It isn’t the job Julie Bennett envisioned when she graduated law school, but in one way, Vice President of Bristol Dragway makes perfect sense.
The sport of drag racing has been well ahead of the curve providing opportunities for talented women.
Still, Bennett was caught off guard in September 2009 when former Bristol Motor Speedway President Jeff Byrd gave her the news he was promoting her beyond a role of general counsel for the speedway to the person in charge of the dragway.
“I was at a Kingsport law firm for about 15 years,” she explained. “Part of working in a law firm, you become a partner and business owner. I really adapted well to the business side of it.
“Jeff Byrd was wonderful to give me an opportunity to expand on that. As he was so good at doing with so many people, he always had that way of putting that confidence in you.”
Byrd didn’t go way out on a limb.
Bennett, a 1982 graduate of Sullivan North High School and later an Auburn University graduate, had already proven herself both at the speedway and as the chairperson for the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. That experience paid off in the new position, which meant working with all the different departments at the speedway and dragway.
That includes being hands-on with the marketing department which has successfully attracted funding to all major events including the Ford as the title sponsor of the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
When it comes down to ironing out the final details of a sponsorship agreement, Bennett is often the one to close the deal.
“I work on a lot of the contracts with the marketing side,” she said. “The account managers will take it to the deal point and the lawyers will then work out the details. I’m involved in the more complex contracts like our entitlement sponsors and official sponsorships.”
Prior to coming to Bristol, Bennett worked primarily with labor employment, benefits and general corporate cases at the law firm. She saw the opprotunity to work at BMS as somewhat of an adventure, and immediately was surprised at how much goes into putting on a race week.
“It really is year-round preparation,” she said. “We’re working on 2012 plans right now, not just on the speedway side, but the dragway side as well. A personal surprise was how much I really love drag racing. It’s an interesting business with so many different aspects to it.”
Although Tri-Cities civic leaders often have their own agendas with their individual communities, Bennett said they come together to work with Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway.
It’s easy to understand why.
With a seating capacity of 160,000, the speedway is easily the largest sports complex in the state of Tennessee.
It is sometimes easy to overlook the impact of the dragway, but Bennett points out that other than the NASCAR races, the NHRA days feature the biggest sporting crowds in the area.
“We bring in 25,000 to 30,000 people a day for three days,” she said. “That’s people spending in hotels, eating in restaurants and shopping in our stores.
“It’s quite a big economic boost that fits nicely between the spring race and the August race. It’s not 200,000 people like NASCAR, but it’s a lot of people coming in this area for the drag races.”
A married mother of two, her biggest challenge is taking care of the responsibilities at work, while also making sure her family comes first. It can be difficult at times as everyone is expected to put in long hours during a major event.
However, a major event is not the only time it gets hectic.
This past Saturday, a combination of events with the NHRA Jr. Dragster Eastern Conference Finals, “Fan Appreciation Day” and Thompson Metals Monster Truck Madness meant long hours for everyone on the speedway and dragway staff.
Bennett doesn’t mind the work, especially when it means taking care of the customer. With the dragway, there are some definite goals she wants to achieve over the next five years.
“I want to see us sell out every NHRA event,” she said. “It’s a much smaller venue than our NASCAR venue and we should be able to sell it out three days. That’s vision number one.
“Number two, we have to make sure of the regional awareness of the benefits of drag racing. The Street Fights program is incredible, a positive opportunity for kids to race their cars against each other and not be involved in illegal street racing. It’s a way to get that adrenaline out of their system.”
She understands even with the region’s rich history in drag racing, there are a lot of people who still haven’t experienced it first-hand. She encourages those people to come see an event and believes they will understand the race fans’ passion of watching nitro-fueled dragsters roar down the track.
“Drag racing is like a lot of other things, if you just try it, it’s easy to get hooked on,” she said. “It’s different than other sports, but it’s very interesting. It’s very technical, but very exciting to watch those cars race down to the finish.”