Hawks keeps track on track

Wednesday, August 10, 2005 at 1:00am

Conversation with a leader

Your NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Toyota Tundra 200 race is this weekend.

Cliff Hawks, vice president and general manager, Nashville Superspeedway USA Inc.
Age: 36

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in history, Lipscomb University

First conventional job: Staff member for Phil Bredesen's 1991 Nashville mayoral campaign

Hypothetical dream job: Guitar technician for Slash of Velvet Revolver

Previously executive director of the Nashville Sports Authority, Hawks' main task with that entity was to oversee the selling of all Coliseum personal seat licenses. Now, the 36-year-old businessman runs the Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete tri-oval located in Wilson County that opened in 2001.

The facility, owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., annually hosts the Indy Racing League, NASCAR Craftsman Trucks, and two NASCAR Busch Series races. Hawks' ultimate goal is to expand the 35,000-seat track to more than 150,000 seats and help the Nashville Superspeedway land a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race.

This will be the second year of Toyota sponsorship. This event is extremely significant because it's the event on which Toyota hangs its hat in the world of NASCAR and because Toyota has recently entered the sport.

How did you land Toyota?

Several tracks were working to land the Toyota sponsorship. We worked hard to show Toyota that hospitality and customer service are our forte. Toyota brought over 10,000 company employees from plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama and Jackson, Tenn., last year and will do so again this year. That gave the Nashville Superspeedway the opportunity to host the single-largest individual corporate hospitality event in the history of NASCAR.

What is the current personnel situation at the Nashville Superspeedway?

We have 28 full-time staff, and on race weekends we employ approximately 2,100 workers. We have worked to create a level of camaraderie among the staff. The culture is one of everyone helping out in any capacity needed. That is very important when you're running a major motorsports facility. That is why we have been so fortunate in having so little turnover.

What is your business model?

My personal business model is simple: prioritize, focus, persevere. I want to grow a realistic budget and keep a laser-like focus on the bottom line. A racetrack at this level is certainly run just like any other major business. At the end of the day, it is a business.

What are revenues like?

Our fifth year may very well be our most successful. That's encouraging when you consider that at the end of five years, the honeymoon phase is definitely over. I have to defer to Dover for exact figures.

With this type operation, there are safety and liability concerns. How do you approach that?

Last winter, we were one of the first standalone NASCAR Busch Series tracks to implement the "safer wall." That was an $850,000 investment that we made to further ensure the safety of the competitors. By the end of next season, NASCAR will require all venues that host the top three NASCAR divisions to have safer walls in place. The liability for the facility is on the top side, with the main grandstands and with our patrons. Competitors assume risk. While we are required to have all proper operations in place to ensure drivers' safety, we have to be focused on the event side. We work closely with the Office of Wilson County Emergency Management, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Wilson County Sheriff's Department, as well as our own internal security force. All of those agencies work to ensure a safe traffic plan and the safety of the patrons once they are out of their cars and in the facility.

Many lawsuits?

Nothing really over and above what major sporting venues experience. We have an attorney who primarily does work with the Nashville and Memphis tracks, and a general counsel with Dover Motorsports Inc.

What has been your single most frustrating challenge?

Our main frustration is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of NASCAR fans in Middle Tennessee who have not come to the track yet and, most likely, will not until we land a NEXTEL race. We need them to come now. That's not to say we haven't been pleased with the crowds.

What is your approach to advertising?

My advertising and marketing philosophy has changed over the last five years. When you are marketing and introducing a brand new facility, I believe it's important to be in as many markets that speak to your fan base and to the corporate community. But as you establish the brand awareness and your identity in the racing and business communities, it becomes more important to focus on more-targeted advertising. As we finish our fifth year, we are now clearly working to make certain we are speaking directly to race fans. But I always do some general advertising. This season, we will have devoted about 20 percent of our total operating budget to marketing, promotions and advertising.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a businessman?

My strengths are my work ethic and my willingness to take a step back, not make hurried decisions and listen to the good people that I've put in place. My weakness is in taking my job home with me - re-living the day, trying to think about the next day. This is not healthy, and I'm working on it. Luckily, I'm going on vacation in two weeks.

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