Singular focus: Small busy, driven in first 100 days

Iowa Speedway's head man had a daunting task, but has met objectives

Iowa Speedway President Jimmy Small surveys the race track from the Newton Club, above the stands. Small has tackled many objectives set for him so far in his tenure at the track. (Jeremiah Davis/The Gazette)
Iowa Speedway President Jimmy Small surveys the race track from the Newton Club, above the stands. Small has tackled many objectives set for him so far in his tenure at the track. (Jeremiah Davis/The Gazette)

NEWTON – Jimmy Small is a busy man.

As the 28 year-old President of Iowa Speedway, he's had a lot on his plate since taking over the reins of the 7/8 mile speedway in Newton on Dec. 12, 2013. With a mountain of work to do, and a list of objectives to meet from NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, Small hasn't had time for much else.

Typically, presidents (U.S., sure, but he's a president nonetheless) are evaluated after their first 100 days in office. Small laughed at the U.S. presidential comparison, but humored the analogy.

And in trying to sum up those first 100 days, which he eclipsed on March 22, it was all a blur.

“In my previous life, or previous responsibilities, I could look back on time in sections of five days. 'Yeah, that was last week,' or 'That was three weeks ago,'” Small said. “With the amount of work we're all putting in here, it's working every day. It's long hours right now. It's just this really long string at this point, dating back to before Christmas.

“It's hard to have this sense of time. I've never felt this way before. It's really difficult to feel like it's 100 days. You can't compare it to anything else, because I've never done anything like this before.”

Small sees himself as somewhat of a perfectionist these days – which is definitely not something he could have said of himself in his days as a student at Notre Dame.

When he sat down with France in September 2013 – before NASCAR had even finalized the purchase of Iowa Speedway – one of the most powerful men in all of auto racing slid a “blueprint,” which had a list of 22 objectives, across the desk. On it were things he wanted Small to accomplish in a hurry (hold that thought).

Still, Small insists the pressure sitting on him doesn't come from a big office in Daytona Beach. It comes from that drive he found in himself when he graduated and left South Bend.

“I think the pressures I've felt have all been self-manifested,” Small said. “I think I've created them and put them on myself. That's sort of how I've always approached things.

“There's just something about this worth and this value and just being proud of what you do that I just sort of walked into on my first day at NASCAR down in Daytona Beach. It just sort of snowballed, and as you sort of get more responsibility and more projects to work on, the greater the pressure on yourself. I would say that's where the pressure really comes from.”

Most days, Small doesn't have time to leave his office.

We're talking, forgets-to-eat-lunch busy. It's a situation that has almost become habitual, and prompted Small to proclaim he wants to get a mini-fridge to put under the left side of his vast, L-shaped desk so he'll be reminded to eat something between conference calls.

Small told the story of hearing Stephen P. Holmes, CEO of Wyndham Worldwide, speak at an event while he was in school about the sacrifices it takes to be successful. What stood out – among many things, he said – was the suggestion to not take a ton of vacation at a young age, something that runs contrary to today's Spring Break and you're-only-young-once philosophies.

But Small took it to heart, and has found himself to be a workaholic ever since.

“You don't want to be a workaholic to be a workaholic, or just to work for work's sake,” Small said. “Finishing out college, realizing that I had a sincere and authentic passion for sports and sports marketing, I realized: 'OK, if I want to be successful, and if I really want enjoy what I do and put the time and effort in, this is probably the life I want to pursue.'”

The life he's pursued hasn't been a burden, either.

Small will tell anyone willing to listen how much fun he has at his job, how much time he spends thinking about work and more things Iowa Speedway could be doing to connect with fans and bring about a great race-day experience.

It's even cut out almost any ability to have a personal life. Small lives in Des Moines, but hasn't had a chance to carve much spare time out other than a few cousins he found out lived in the area after he moved to Iowa.

“Nope. None, to be honest,” Small said, through laughter, about if he's had time for a personal life. “I've had a few hours here and there where I've had the ability to go spend time with my cousins.

“Their son turned 1, and I went over there for the birthday party. I took three Iowa Speedway shirts, and the reason I took three was because I'd never met or seen him before. I said 'I'll take three different sizes. One will fit and hopefully he'll grow into the other two.'”

All joking aside, the sacrifices Small has made in the way of his personal life have proved to be beneficial professionally.

The “blueprint” France gave him was a daunting one, and absolutely required the commitment Small has given. The biggest challenge, Small said, was the timeline in which to get things done.

NASCAR acquired Iowa Speedway the day before Thanksgiving 2013. Traditionally, Small said, Iowa Speedway had set renewal for ticket sales around Oct. 1. Add to that moving the first event weekend from June 7-8 in 2013 to May 17-18 this year – or “moving both bookends closer together,” as Small put it – he and his team lost out on three months in which to get so much done.

Still, in his first 100 days, Small was able to accomplish what he set out to. He's done so while checking in weekly with NASCAR superiors like Vice President of Industry Services Jill Gregory (who Small directly reports to), Executive Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell, Vice President of Strategic Development Eric Nyquist and France himself.

The major objective he and his group have gotten done is extending the sales tax rebate incentive from the state of Iowa – which allows Iowa Speedway to earn a five percent back off the sales taxes from purchases at the speedway, with the remaining two percent going back to schools and local governments – to 2026. The rebate allows the speedway to invest back in itself, and so far, it has only collected $3.5 million out of the original bill, which allowed the speedway to claim up to $12.5 million. Extending that time frame, while keeping the $12.5 million cap, will allow for more and bigger plans.

A hurdle Iowa Speedway had to cross was a stipulation of the original bill awarding that rebate was that the company controlling the speedway had to be based in Iowa, and NASCAR, of course, is not. On April 2, Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed that bill, “SF 2341, Iowa Speedway bill” into law, with language in the bill changed to grant eligibility for the rebate to an out-of-state business.

Other items on the blueprint focused on typical racetrack goals – new marketing strategies, drawing new fans and sponsorship collaborations.

“We've made it through every one of his objectives,” Small said. “It's been really, obviously, rewarding, but it hasn't been as challenging as I thought when I looked back in September because the team here is so good.

“Tackling these objectives has been really a good experience, a good exercise, and I think we've exceeded expectations with each one of those objectives so far.”

With the big stuff marked off the checklist within those first 100 days, Small and his team now look forward to what can be done in the 40 days between now and when cars hit the track for the first time in 2014.

And, as if there was ever any doubt, he's still going to keep himself busy.

“We still have about (six) weeks to go before our first event weekend, so as we go through the blueprint and these objectives, we're creating new ones,” Small said. “What else can we accomplish before then? What other value can we bring to the speedway, to our events that our customers and everyone else watching will enjoy?”


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