BROOKLYN, MI – If you drive by Michigan International Speedway and see a guy mowing the grass, it might not be a maintenance worker.
It may be the new track president.
“It sounds funny, but being on a lawn mower, you kind of get to see things from a different perspective,” said Joe Fowler, 43, who became the president of MIS in November. “You get to see buildings and things that might need to be touched up. Or you’ll go to a different part of the property and see an area you haven’t seen before.”
Fowler’s also been seen sandblasting, repainting the garages and pulling weeds. And that’s in addition to his presidential duties, where he’s coordinating sponsors, workers and events at the speedway.
“I try to help where I can and just try to get myself familiar with MIS as a whole,” Fowler said. “But I have a lot of fun doing it, too.”
Fowler’s first big test comes this weekend, as MIS hosts a trio of NASCAR events Aug. 6 and 7. The series now just makes one trip to MIS each summer, highlighted by the FireKeepers Casino 400 Cup Series race at 3 pm Sunday.
Rick Brenner stepped down as MIS president in August 2021. Brenner’s background was in minor league baseball, and he only spent part of the year in Michigan – and the rest back in New Hampshire with his family.
Fowler’s background is in racing.
He’s worked for either Kansas Speedway or for NASCAR since 2003, other than a brief marketing role with McDonald’s in 2015, per his LinkedIn page. Fowler worked for a local sprint car team in college, traveling to dirt tracks across central Missouri and learning the business of racing.
He attended his first race as a 12- or 13-year-old at State Fair Motor Speedway in Sedalia, Missouri – just a few minutes from where he grew up.
“I grew up in a do-it-yourself type family, so I grew up working on cars and learning how to fix things,” Fowler said. “It’s a huge part of what the sport is – fine-tuning a vehicle to make it go as fast as you can.”
Fowler’s family never raced – although his father was in the highway patrol for 35 years.
“He got his share of high-speed driving,” Fowler said.
Fowler worked at Kansas Speedway for more than a decade.
While “Kansas” and “NASCAR” may give off rural vibes, the track is located in the suburbs of Kansas City and at the intersection of two major expressways. There’s a casino, an outlet mall and Great Wolf Lodge within feet of the speedway.
Meanwhile, MIS has a very different setting. It’s in the middle of the cornfields and there isn’t an expressway within 10 miles of the track.
Nestled in the Irish Hills and surrounded by lakes, MIS has 1,400 acres of property and nearly 9,000 campsites. Fowler guesses he’s visited every acre by now. And he’s impressed.
“Gosh, it’s a vast place,” he said.
The track opens up the campsites on Monday morning of race week for people to start moving in – and there’s always a line of campers eagerly waiting. There’s a reason you can’t drive down a road in the Irish Hills in the summer without seeing a camper or a boat, Fowler said.
“It’s this unique blend of being in this very serene, beautiful, great outdoor environment. And then you come here to watch this action on the track that’s very loud and in-your-face and intense,” Fowler said. “It’s a cool blend.”
It’s a blend MIS needs to own – and market – Fowler said.
“That’s one of the reasons our fans love this place so much,” he said.
Fowler is in his element outdoors, and the area reminds him of his small hometown of Clinton, Missouri.
His favorite part on the MIS property is the Graves Family Campground lake. He’ll sit back with his wife and his two “maniac” Australian shepherds and watch the geese and the deer.
While MIS may be owned and operated by NASCAR – which is based in North Carolina – Fowler wants MIS to reconnect with its community. Step one for Fowler was moving to the village of Brooklyn – population 1,300.
“We want to be a part of the fabric of the community,” Fowler said. “People think about music festivals and things that are very obvious. But we use this property for police training, we have driving schools where customers can come out and drive an actual stock car…but we also have driving schools where young people can come in and learn to drive a car. So it’s really just trying to think outside the box and look at the property as more of a multi-use facility than just a race track.”
In the short term, Fowler is anxiously excited for his first race weekend as MIS track president. His extended family is coming from Missouri to watch their first MIS race, and Fowler’s dad is already on the property offering a hand wherever it’s needed.
There are early positive signs. The infield campground inside the 2-mile track is sold out for the first time since 2012. Other campground spots and grandstand tickets remain, but officials say sales are trending higher than recent years.
Momentum is building in the sport, as 2022 is the first year for the Next Gen car in the Cup Series.
The new cars are sculpted to look more like the cars in the showroom, and they’re engineered to produce better racing and create parity. Fans have been most pleased so far with the action at the tracks 1.5 miles and larger – a trend MIS officials hope continues this weekend.
“It’s just a blast to watch,” Fowler said. “It’s made people want to get back to the track.”
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For an updated list of stories from MIS this NASCAR race weekend, click here.