Greg Zyla 2016-07-28 11:51:50
Watkins Glen International President Michael Printup reveals the inner workings of one of America’s most iconic road courses, and why this track in Upstate New York remains a destination for countless race series, drivers and fans. This month, we interview one of International Speedway Corporation’s (ISC) multi-talented executives, Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International. A western New York native, the 51-year-old took the reins of The Glen in June 2009, and is responsible for the overall management of one of the world’s most iconic road racing facilities. Previously, Printup served as senior director of facility management at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) and oversaw all business and development work there. However, his very first job with ISC was in 2000 when he served as vice president of Americrown Corporation, which oversees all food and beverage services for ISC-owned speedways and show car projects, including the successful implementation of food and beverage at the new Daytona Rising project at Daytona International Speedway. In March 2015, Printup was again given managerial oversight of Americrown. Prior to joining ISC, Printup spent 15 years at Sportservice Corporation, a Buffalo, New York-based company that provides concessions, catering and fine dining operations at more than 50 professional sporting venues in the United States and Canada. There, he worked with 10 sports stadiums throughout the United States that hosted Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League. In addition to sharing insight about one of America’s premier road racing facilities, on the following pages Printup will also explain how IndyCar’s return happened so quickly after the Boston cancellation earlier this year, who really saved Watkins Glen from becoming another home development project, why media relations are so important to a successful track, and how he and his team work with local charities to better promote the Watkins Glen experience. Printup resides in Horseheads, New York, with his wife Stephanie and their two sons Brendan and Matthew. Sit back and enjoy a candid conversation with Michael Printup. PRI: Michael, let’s start with some very important Watkins Glen history. Back in 1981 and 1982, the track was in such deplorable condition that no events held there were open to the public. SCCA did have a few club events, but no spectators were allowed. Had it not been for Corning Inc., known worldwide for its glassware and high-end optical physics, Watkins Glen might have ended up being either farmland or a housing project. Can you tell our readers how this all happened, and then how ISC got involved with Corning to literally save The Glen? Printup: Glad to, Greg, and I’m glad you brought this up. As you know, the weeds were five feet tall when Corning came forward to save the track, and it was in such bad shape as you note. Corning Inc. had the foresight as a growing company to know that the Watkins Glen racing legacy was important to their company’s future. By that I mean Corning wanted something other than their core glassware business (in their holdings) and also something for their employees to enjoy on the weekends. This is why they got involved in saving The Glen, and why to this day Corning gets involved in so much more like museums, restaurants, cultural events, or whatever. Corning knew that investing in its surrounding area would prove beneficial to the then-3500 employees that lived in this area, and to help attract more employees as the company grew. Today, Corning has 35,000 employees worldwide and over 8000 working out of the Corning complex. So, Corning knew they needed a good place to live that would offer their employees numerous activities to enjoy, from sporting to cultural and everything in between. Everyone has to relax and enjoy. It’s a big part of life. PRI: Who was the catalyst at Corning? Printup: Jim Riesbeck was his name. He did it all and had the vision. He’s the one that convinced Bill France Jr. To come up here in 1986 and put on a NASCAR race after no NASCAR race had been run here since 1965. France Jr. Liked what he saw, and with the NASCAR race success Corning started to give up some percentage ownership to ISC as time went on. ISC then had the opportunity to buy Corning out, which we did in the mid-1990s. But I’m glad you brought this up because the Corning and ISC alliance is such a big story in itself, and I’ll admit that ISC would have never done it alone had Corning’s Jim Riesbeck not had the foresight and the money back then to do what he did. So there is no question that Corning Incorporated saved one of the most famous race tracks in the world. PRI: Every time I attend an event at Watkins Glen, it truly is a “hallowed ground” race track. This year, as you do each April, you opened the doors to allow fans to drive their cars around the track for a nominal fee that is donated to charity. I know when you opened the gates this year there was a beautiful new surface. Can you expand on this? Printup: Sure. It was the successful introduction of our complete re-paving program, which had been in the strategic planning stages for a long time. We had all the paving contracts in place the previous year, and the day after our NASCAR race last August we closed the gates, let all the construction vehicles in, and they finished up the third week of October. Included were the main safety parts of the race track, the curbing, fencing, and then all the painting. Then, all winter long you start planning for opening weekend, which is usually a week before Easter or a week after, and we ended up with a fantastic opening weekend. PRI: Letting the fans drive on the track as the opener of the season isn’t something new, right? Printup: Right, we do it every year where we allow our fans to come out and drive the track for $25. We always pray for good weather starting around January 2, because the whole opening weekend is all for charity. Donating to many area charities is the best part of our opening weekend. We kicked off this year with the New York state and area elected officials doing a ribbon cutting. The media and sponsors were there, and the weather gods gave us beautiful 70 to 75 degree weather all weekend in the middle of April. PRI: I understand you also incorporate green technology on opening day. How do you do that? Printup: We donate the use of the track that opening day Friday afternoon to the Toyota “Green Grand Prix.” (Interviewer’s note: The Green Grand Prix is a single-day event featuring fuel-efficiency competition for pre-registered drivers of alternate fueled vehicles, hybrids and traditional gas and diesel powered vehicles. Individuals, colleges and universities, car clubs and manufacturers are all invited to participate. See www.greengrandprix.com for more.) It’s coupled with The Doris Bovee Memorial Road Rally that is run Friday morning on the area roads. The Green Grand Prix competitors come from as far away as Philadelphia and even Boston to compete in different competitions like solar energy, alternative fuels, battery driven and so on. They all have a blast, and Toyota is our main sponsor arranging the event. Then on Saturday, we go back to opening the track for fans to come in and start going around the track—paced, of course. I knew we were in good shape at 8 a.m. that Saturday morning when the cars were backed up on Route 16 and we didn’t open until 10 a.m. It was line after line by the time the gates opened, and I had to actually sneak in the back way just to get to work that day. We literally had thousands of fans drive the track this year on Saturday and Sunday. PRI: Back in late 2008, I was watching television one night on WENY-TV (Elmira, New York), and on the evening news there is Michael Printup doing the evening sports. I was impressed both by how well you, the new track president, did and the importance of good media relations. So, how important are good media relations nowadays, especially with digital and social out there, too? Printup: Still very, very important, if not even more. I always emphasize the importance of good media relations. Our media is fantastic, and when I say ‘our media,’ I’m talking everything. National media, print, TV, radio, digital, social and all forms as we both well know. Now, because the local and area media are right in our backyard you want to get tighter with them, because you should always develop good relationships. There are many smaller cities and towns to work with, as I can go to a map and draw a big circle from Erie, Pennsylvania, to New York City, and then down to Philly and come all the way back. This is the majority of our demographic circle, not counting national media. So yes, we’re fortunate to have a great relationship with all of our local television, print, radio and digital media. And it is something you work on each year in keeping the communication doors open for the media and making sure we can take care of their needs when it comes to running a facility like this just as they can take care of our needs. It is all crucial to our success. PRI: And can you tell us about the TV sportscaster appearance? Printup: That was actually a bet I lost (picking the highest finisher in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race) to our WENY Elmira, New York, sportscaster, Andy Malnoske, which we did for two years in a row. The deal was if I won, I could go do the television sports on TV. If I lost, I had to give my seat up to Andy and let him run the track for one day. Well, I won the first year and Andy won the second year, so we both got a chance at changing seats for a day. This is the fun stuff you can do with your local media. And that night you saw me on TV, I never read off a teleprompter before and it’s not as easy as the professionals make it look. It was very difficult. He was controlling the speed and I think he knew I was a bit nervous, but we had so much fun doing it. PRI: I’ve got to touch on the return of IndyCar to your schedule this Labor Day weekend. Never have I seen a deal go through as quickly as IndyCar’s return to The Glen. I’m reading the sad news about the Boston street race cancellation, and then a week or so later it’s announced they’re coming back to The Glen. Jay Frye (president of IndyCar) thanked you personally in an Associated Press article, and also noted your giving thanks to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for his assistance. Can you tell us what really happened in putting this deal together so quickly? Printup: Immediately following the Boston cancellation, I was at Talladega at a corporate dinner and my phone kept ringing. It was Jay Frye. I’m one of those people that if I’m engaged with something else, and especially at a dinner, I won’t answer the phone. Finally, I was able to excuse myself after dinner for a few minutes and I called Jay back. I told him I was at a corporate function at a restaurant, and we agreed to talk at 9 p. m. that evening. He told me right away that Boston was going to cancel and we needed to talk. I hadn’t known yet about Boston until that call, other than they were having trouble. PRI: Then at 9 p.m.? Printup: I called Jay back, and we were both in the ‘OK mood,’ our heads were going up and down to the positives and I told him I would know by Monday. We both knew if we could do it, we would, so I told him I’d even give him a call Sunday, too. So, I met with Joie Chitwood III, who is my supervisor, on Sunday at the corporate office. I had the deal laid out in front of him, and Joie said let’s go, and by Sunday afternoon I was emailing everything to Jay. Then, on Monday morning, he and I agreed to the business deal. PRI: And then? Printup: Jay and I both knew we had to put everything in front of the insurance companies and the attorneys, and it’s a piece of the sanctioning agreements that can sometimes get pretty complicated. Now I’m not being critical, it’s just what happens in this world of professional motorsports, with the insurance companies and attorneys that must get involved. Everyone has to be protected, and it has to do with the rights of all parties involved. My job is to protect ISC; Jay has to protect IndyCar. So from the two or three days it took to put the deal together, it took another 10 days to officially get the deal done. PRI: And to sum up the IndyCar deal? Printup: Jay and I both had tremendous energy to get this done. Jay, for obvious reasons, to make sure he could fill his 16-race schedule. As for me, since IndyCar left here in 2010, I always wanted to have them back, but at the time IndyCar didn’t have the desire. It all has to do with putting together a business deal that works. It was perfect timing that IndyCar hired Jay when they did, and they also hired Steven Starks as a vice president. All these relationships made it so easy for Jay and I to get the business deal done. Jay and I literally signed the deal when I flew down to Indy one hour before the press conference. PRI: Personally, I believe IndyCar belongs at Watkins Glen, as it does Pocono, too. And I’m really happy to see them back on your schedule and hope it is for many consecutive years to come. Printup: That was a big part of our discussion, too. I saw him at the IndyCar race at Phoenix with my other hat on (Americrown), and that’s how we left it, as we both want to work together for a bright future. But you’re right about mentioning the Governor of New York, too. He’s lent great support to Watkins Glen, be it an “I love New York” promotion or his just coming over to visit us when he can. His visits are very important to us, as he knows we are the only NASCAR and IMSA facility in New York state. That’s why I mentioned him in the AP article you read—if it weren’t for some of these stakeholder supporters behind the scenes, we wouldn’t be sitting with an IndyCar event on our schedule. We’ll see what happens. We’ll show IndyCar what we can do and they’ll show us what they do, and then we can sit down Monday morning and have a nice talk about our future. PRI: Watkins Glen is one of the few major sporting event venues, and I’m talking all sports here, that has shown upticks in spectator attendance at its many events. What I notice most is the non-NASCAR events, where although the stands are not full, there are thousands and thousands of people everywhere, be it camping, competing, hanging on the fences, partying. Can you tell us how you do it and how many acres you have at The Glen? Printup: We have 1861 acres here, with about 300 of them farm and woods. So we have 1500 acres available, much going to family camping and fun operations. And you are correct about the stands and those camping site experiences. Road racing isn’t really about grandstands. It’s about being next to the rail and being in the pits. It’s the same for IMSA and the vintage events. Our grandstands are huge, so if you put 3000 people in a 20,000 grandstand patch, it looks empty. But then you look and experience the grounds. Wow. If you love to hang out in beautiful country with friends, this is the place. Our fan spectrum is broad based. It’s a good, fun festival atmosphere. We’ve even taken a look again at concerts (The Glen packed 600,000 people into the place back in 1971 for a post-Woodstock concert), and I’m most proud, as you note, that we are one track that is still trending well above in every event we have this year, starting with IMSA, NASCAR Sprint Cup, wine festival, beer festival, SVRA—all are up this year. Obviously we don’t have info yet on IndyCar. We want to keep going in this direction and keep those fans coming in. PRI: Here is the final question: With your varied background, do you feel perhaps corporate America has lost sight of the advantages motorsports offers as a marketing tool for its employees as well as clients? Printup: Yes, I do. On the corporate side, I know they now hesitate on sports marketing where they didn’t before. If you are sitting back from a corporate viewpoint and you want to do something for your team (or clients), I wish some of these executives would look at motorsports as an employee/business partner reward and the marketing tool it is. For a company to bring 20 to 200 employees or clients to the race track and have a great weekend seems to be slowing down. Businesspeople would be very surprised what motorsports can provide as a family and/or a corporate outing adventure. Even if you are not a racing fan, a company or corporation can bring their employees or business partners as a reward and come out to The Glen and really enjoy a facility like this. There’s so much to do in addition to the racing, be it tailgating in the parking lot, bringing the camper, bringing in the coolers (which you can do at Watkins Glen), enjoying a fireside at night roasting marshmallows and enjoying a soda or Budweiser—it’s all here waiting for them. I’m also proud that ISC has in one way or another been the caretaker here for 35 years now, and it really is a humbling experience, especially for me as a native New Yorker to be here. Everyone agrees that it really is hallowed ground here at Watkins Glen. PRI: Thanks very much, Michael, for a great chat. Printup: Greg, thank you very much for this interview. It was a real pleasure to talk with you and continued success to you and PRI.
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