DOVER — A week before cars thunder around Dover International Speedway, the atmosphere is surprisingly calm.
A car circles the track at a sedate pace. A paint truck sits next to the intimidating outer wall. Red, white and blue Toyota pickup trucks present a patriotic splash of color between Turns 3 and 4.
Like the track, the man behind the wheel of the white SUV appears prepared to calmly handle whatever may be thrown his way — from bees in a portable toilet to an ill-timed pothole interrupting a race. And why not? Jerry
Dunning is a 42-year veteran at making sure Dover International Speedway is ready for drivers and fans alike.
Born and raised on a Kent County farm, Mr. Dunning, of Smyrna, took a job in the speedway’s maintenance department the fall of 1972. Today, he’s the general manager and senior vice president of operations of Dover Motorsports.
“His story is a real true American story of success, of starting at the bottom and working up to oversee everything,” says company president and CEO Denis McGlynn. “He’s done a remarkable job, growing with the job, and growing the company. He’s a leader among us.”
For his part, Mr. Dunning didn’t know what to expect when he interviewed for a job all those years ago.
A 1971 graduate of Smyrna High School, he had attended a trade school for heavy equipment after graduation.
“I thought I wanted to be in the construction industry,” he says. A call from an uncle employed at the speedway put him on a different career track.
“He called me one day and said we have a job opening at the track that you may be interested in. … I came down and talked to the maintenance superintendent at that time and he hired me. That’s how it all started.”
The job was managing a small crew of people doing maintenance on the track and grounds. It also involved operating the heavy equipment. “They didn’t have anybody they thought they could trust to operate the equipment. So I was the quasi equipment man, the utility maintenance man.”
Running the equipment came naturally to Mr. Dunning from working on his father’s farm. So did work.
“I learned what hard work was at an early age,” he says. Now, he works harder, but in a different way.
It’s a labor of love, though, and he appreciates seeing the fruition of the various teams’ efforts.
“You can’t do these things without great people and we have a lot of great people working here. So it’s seeing these people working together, accomplishing the goal of having a successful weekend,” Mr. Dunning says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The early years
Within six years of being hired as the “quasi equipment man,” Mr. Dunning was in charge of all the maintenance for the entire facility, including auto racing, the harness track and barn area. Back then, horses were stabled at Dover Downs. Today, the horses ship in to run at the horse track inside the concrete one-mile oval.
“The place has changed dramatically as a result of both industries,” he says. “Both the car racing and horse racing industries changed significantly in different directions at different times.”
Mr. Dunning also has shepherded the facility’s expansion projects.
“In 1972 there were 20,000 seats here. We started adding seats in the auto facility in 1986, and continued adding seats until 2001,” he says. “That’s a long span of a lot of construction projects to manage, to overlook and to oversee, making sure the contractors are doing what they are supposed to do, making sure our team is doing what needs to be done to keep it going.”
The next major project might well be the removal of some of those seats, following the example of International Speedway Corp.’s tracks, as race attendance has declined from its peak at the turn of the century. Today, Dover can seat 113,000, a seating capacity greater than Daytona.
“We’re still evaluating that internally,” Mr. Dunning says.
When Mr. Dunning arrived in 1972, the track, which held its first race in 1969, was asphalt, but when time came to replace the surface in the late 1980s, mid-1990s, company officials decided to switch to concrete.
The concrete with its projected 30-year lifespan has proven to be more durable than asphalt and also requiring less maintenance over time.
“Certain things you have to pay attention to obviously.” Mr. Dunning, sitting at the entrance of pit road, scans the track and infield. “But, as you can see, except for a few weeds and some paint chips, you could run a race here today.”
Six to seven people on the maintenance team work year round, cleaning and caulking joints of the concrete slabs, doing some spot fixes caused by wrecking cars. Ditto for pit road with its asphalt surface. It gets sealed every half dozen years or so. They also keep an eye on cracks. He squints at the line between pit road and the concrete racing surface.
“The one here looks like it’s going to need caulking. As soon as it opens up some, we will caulk it so water doesn’t get in it. Water is the enemy in the wintertime in this part of the country.”
The SAFER Barrier – an engineered wall that combines steel and foam blocks to absorb and reduce the kinetic energy of a car slamming into it – also gets attention, especially the foam blocks.
“Typically, we test the blocks every five to six years,” Mr. Dunning says. “We replaced the outside blocks six years ago.”
The staff expands significantly on race weekend with special crews tasked with safety and repairs. Mr. Dunning’s weekend warriors are local people, hired by Dover Motorsports, and who receive NASCAR training annually.
Before each race over the weekend, they circle the track, walking abreast, looking for a piece of concrete that doesn’t look quite right, maybe a chip, or foreign matter in the joints of the concrete, maybe a piece of wire or something caught that didn’t get blown away by the sweepers.
Painters are contracted to freshen the walls and touch up signs in the days before race weekend. They remain on call during the weekend to repair any damage done by cars kissing the wall.
Mr. Dunning, a one-time fan of drag racing and all-around car buff, has little opportunity to relax once the race begins. “There’s so many other things going on,” he says. “Maybe a maintenance crew dealing with a plumbing issue somewhere.”
Not every problem that pops up gets the national focus like the unexpected pothole that developed during the June 1 race, forcing a 20-minute red flag of the FedEx 400 Benefits Autism Speaks.
Some problems, including one of the oddest in Mr. Dunning’s memory, result in lasting procedures.
“Honeybees relocated to a Port-A-John on pit road. Massive amounts of honeybees. We had to get a beekeeper. Since that happened we try to have a beekeeper on call,” he says. “It’s happened more than once.”
Most people after 40-plus years on the job might flirt with the notion of retiring. Mr. Dunning seems surprised by the question. He still enjoys what he does, much to the relief of his co-workers at Dover Motorsports.
“He is the glue that keeps this whole place together,” says Mike Tatoian, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Dover Motorsports. “We are never going to let him retire. He’ll be here when he’s 95.”
Mr. McGlynn, who has five months seniority with the company on Mr. Dunning, concurs.
“He absolutely can’t retire. No way. If I’m still here, he has to be here.”