The ‘right’ stuff

Published 8:15 pm Saturday, March 21, 2009

AHOSKIE – Jerry Castelloe was right….if you get Chris, they will come.

In front of the largest crowd ever to assemble for an Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce banquet, nearly 300 people filed into the Ahoskie Inn Thursday evening to hear the success story of one of the town’s most famous sons, Chris Powell.

“I am humbled and overwhelmed by this turnout,” said Castelloe, Executive Vice-President of the Ahoskie Chamber as he looked out from the podium over a full house. “I had a dream six months ago that if we got Chris Powell, they will come. Well, we got Chris and you came.”

Those who did make their way out on a blustery, wet night did not leave disappointed as they learned how a small-town boy from rural northeastern North Carolina has risen in the ranks of motorsports management.

Powell is now in his 10th year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS) where he serves as President and General Manager. That 1,500-acre facility – which includes a 1.5-mile superspeedway, 2.5-mile road course, 1/2-mile dirt oval, drag strip and Go-Kart tracks – operates nearly year-round. It just recently hosted a weekend of NASCAR events.

But it’s a long way from small-town Ahoskie to the glitz and glamour of Vegas. However, of all the fame and success enjoyed by Powell during his professional career, he knows exactly where his good fortunes began.

“You’re looking at the luckiest man on the planet,” Powell said. “My good fortune is not based solely on the fact that I married the most wonderful, caring and beautiful girl in the world … my wife, Missy. Nor is it because we have five sons, fine young men of whom we are extremely proud. Nor is it because I’ve been given a job that I truly love … in a city that’s a dream destination to millions of people around the world. Nor is it simply because I was born to not one, but two sets of parents…Allen and Dorothy Powell of 805 West Church Street and Russell and Emma Martin of 900 West Church Street…two caring moms and two caring dads; how lucky can one guy get?”

He continued, “All of these reasons speak loudly to my great fortune in life, but there is one additional factor that must be mentioned…I was fortunate enough to be born in Ahoskie.”

And why is Ahoskie so special?

“Simply put, it’s because of the people,” Powell noted. “People who care; people who nurture; people who educate; people who coach; people who create businesses that employ other people; people who worship; people who contribute to the betterment of their community…in short, people who love.”

He added, “Growing up in Ahoskie allowed me to observe and interact with people who led by example; people who showed me the value in doing things the right way.”

For Powell, it all started at home, or in his case, two homes. He said he and his brother, Whit, were taught the values of being informed. The brothers were taught the importance of watching the TV news and reading the newspaper. Then, at the dinner table, the family discussed local, state, national and world issues.

He said his father, the now late Allen Powell who served as Ahoskie’s Postmaster, heightened his awareness concerning politics. Meanwhile, his mother, “Dot” Powell, as well as the Martins were all educators, thus teaching a young Chris Powell about the importance of education.

Powell, a 1977 Ahoskie High School graduate, also spoke fondly of the numerous athletic coaches who helped shape his young life.

“These men showed me that in Ahoskie, we do it right,” Powell stressed.

Then there was Powell’s close-knit circle of friends.

“We pushed the envelope on mischief occasionally, the way kids do, but we stopped short of serious trouble and I’m indebted to those who had key influences on me,” Powell said of his Ahoskie friends as well as their parents.

While in high school, Powell worked at the News-Herald as a sports writer/photographer. It was while at the newspaper that Powell was involved in his first taste of national journalism, a story that perhaps helped to shape his future.

Oakland A’s pitcher and Perquimans County native Jim “Catfish” Hunter, who once pitched for the American Legion team in Ahoskie, was among the first Major League Baseball players to test the free agent waters in December of 1974. During his playing days in Ahoskie, Hunter was befriended by local attorney Carlton Cherry. When Hunter applied for free agency, it was Cherry’s law firm that represented the star pitcher and the national media descended upon tiny Ahoskie.

“While that story was making national headlines, Carlton and Tom Cherry and Ernie Evans allowed me to have more access than any hotshot writer who came to our little town,” Powell recalled.

Meanwhile, Powell’s future in the world of sports was being refined by some of Ahoskie’s finest…people like WRCS radio personality Sammy Doughtie, Dennis Everett of the Ahoskie Recreation Department and Dan Herring, the golf pro at Beechwood Country Club.

“Every one of these people were positive influences and they made me understand that Ahoskie does things right,” Powell said.

Even during his days at UNC-Chapel Hill, from where he obtained a degree in Journalism in 1981, Powell felt the Ahoskie influence.

“In my college years, Ahoskie people were so close that friends from other towns seemed to be envious of the way those of us from Ahoskie stuck together,” Powell said. “Both then and now, being from Ahoskie is and was something to be proud of…or, as my mother would want me to say … something of which to be proud.”

After graduating from UNC, Powell worked for seven years in the newspaper profession, including a stint with United Press International. Then, in 1988, he was given the opportunity to work at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in Sports Marketing. There, he spent his first three years working in Public Relations as part of RJR’s involvement on the professional golf tour. That was followed by a three-year PR stint with professional drag racing before he launched a successful five-year Media Relations career with RJR’s NASCAR Winston Cup program.

“NASCAR was experiencing phenomenal growth during the 1990s and RJR and its Winston brand were right there to help shepherd it through…along with ESPN on Sunday afternoons,” Powell noted.

Powell said the heroes of that era read like a motorsports hall of fame: Davey Allison, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and the two lightning rods of that time, the young Jeff Gordon and seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champ, Dale Earnhardt.

He recalled several special moments he shared with the legendary Earnhardt.

Ten years after joining RJR, Powell’s career took another giant leap forward. He told the story of his current day boss, Bruton Smith, purchasing LVMS in December of 1998.

“I was contacted by one of my old RJR buddies, Jeff Byrd of Bristol Motor Speedway,” Powell recalled. “He told me if I wanted the job at Vegas, it was mine. There was no interview, just a phone call and the deal was done.”

There was only one hang-up…Powell had no experience in the day-to-day operations of a race track.

Moving to Vegas in January of 1999, Powell, armed with the “right way” training learned in Ahoskie, tackled his new job head on. There were issues with traffic as well as improving the track’s image, all now solved as LVMS has quickly become one of the favorite stops for drivers and fans alike. The track now has a $300 million annual impact on the Las Vegas economy.

He credited his wife for orchestrating LVMS’s charitable opportunities. She helped to form the Speedway Children’s Charity at the track, one that has generated nearly $2 million in 10 years.

“Las Vegas is a long way away, and it has a certain allure for its glitz and glamour, but dealing with people is the same no matter where you are,” Powell said. “Much of my good fortune goes back to the influences from my youth in Ahoskie and that’s why, to me, Ahoskie has always stood for doing things the right way and Ahoskie will always be home.”