An In-Depth Interview with IHRA President Aaron Polburn and CEO Jason Rittenberry

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NORWALK, Ohio (February 14, 2013) – During the last weekend in January one of the biggest announcements in the history of the International Hot Rod Association was made as the ownership group at Palm Beach International Raceway and Memphis International Raceway headed by President and CEO Jason Rittenberry acquired 100 percent of the IHRA and its assets under the new name IHRA Entertainment.

 

With Rittenberry and partners Michael Dezer, Joseph Lubeck and Edward Kobel at the helm big plans are in store for the IHRA and all of its series, but a lot of questions still remain. Are there other tracks on the ownership group’s radar? What does this mean for the racer and for Nitro Jam? What are the long-term plans for the company? With so many questions still on the table we decided to sit down with IHRA President and General Manager Aaron Polburn and IHRA Entertainment CEO Jason Rittenberry to ask those very questions and a few more.

 

How did this deal come about?

 

Aaron Polburn: It was an overnight deal that essentially took over two years to come together. Jason and the investors started to look at the company a couple of years ago about the time when we changed the sportsman and Nitro Jam formats. When we made the changes I think they were sitting back and waiting to see if we were going to fail or progress with the new look. But as we progressed, so did their interest.

 

What made this entire thing so nice is that, in reality, we were never for sale. They pursued us which, when you think about it, makes total sense. They knew we were on the right track and beyond that they wanted to accumulate more tracks and also guarantee the content. We are the content so it really is a perfect match.

 

Jason Rittenberry: As Aaron mentioned we as the ownership group decided we really wanted to branch out of just being a track operator and operating the facility here in Palm Beach. We really wanted to look at growing our company, reaching out to new ventures and one of those ventures happened to be the entertainment side of the business. We wanted not only the tracks but also the entertainment content to put at those tracks.

 

Three years ago we really started looking at the options available to us and looked at the industry within the drag racing world, and there obviously weren’t many options available for us to try and acquire. But in March of 2010 we made contact with the folks at Feld through some contacts I had in the entertainment business and we scheduled a meeting in New York with Kenneth Feld and a few other folks and really started the conversation down the path we are on today.

 

Our goal from day one was to be an all-encompassing company. We want to find quality tracks to acquire and to have our own quality content to put at those tracks. We also want to take some of the ideas that we have as a company and implement those through an established brand and the IHRA was the brand that we chose to really go after. We were very aggressive in going after the company and it took longer than we had hoped, but now almost three years later we were able to close the deal and consolidate the companies into what is IHRA Entertainment today.

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IHRA Entertainment CEO Jason Rittenberry

 

Tell me a little bit about yourself Jason?

 

JR: I have been a track operator since 2000. I spent 10 years as Vice President and General Manager at Memphis Motorsports Park under the Dover Motorsports Company. Under our brand of companies we owned the Dover International Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, Memphis Motorsports Park and Gateway International Raceway and throughout the time I was with the company we also owned the Long Beach Grand Prix, the Denver Grand Prix and the St. Pete Grand Prix.

 

I spent 10 years with that company running their Memphis operations prior to relocating to Palm Beach and taking this new position as President and CEO of Palm Beach International Raceway. Since then obviously we have acquired my old track in Memphis, renamed it Memphis International Raceway and we are thrilled to be operating that facility again. And now with the new acquisition of the IHRA, all of that falls under the one corporate umbrella of IHRA Entertainment.

 

What has being a track owner taught you that you can bring over to the IHRA?

 

JR: First and foremost is customer service. Customer service is paramount to success. That is the one thing from a sanctioning body standpoint and a track operator standpoint that has to be one and the same. I have seen it as a track operator over the years when a series comes into town once a year and customer service is not always high on their priority list. Most of the time when a series comes to town they have different priorities versus that of the track operators and that just can’t happen. Customer service has to be our number one priority because the racers that are coming to our track and the fans that are coming to our track are the same racers and fans that are going to be coming back the next week and the week after that. We have to do everything in our power to accommodate those racers and fans, give them a great environment and make sure we take care of them. Whether that is a friendly greeting or providing the services they need.

 

From a track operator standpoint that is the one thing that we have to make sure we transition to. When we go into a local market those racers are not only our members as IHRA, but also they are the tracks local customers. These guys are shelling out their hard-earned dollars to come to our event and we have to treat them as such.

 

How exciting is it to finally have the sole focus of an ownership group?

 

AP: You have no idea how exciting this is. Through no fault of anybody, we were just a very small little creature in a big animal kingdom before and now we are the only animal. To have the resources available, to have guys involved that like drag racing to begin with, it is huge. The ability to get things done quickly is enormous. This is a very good thing for all of us to be the primary focus of an organization.

 

What does this mean for the sportsman racer?

 

AP: We have, in my opinion, one of the best sportsman programs, if not the best sportsman program in the world. What this means is a continuation and an interest in that level of racing. We understand, from the IHRA side, that that is our base. They understand that it is our base. And with Summit signing on for a number of more years, AMSOIL signing on for a number of more years, it means that sportsman racing is here to stay. They want to keep what we have and try to improve upon it like we have over the last few years. They understand what sportsman racing means to the IHRA and they want to keep it that way. They are focused on the big picture and that is making money. Whether that means increased membership, increased sponsorship, increased participation, and increased ticket sales – they are focused on taking that next step toward making the IHRA an even bigger company than it is today.

 

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IHRA President and General Manager Aaron Polburn

 

How exciting is it to have home tracks, especially ones as nice as Palm Beach International Raceway and Memphis International Raceway?

 

AP: It really is nice. You always want a base of business and now we have a base of business in Florida. Obviously Florida is a huge market for us and Memphis is a great facility, but the other part in this deal is that we have accumulated some really good people. A business runs on the quality of its people and the staffs at Palm Beach and Memphis are top notch. Even before this whole thing came about I have said that there are many people inside that organization that I would like to bring here, and now, through the acquisition, we get to work with them side-by-side.

 

And I don’t believe they are done snapping up race tracks just yet, either. That doesn’t mean we are going to buy tracks just to buy tracks; we are going to buy tracks to increase the value of the company and make some money.

 

Tell me a little bit about the plans to expand the new IHRA Entertainment family of home tracks?

 

JR: Yes, there are plans to add more tracks to the company. At this point we are looking at three or four additional race tracks. Ideally we would like to have six tracks spread throughout the country and the content with the IHRA series to be able to provide those six or so home tracks

 

What is it going to mean as more and more tracks get added to the IHRA family?

 

AP: What that means is it opens up a lot of doors. Instead of just being IHRA, now we are IHRA with this track and that track. It gives us an opportunity to create a North American package if not a global package that we can take to sponsors and say ‘look, you can get IHRA and all of its assets if you get on board plus the naming rights at Palm Beach, naming rights at Memphis and so on.’ Once you put all of those pieces together you can put together a pretty substantial package for a potential sponsor that we have never had before. We get to go after bigger fish is really what I am saying.

 

So the new ownership group really bought into what the IHRA has been doing?

 

AP: They like the business plan. They like the way the sportsman deal is going. They like the way the entertainment facet of this company is going. Joe Lubeck said that he wants IHRA to be the best Triple-A baseball team in the world. If you are not familiar with baseball, Triple-A is just a step away from the majors. It is fun, it is profitable and it is very cool and that is how we have to think of this thing.

 

We are not NHRA. We have no interest to be NHRA and we certainly don’t want to participate in the kind of business plan that they have now because we have been there and we know what happens. These are guys that looked at us from a financial perspective and said, you know what, there is progress here and it is time to act and take this thing to the next level. That is what makes it so exciting.

 

It sounds like this group can really bring a lot to the IHRA table.

 

AP: The key guy here is Jason. I can tell you in this negotiation period he was the point guy. I knew Jason before, always respected what he did, but this guy has some business sense that I was not aware of. I knew we were getting a good guy in Jason, what we got is a great guy and a great group. These guys are big thinkers. They are not focused on the little things; they are focused on how we grow this thing and end up in China or someplace like that.

 

What does this mean for Nitro Jam and the entertainment portion of the IHRA?

 

JR: Bigger and better, that is our plan and that is our model moving forward. We want to take the current model that has been working for the IHRA, whether that is Nitro Jam, Thunder Jam or the Pro-Am Tour, and we want to take that model and make it bigger and better. We want to provide the groundwork that the sanctioning body needs to build those events and bring more fans and racers through the gate and give them more entertainment value for their dollar. More pyro, more jets, more Top Fuel, whatever it may be that we need to add to the show, that is our goal and that is what we want to do with the brand and with the company.

 

AP: If we can think it up and it makes sense we finally have the resources to do it. For example we always talk about what is the next big thing in this sport. I have got some ideas on what that next big thing is, but it is going to take a certain amount of cash to formulate the idea and take it to market. Essentially whatever we can dream up that can grow this company the funding is there to do it. Honestly right now I can’t think as big as they do, but even at 61 I can still learn pretty quickly.  It is a really good time to be IHRA.

 

What are your long-term plans for the IHRA?

 

JR: Well, our short-term plans are to successfully operate the 2013 season as planned. The timing of the acquisition was not ideal, the IHRA was a little too far into the 2013 season as far as planning for us to implement much change. So our plan right now is to support the plans that are in place and make those as successful as possible and provide any additional tools and resources that are needed for the current plan that is in place.

 

Our long term plans are to evaluate and elevate every facet of IHRA, Nitro Jam and Thunder Jam.  Our goal is to find that combination of competitive racing, motorsports entertainment and profitability that we can take to market and separate us from the other available products.  We have a lot of exciting plans for the future and we can’t wait to see where it takes us.

 

About IHRA Motorsports

Headquartered in Norwalk, Ohio, the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) promotes professional, semi-professional and local level racing for drivers of all levels. The Nitro Jam Drag Racing Series is a North American professional drag racing series comprised of events in major cities throughout the United States and Canada. The IHRA also oversees multiple sportsman racing programs including the Summit Racing Equipment Pro-Am Tour presented by AMSOIL, Summit Racing Equipment SuperSeries presented by AMSOIL and Summit Racing Equipment Tournament of Champions presented by AMSOIL. For more information on IHRA Motorsports visit www.ihra.com.