Wile brings new energy to classic track
On the first day Chip Wile went to work as president of Darlington Raceway, he walked out of the office and found a family of three from North Carolina who wanted a tour of the facility. Wile loaded them into his Ford Explorer and circled the track, stopping between turns 3 and 4 to show them the 22-degree banking.
The impromptu tour surprised staff at the South Carolina speedway. The track, which has about 15 employees, hadn’t offered tours since 2008, but now it does so regularly, and it’s sold dozens of tickets as a result.
Wile has added new events and strengthened local business ties since taking over at Darlington Raceway.
“It’s a great example of executing the vision we have for that property,” said Daryl Wolfe, ISC’s chief marketer. “You could say that’s just a few fans, but that changed the lives of those fans’ personal relationship with Darlington Raceway.They wrote personal notes and said they were going to come back for a race.”
Wile, 34, will oversee his first Sprint Cup race in his new role this weekend, and ISC is hoping it’s the first in a series of events that helps Darlington reclaim its regional and national clout as one of the best in NASCAR.
The track’s Southern 500 race was once considered to be part of the sport’s “Grand Slam,” along with the Daytona 500, Talladega’s Winston 500 and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600. It also carries great nicknames like “The Lady in Black” (because its white walls end the race blackened by tires) and “The Track Too Tough To Tame” (because drivers hit the wall so often).
But like many racetracks in recent years, Darlington has struggled. ISC moved the Southern 500 from its traditional Labor Day weekend spot to the spring and sent one of its two Sprint Cup races to a track it owns in California. The changes made the track less relevant, and the facility, which once regularly hosted 75,000 spectators for NASCAR Sprint Cup races, saw ticket demand wane after the recession. ISC reduced the track’s capacity 20 percent to 60,000 seats.
“We’re working hard to build back up Darlington’s place in the sport,” said Clay Campbell, president of ISC-owned Martinsville Speedway, who Wile reports to at ISC. “The Southern 500 was one of the crown jewels. [The track has] tons of history and always will be a special place.”
The hire caught many in NASCAR by surprise. Historically, ISC had promoted senior executives from its other tracks into positions as president of another facility. That was the case at Kansas Speedway, where the company promoted former track vice president Pat Warren to the top job, and Richmond, where it put former Michigan International Raceway vice president Dennis Bickmeier in charge.
Wile had no track experience. He’d never sold tickets or managed a race. In fact, he’d only been with ISC for one year.
The University of Georgia alum was a stick-and-ball athlete growing up and didn’t attend a race until he interviewed for a college internship with Keystone Marketing, a motorsports marketing agency. He went on to spend almost a decade working with teams such as Bill Davis Racing and Penske Racing before joining ISC as director of business development with its radio network, MRN. He served as a liaison between the network and the tracks and impressed staff with his relationship skills and passion for NASCAR. That was a major reason ISC tapped him to lead Darlington.
“He’s got deep connections across the industry and understands how it works,” Wolfe said. “Being able to leverage those relationships and contacts and the fact that he’s high energy and very passionate about the sport — all of those ingredients played a role in looking at him as a strong candidate to lead the future of Darlington Raceway.”
Since taking over last August, Wile has worked to add new events at the racetrack, strengthen its local business ties, and boost its ticket sales to college students.
Darlington hosted the inaugural Speed & Feed BBQ Cook-Off and Car Show last November, and a running event in September that included a marathon and drew 3,000 participants.
He also has reached out to the South Carolina state government to strengthen ties to the statehouse. Gov. Nikki Haley, who has attended the Southern 500 in previous years, visited in January for an economic development event attended by executives from 36 regional companies. Of those, four companies that had never done business with the racetrack bought ticket packages or plan to do hospitality for this weekend’s race. “We felt like getting those folks out here and getting them engaged went a long way,” Wile said.
The signature program he started is a college ticket sales initiative with the University of South Carolina. Since 2005, Darlington had held its race during Mother’s Day weekend, which was after exams for most nearby colleges. The race was moved up on the schedule this year in the hope that the track could attract college spectators from the dozen-plus schools nearby.
To do that, Wile partnered with USC’s Sport and Entertainment Management Department to have 30 students sell tickets to this weekend’s race. Their goal was to sell $500 in tickets each. Those who did received a free ticket as a result. College tickets for the race cost $19, but students weren’t limited to selling just to their peers. The student who sells the most tickets will be hired as an intern next year.
The program has provided a lift in college sales, Wile said, and it fits into NASCAR’s effort to attract younger fans. He hopes to expand it to other schools. “It is a goal for all of our facilities to get back to selling out,” Wile said.
ISC has been pleased with Wile’s work so far. Ticket sales for this weekend’s race are tracking well against last year, and corporate sales are up from a year ago.
“Chip’s reassured the community that we’re here, we’re relevant, and we’re going to grow,” Campbell said. “It’s going to take him time, but he’s off to a great start.”