The NASCAR Racing Experience provides driving enthusiasts of all ages and walks of life high-speed thrill drives and ride-alongs at major American tracks – Daytona, Talladega, Texas, Las Vegas and Charlotte, to name a few – real high-adrenaline, bucket-list stuff. Over the past two decades, the company has put smiles on close to two million customers’ faces, and with a good safety record to boot.
All of this is the brainchild of Robert J. Lutz, 50, NRE’s maverick founder, and who has been written about by this reporter more than once. Though he is CEO, Lutz readily admits that his employees are what really make the company tick, most of them in the background quietly performing services like car and tire maintenance, seat-harness buckling, telephone bookings, spotting for students on track, ride-car driving, photography, etc. Think of them as the pit crew for a well-known NASCAR or IndyCar driver.
Given this, I thought it would be interesting to explore the back-office concept more closely, and show the support crew some deserved recognition. Jay Clement, 52, oversees track operations at both Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway for NRE, and is intricately familiar with what goes on behind the scenes at a racing school. Following are edited excerpts from a longer conversation with Clement.
Jim Clash: Discuss how important car maintenance and safety are to NRE’s overall track operations.
Jay Clement: Maintenance and safety of our cars is paramount. A well-maintained piece of equipment, regardless of what it is, is usually a safe piece of equipment. There is no point at which we do not take this idea seriously, whether we are on track, or off.
Off-track periods are when we do the lion’s share of preventive maintenance based on the car’s mileage, tracked by computer during the time it has been on track. This maintenance is much more intensive – and critical – than what’s done to your average street machine. The car is also subjected to nut-and-bolt inspections to ensure everything is tight, as well as to structural-integrity checks, due to the constant forces acting upon the chassis and tires.
Our head mechanic, Doug Howard, and assistant mechanic/tire tech Andrew Gale, follow a very specific work order checklist to ensure that no item is overlooked. Our on-track operations manager, Mike Carollo, a skilled mechanic himself, is also an overseer of the maintenance program. No car is put into service at Daytona or Talladega without the approval of all of these staff members.
Clash: Your company is in the business of risk management, and has a good safety record over the years. Congratulations. But when something unexpected does happen, how do you deal with it?
Clement: In an industry such as this, odds are that, at some point, something will go wrong. Driver error, whether student or employee, is something we take as many steps as possible to prevent. Our ride-driver training program, for current employees, is strenuous and lengthy. Ultimately, it is not for everyone, given the enormous responsibilities that go along with taking a customer safely around a racetrack at 165 mph.
As for student drivers, they must attend a training class that provides them the basics to have a safe and enjoyable driving experience while at the same time following the commands of an NRE instructor via a two-way-radio system in each car. In the event of a rare mechanical or tire failure, a full report is made, then submitted to management at our Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters. Recommendations are made, if necessary, to prevent the incident from occurring again.
Clash: How has your own previous career helped with overseeing operations at big tracks like Daytona and Talladega?
Clement: In 2014, I retired from a rewarding career as a state trooper with the Massachusetts State Police. One of the frequent collateral duties I had had was Field Training Officer (FTO) for newly-graduated troopers. The FTO program lasts three months, during which time the new troopers ride along with their FTOs. Not long into the program, the new trooper will start to take over driving duties. The FTO then continues to mentor that individual while keeping both of them safe during each and every call.
I found the experience to be helpful during NRE’s right-seat Richard Petty Driving Experience program, when instructors rode along with student drivers. It felt very familiar to my FTO trooper-training experiences. An operations manager is a position where you must always have the right answers. My experiences as a state trooper have helped me with having those answers here, at NRE.
Clash: How fast do the stock cars go at Daytona, and how do you keep drivers and riders safe with more than one car at a time on the track?
Clement: Our ride cars at Daytona generally achieve speeds in the neighborhood of 165 mph. I say generally, because many factors come into play. One is wind, both direction and speed. Another is traffic. There may be as many as four student cars on track at the same time as the ride drivers are. It is up to the spotter instructors to guide their students through the process of being passed by faster ride cars. The ride drivers also must know when and where to safely pass student cars, so that the drives and rides are both enjoyable and safe for all of our customers.
Clash: Other than safety maintenance, what are some other behind-the-scenes operations important to NRE’s success?
Clement: The goal of NRE is to put customers into the seats of our racecars. Doing this competently and safely requires a network of trained professionals to guide the customers from initial bookings through actually loading them into the cars. While an experience can be completely booked online, including purchasing upgrades and souvenir merchandise, our call center is always ready to walk a customer through the booking experience and to answer any questions during the process.
We also have corporate sales representatives who can arrange and book special private track events for companies looking to reward and/or provide morale- and team-building, packaged in a fun, unforgettable event. Along with our mechanical staff, which is vital and whose importance cannot be overstated, without all of these back-office team members, putting cars on track would be nearly impossible.
Clash: How critical is a student’s helmet, HANS device and five-point-belt-harness system to safety? The car itself?
Clement: The importance of a proper helmet in this industry goes without saying. Countless drivers have been spared serious injury and death due to properly-fitted helmets. Our newly-hired employees are trained how to select an appropriately-sized helmet for each customer, regardless of whether they are a student driver or a ride-along customer.
Along with the helmet, an appropriately-sized HANS (Head And Neck Support) device is fitted to each customer. The device is now mandatory across nearly all race-sanctioning organizations. Its most basic function is to limit skull and spinal fractures during heavy collisions. The HANS device is attached with locking lanyards to the customer’s helmet, and is also secured by the shoulder belts of the five-point harness. The helmet, HANS device and safety harness all work in concert to provide customers with the highest degree of safety.
Another safety aspect of our program is the car itself. Many are retired racecars from top-level NASCAR teams that we retrofit for our purposes. Others in our fleet are purpose-built in-house, made to the same standards as top-level team cars. All of our cars are built with a high level of structural integrity. They may look like their street-legal counterparts, but they are built to be much safer.
Clash: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected NRE, and how have you dealt with it?
Clement: Like many other small businesses across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit us hard. We are in the motorsports entertainment industry. With people losing jobs and being more frugal with their dollars, companies like NRE are not high on the list of day-to-day priorities. A large part of our customer base is from tourism. This is especially true here at Daytona. We initially did endure a shutdown of on-track operations. But our off-track duties continued with the hopes that we would resume running track events, and ultimately we did.
We continue to provide a quality product for customers, and that is reflected in the steadily-increasing attendance and sales of late. With respect to the pandemic, our company has put a screening process in place for each and every person attending our track events, not just for the participating customer. We’ve enacted several procedures for our employees, too, such as masks and gloves, social distancing and frequent sanitizing of our gear and cars.
Clash: NRE is a customer-driven experience. Given the unique nature of what you provide, describe the feedback you hear and see from those customers?
Clement: Our customers are from all walks of life, and from all over the world. But the one common denominator is the level of excitement they express when emerging from the car. They are jubilant, many raising their hands in victory, raving about the speed in the corners, the G-forces they have just experienced. Many are not even race fans, and marvel at how professional drivers on television make it look so easy. They are amazed that the pros can race for hours and hours nonstop. Every once in a while, a customer is so thrilled that a few four-letter words articulate exactly how much fun it was, much to the dismay of parents who may be spectating with their child.