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July 18, 2012

The King of Speed

Curtis' short-track pedigree transformed into something big

TERRE HAUTE — Born in Terre Haute, Roger Curtis grew up on Franklin Street, moved to Riley with his family when he was in sixth grade and attended Thornton Elementary School and Honey Creek Junior High before graduating from Terre Haute South High School in 1985.

“I came from a very hard-working, blue-collar background,” recalled Curtis, who took classes at Purdue University for two years before transferring to Indiana State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 1990.

“I learned a great work ethic and financial acumen from my mom and dad.”

Now 45, Curtis is president of Michigan International Speedway (MIS) at Brooklyn, Mich. The 2-mile oval facility, which can hold about 99,000 spectators, serves as host for two NASCAR Sprint Cup races each year as well as NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and ARCA events.

Despite his busy schedule, Curtis recently took time to reflect on his fond memories of Terre Haute and his rise to prominence in the motorsports world to the Tribune-Star.

Catching the racing bug

As a seventh-grader, Curtis checked out his first Terre Haute Action Track race. It was the Hut Hundred for U.S. Auto Club midget cars.

It didn’t take him long to realize he was hooked on watching fast cars and their drivers battle to stay ahead of each other.

“I played tennis one year [at South],” Curtis mentioned. “But I spent most of my time at race tracks. I went to the Action Track. I went to the State Fairgrounds [in Indianapolis] … wherever there was a race within driving distance, I usually went.”

“He was pretty much a race fan,” confirmed his father, Charles Curtis. “He’d run off every once in a while [as a teenager] to watch a race, sometimes without telling me until he got back.”

During Roger Curtis’ teenage years, his favorite drivers were Sammy Swindell in sprint cars, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott in NASCAR and Tom Sneva and Rick Mears in open-wheel racing.

As an ISU student, a maturing Curtis occasionally visited the Ballyhoo Tavern with buddies. But partying ranked much lower on his list of favorite activities than music and racing.

“Usually, I was either at a concert or a race track,” insisted Curtis, whose Terre Haute jobs included being a night-shift bus boy at the south Denny’s and working at the ISU library.

“I didn’t mind the hard jobs … whatever I had to do to make it work.”

Choosing between two passions

Curtis’ goal as a young adult was to save enough money for a trip to Los Angeles so he could start a career in the music industry — not as a singer or guitarist — but working behind the scenes for a record label.

Upon his arrival in L.A., he worked for Capitol Records for about three months before deciding big-city life wasn’t for him.

Curtis then moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he worked for a small record label and waited tables at a Mexican restaurant. That’s where he met his future wife Marla, who was from Michigan and preparing to attend the University of North Carolina.

“I distracted her in a big way,” he said with a chuckle. “We decided this [relationship] was going to work and we’d probably end up being together.”

Once in the early 1990s, Curtis took Marla to a NASCAR Winston Cup race in Charlotte for her birthday. That turned out to be a memorable day in their lives.

“I looked at her and said, ‘I’m going to get a job in racing.’ “ he remembered. “She said, ‘OK, whatever it takes.’ ”

Having determined his future would not be in the music industry after all, Curtis got busy making as many phone contacts as possible to motorsports executives.

“We were in a dumpy apartment,” he mentioned. “She quit school. And we were eating macaroni and cheese every night. But I had decided this [finding a job in motorsports] was what I was going to do.”

Curtis eventually secured a connection at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which he used to work for free for then-NASCAR driver Dave Marcis.

His first real motorsports employment was with Bobby Allison Motorsports in May 1992. His primary responsibility was finding sponsors for Allison’s team.

Curtis continued climbing the racing ladder through the 1990s, marrying Marla in December 1993 in Charlotte along the way. In early 2000, he was promoted to the position of senior director of marketing and sales at Richmond International Raceway in Virginia.

Meanwhile, he had developed a fondness for Michigan International Speedway.

“I kept going to every single race there,” Curtis pointed out. “We had just adopted it. My wife was from Michigan and her family had been going there for years.”

‘Best job in

the world’

In May 2006, Brett Shelton resigned as MIS president. Curtis, who was working as vice president of marketing and sales at California Speedway at the time, received a call offering him the position.

He accepted and hopped on a Michigan-bound plane three days later.

“It’s the best job in the world,” Curtis emphasized six years later. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love the area. We have some great fans here. We’re close to my family and we’re close to my wife’s family.”

Although signing paperwork is one of Curtis’ duties, he’s not the stuffed-shirt type of executive. On the contrary, he enjoys mingling with paying customers.

For example, for every 1,000 Twitter followers he receives, he randomly picks one to hang out with him during the next MIS race.

Earlier this year, a young lady asked Curtis on Twitter if she could marry her sweetheart at MIS because that was where they had met.

Curtis not only said yes, he went online and got himself ordained as a minister so he could conduct the ceremony in Victory Lane after a Nationwide Series race. The happy newlyweds also received a lap in the pace car as part of the deal.

“We’re in the entertainment business,” Curtis explained. “There is a level of professionalism that has to exist… But I have always felt we need to do all that we can do for our fans.

“Our purpose is to create lasting memories every time fans come to our track.”

Curtis certainly accomplished that goal when he dressed like Elvis and played cornhole with fans in the infield after an ARCA race on a Friday night.

“Fans are shocked to see a track president walk through the infield with a drink or grabbing a burger,” he noted.

This year, attendance figures are increasing at MIS.

“Finally, word of mouth is working,” Curtis proclaimed. “MIS is a great place to watch a race.”

Next races at Michigan International Speedway will be the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series VFW 200 on Aug. 18 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 on Aug. 19. For ticket information, call 1-800-354-1010.

Curtis, who returns to Terre Haute to visit family about twice a year, said his father Charles and his sister Michelle Naugle live in the Terre Haute area and his mother Peg Curtis lives in an assisted-living facility in Greencastle. He and Marla have a 12-year-old son and two daughters, who are 9 and 7.

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