His new thrill ride
IMS president has always been part of the show
By Curt Cavin
Several years have passed, but Joie Chitwood III still remembers the first words former Kansas governor Bill Graves said to him at their introduction.
"I remember when . . ."
Chitwood is certain of the phrasing because he said everyone's story of his family's traveling stunt show begins that way. Chitwood's grandfather, the late George Rice "Joie" Chitwood, first popularized "The Chitwood Thrill Show" in the late 1940s, and it ran through 1998. The show included a variety of dangerous stunts involving cars and motorcycles.
It's estimated that between 25 and 30 million people saw it, including as many as 110,000 during an event at Chicago's Soldier Field in the 1950s. The younger Chitwood participated for nearly 20 years.
Chitwood said Graves' story is familiar. Graves was 14 when he decided to sneak the family car onto a country road for a Chitwood-like thrill. Intending to spin the machine sharply, as one of the stuntmen had in the show, Graves landed in a ditch.
His trouble was deeper at home.
"My dad kicked my rear for that," Graves said.
Chitwood, 36, now has an international platform to hear such tales. In December, he was promoted to president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, linking motor sports' past and present.
Chitwood's grandfather was one of the best sprint-car drivers of his day, and he competed in seven Indianapolis 500s, finishing fifth three times.
But thrilling people thrilled the elder Chitwood the most, and hardly a show passed without one member of his family in the act.
Whether it was Pop Pop, as the patriarch was known at home, or sons Joie II or Tim, or Joie II's son Joie III, the family name was as big as Knievel.
Joie III quit the show in 1993, but he cherishes his past. He is an avid collector of the show's memorabilia, carries a lucky stuntman coin in his wallet and figures it might take him "maybe 10 minutes" to roll a car on two wheels as he once did regularly.
"I love that it's part of who I am," he said. "It feels good to know people have 'a story.' "
Not always an easy road
The Speedway's new president usually wears pressed long-sleeved dress shirts and a stylish tie, a look straight out of Cambridge University in England, where he studied during one summer of college.
But this is a man who has worked his way up. He has gotten his hands dirty.
Chitwood was 5 when he drove his first thrill car in front of a fairgrounds audience. That was his first job, and he spent every summer after that on tour, a season that ran from late May through October.
The show might have been thrilling, but the road was long and difficult, with five to six shows a week, always in different towns, often in different states. The group of about a dozen stuntmen traveled up to 300 miles a night, sleeping in truck stops along the way.
Each event required several hours of setup, and each night the four transporters had to be loaded with cars, ramps and safety equipment. The pay was minimal, the food inconsistent. Seldom did they return to their home base of Tampa, Fla.
"We were one step above carnies," Chitwood said. "Whether it was normal or not, it was what we did."
By the time Chitwood was 13 he was balancing himself atop cars driving on two wheels. He also mastered the art of lying headfirst on windshields of cars barreling 50 mph into a wooden wall of fire. They called it "The Battering Ram."
"Knock the fenders down with a sledgehammer so you've got some place to hold onto," Chitwood said, describing the technique. "The key is to make sure you've got the face of your helmet flush against the hood because even an inch of space is enough for wood to get in your helmet. Get your thumbs in or they'll snap back and break."
Chitwood did rollover crashes and more variations of car jumps than he can recall. He did everything but motorcycle stunts because, of all things, they're dangerous.
"More dangerous," his father said.
A flying motorcycle once shattered the front windshield of the Camaro that Chitwood was driving. Covered in glass, it took a Shop-Vac to prevent further cuts. The motorcycle rider was hospitalized with a concussion.
In addition to the tricks, Chitwood learned to manage the crew and work with the promoters, many of whom were fighting losing financial battles in the 1980s as county fairs and small-town racetracks lost their relevance.
As profits decreased, Chitwood became discouraged and sought changes that weren't popular with his father and uncle. They argued a lot and tempers flared. As the 1993 season ended with a show in Charlotte, N.C., Chitwood decided he and his fiancée, Susan, needed a change in direction.
Quitting the family show was the most difficult jump of Chitwood's life, and it cost him six months of speaking to his father.
"I can remember driving home thinking, 'Now what am I going to do?' " he said.
Building a career
Susan Chitwood, as she became in December 1993, worked to support their family as her husband pursued a master's degree in business administration.
Chitwood made $6 an hour as a teacher's assistant and was elected to a student policy board that put him in meetings with university leaders.
"It was the first time that I had really applied myself," he said.
But Chitwood soon realized he didn't have a defined career path. Nearing completion of his schooling in the summer of 1995, he decided his best option was to pursue a job in motor sports. He had served as general manager of the thrill show as an undergraduate at the University of Florida.
In what he now calls "the arrogance of youth," he sent only two resumes -- to the two most important people he could think of: NASCAR president Bill France Jr. and IMS president Tony George.
France's office sent a rejection letter, which he saved. As George was in the process of creating the Indy Racing League, Chitwood got a call from executive director Jack Long, who needed help organizing the league's inaugural race at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla.
Chitwood was offered a three-month gig. He would do everything, from issuing credentials to sorting mail to speaking to community leaders on behalf of the event.
One day while carrying televisions to race control, he thought of Susan.
"I can't tell her what I'm doing," he remembers thinking. "She'll kill me if she thinks this is why she put me through grad school."
After the race, Long invited him to move to Indianapolis to work for the fledging IRL.
"He did all the grunt work you can imagine," said IRL president Brian Barnhart, who was track superintendent of IMS at the time. "To be honest, I was in awe of him knowing he was out of the Joie Chitwood family and had performed in the thrill show, but that guy would do anything that had to be done."
Said Chitwood's father: "I always knew Joie would make it because he's very good with details, very methodical, sort of a perfectionist. And he always finishes what he starts."
The rest of the story
Working hard couldn't have been more useful when George helped Chitwood become vice president and general manager of Raceway Associates, which was about to build Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
When Chitwood took the job, the facility had a drag strip and a quarter-mile dirt track hosting local races, tractor pulls and concerts. The schedule covered virtually each night of the week.
While that was a physical drain, Chitwood's emotional task was organizing the construction of the 11/2-mile racetrack in a 22-month window. On top of that, every Chicago-area politician, businessman and union representative seemed to be challenging his every move.
Because Raceway is a joint venture of International Speedway Corp. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp., Chitwood found himself reporting to France, George and a group of nine local investors.
"The realization was, if I screwed up there was a good chance I'd never work in motor sports again," he said.
Chitwood didn't fail because he pushed himself to work more than he could have imagined.
"Twenty-two hours a day would not be an exaggeration," Susan Chitwood said. "I used to drive him to the track just so we'd have a few minutes to talk."
After Chicagoland was built, George called Chitwood back to Indy to become the Speedway's senior vice president of business affairs. That was October 2002. Five months ago he became the track's ninth president since 1909.
George is confident Chitwood can do the job, but he wants to wait until his first Month of May is complete before publicly evaluating him.
"Don't take that the wrong way," George said. "I just don't want to blow his head up or blow his heart out."
The humble Chitwood calls himself "a caretaker" of the historic facility, and he has the personal history to cherish the role.
On the 40th anniversary of the 1946 Indianapolis 500, Chitwood, then 17, sat with his grandfather in the Speedway's Oldtimer's Club and listened to stories told by drivers of that race. Little did he know that in 2000 he would drive Pop Pop's '46 car -- the same Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special that won the '41 race -- around the track on the morning of the race.
Family stunt ties: A young Joie Chitwood III sits on his father Joie Chitwood II's shoulders. At right is his grandfather, Joie Chitwood, who first popularized "The Chitwood Thrill Show" in the late 1940s. Chitwood III quit the show in 1993 but cherishes the memories. - Courtesy of the Chitwood family
Joel Scott "Joie" Chitwood Jr.
• Born: Feb. 20, 1969 in Tampa, Fla.
• Background: Grandson of thrill show stuntman Joie Chitwood; spent nearly 20 years participating in the thrill show and also served as its general manager; University of Florida graduate; received MBA from University of South Florida in Tampa; joined Indy Racing League in 1995; served as vice president and general manager of Raceway Associates during the construction and debut of Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.; joined Indianapolis Motor Speedway executive staff in 2002 as senior vice president of business affairs; elevated to president and chief operating officer in December 2004.
• Personal: Wife, Susan; son, Joel McFadden "Joie IV" Chitwood; avid collector of "Chitwood Thrill Show" memorabilia; drove his grandfather's 1946 Indy 500 car during morning of the 2000 race.