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Professional racing stars Kenseth and Chitwood visit USF

Joie Chitwood III

Joie Chitwood III

Two of professional car racing's stars - one on the racetrack, the other in the boardroom - visited USF on Wednesday. They came in advance of the Daytona 500 later this month and chatted with students about the business and engineering of the sport.

Matt Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 Champion and driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Joie Chitwood III, Daytona International Speedway president and a 1995 graduate of the USF MBA program, spent the afternoon on USF's campus. They first visited with a classroom full of graduate business students learning about the behind-the-scenes of sport and entertainment, and later with engineering students who are building their own race cars from the ground up.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth

After receiving USF-themed football jerseys from the Muma College of Business and USF Athletics, Chitwood and Kenseth stopped by Assistant Professor Michelle Harrolle's "American Issues in Sport & Entertainment" class. These students in the USF Sport & Entertainment MBA/MS program spoke with the visitors about how the business of racing, from sponsorships to marketing to fan experience, has changed and grown over the last decade. They had a chance to ask both the race car driver and the businessman about what it takes to be successful in this industry.

Chitwood acknowledged that corporate sponsorship plays a big role in the big business, where the 10 most valuable NASCAR teams generate a combined $890 million in revenue, according to Forbes.

"Racing cars would not go fast if it weren't for sponsors," Chitwood said, distilling the business of racing into one sentence.

He also spoke about the fan-centric marketing that the speedway and NASCAR rely on to keep fans coming back to the races year after year. Each Daytona 500 attracts three times the number of attendees at the Super Bowl, and that fan experience comes down to the details: "did we train the food and beverage folks right? Can we make the experience better?" Chitwood said.

"NASCAR is the most accessible sport of any sport out there," Chitwood said. "You don't get to go to the locker room of a baseball or basketball team ... We've found that if you can get fans close to the athletes, that's when you hook them."

A student asked Kenseth about whether he felt safe racing - about as safe as you can feel at 200-something-mph, he said - but he said the scary part of racing, for him, isn't on the race track at all.

"The most nerve-wracking thing you can do during a tour is something like this," he told the class, saying he was nervous to speak to graduate business students - although they were nicer than his toughest critic ever, a second-grade classroom.

Matt Kenseth and USF Society of Automotive Engineers

Matt Kenseth with the USF Society of Automotive Engineers and their Formula One-style racecar.

Kenseth was in his element when the group traveled over to the USF Racing garage, where he and Chitwood met members of the Society of Automotive Engineers. These mechanical engineering students build Formula One-style racecars from the ground up, entering the vehicles in competitions that gauge not only how fast the cars can go but also how well-designed they are according to technical specifications.

The society competes in at least two competitions a year and is the largest USF-funded student organization that is not sports- or medicine-related. The group is open to students from all disciplines, from public relations to accounting to physics, to handle multiple facets of the organization because it runs like a small business.

Gary De la Rosa, a mechanical engineering senior in charge of suspension and vehicle dynamics for the group, said they try to build all the car parts themselves to get a hands-on experience for what the full engineering process really looks like.

"Employers really find that interesting among engineering students if they know these things before they go into a job," De la Rosa said.

Rajiv Dubey, head of the USF Mechanical Engineering Department and the faculty advisor for USF Racing, told Kenseth that students are often so passionate about the organization they delay graduation to have more time to build cars.

"I tried not to go to school at all so I could race, so I understand," Kenseth joked with the group, before taking a seat in the car the students built last year.

The students talked with Chitwood about finding places to test their cars, and he told them if Daytona were closer, he would let them test on the speedway. Instead, he offered them tickets and garage passes to next Saturday's race. He also gave them a quick business lesson about how they could use this opportunity to their benefit: meeting with racing celebrities is marketing collateral, which can lead to more sponsorships, which leads to more resources, which leads to better competition finishes.

"It's as much turning the wrench as it is selling what you do," Chitwood told them.