We had fans chanting “USA, USA, USA.” They were doing the wave, pounding on the grandstand. It was electrifying. It was great to pull it off. And, appropriately, because his dad had been killed at Daytona earlier in the year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race and took an American flag around the track in his car. It was a really great day.

Any others?

Probably 2004, the 60th anniversary of D-Day. I’ve always been interested in World War II since my father served. Somebody read General Eisenhower’s address to his troops. Our sponsor that year, MBNA, brought in five D-Day veterans and I got to go down onto the infield and talk to those guys. To see them in their uniforms, I got all choked up. It was another great day.

We know the recession of 2008 had an impact on Dover, and on all of NASCAR. What has it meant for you?

We had some rough years, because many of the people who have long been part of NASCAR’s fan base were out of work. So we realized that we have to work harder to get some of those fans back, and to build a new generation of fans. We expanded the Fan Zone, with lots of interactive features, and more things to entertain the kids. We’re offering more music, more entertainment and a wider range of food options. The race will always be most important to us, but we realize – as the entire sports world does – that the fan’s experience has to be more than just the race.

What’s your vision of NASCAR’s future?

I see NASCAR entering the world of augmented reality and virtual reality. This technology exists today. They have to figure out a way to carry the data from the track to the home screen and to the computer. Then, you and I and your 17-year-old will be able to have a [virtual] car in the race, that you’re driving, and 20 million people all around the world will all be driving while the race is going on. The guys on the track, who are physically driving don’t know that you’re there, but you’re paying maybe five dollars a race [for the virtual experience]. That’s probably where it’s going to end up.

Hopefully we get a new generation hooked on the virtual experience and then they come to the track and experience it live.

What about you? After 47 years here, what are your plans?

Because of the nature of this job, I never had much time to develop hobbies. I always liked to work and I still enjoy it. If I find something l like better I might move on, but I haven’t found it yet after 47 years and it would be hard not to be around the fans and everyone involved in the sport.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.