As a new Pitt State freshman, Joe Douthitt thought he wanted to be a television weatherman. Today, the only time he worries about the weather is when it might affect the activities at Heartland Park, a multimillion-dollar racing complex in Topeka, Kan.
How Douthitt went from dreaming of forecasting the weather on TV to marketing and managing a growing racing experience is a story that turns on timely advice, faculty guidance and Douthitt’s own focus on getting and capitalizing on experience.
Douthitt graduated from Leavenworth High School in 1990 and headed south to Pittsburg.
“I loved the campus,” Douthitt said. “As soon as I walked on campus, I said, ‘Yep! That’s for me.’”
Douthitt jumped into college life with both feet — literally and figuratively. He ran track and was a football walk-on with the ’91 national championship team. To pay for school, he got a job delivering Pizzas for Little Caesar’s, where he met his future wife, Christina Harman (BS Social Work, ’92), who was the shift manager.
“I was going to go the route of communications with an emphasis on media and then go into weather that way,” Douthitt said.
To gain media experience, he got a job at KOAM TV and also worked part time for KWXD-FM. Everything was going according to plan, but some advice from the evening weatherman at KOAM, caused Douthitt to rethink his direction.
“He just kind of pulled me aside one time and said, ‘You just started a family. This may not be a career choice you want to go into.’ He was thinking of the 10 o’clock news and the late nights,” Douthitt said.
Douthitt sought advice from Danny Thomas, the station’s general manager, who suggested that Douthitt might be wise to pair his media experience with advertising and marketing for a successful career, which is what Douthitt set out to do.
His first foray into advertising was for the station’s first “Pigskin Preview.”
“I sold advertising in all the small communities. That was my first start in any kind of advertising or marketing,” Douthitt said. “That was pretty cool to be part of that magazine.”
Douthitt got his first real break in the business when he landed a job with the Kansas City media buying firm Light and Associates and it happened because he paid attention to something one of his professors said.
“It was Dr. Z (Thimios Zaharopolis),” Douthitt said. “He was really good with me to say, ‘put together a good portfolio. Make a nice presentation and have it organized, because you never know what questions you’re going to get asked in an interview.’”
The question Douthitt was asked was about strategic marketing. He reached for his portfolio, thumbed to the tab marked “strategic marketing,” and pulled out an award he had won in a strategic marketing competition sponsored by a local bank.
He landed the job.
In the years following, Douthitt worked for prominent Kansas City marketing firms with national accounts. At each step, Douthitt gained more experience and had more responsibility.
He got his first taste of sports marketing at Berstein-Rein when a national construction rental company turned to a NASCAR sponsorship as a way to market themselves in the southeastern U.S.
“I was bit by that bug in sports marketing,” Douthitt said. “Because of my background in sports, I kind of thought, ‘If I could take everything I learned about marketing and still be around sports, that’s a pretty cool deal.’”
At MAI Sports, Douthitt managed the NASCAR relationship with Sprint. In addition to working with NASCAR, Douthitt managed sponsorships with the PGA, the 2002 Olympic Games, the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, and even Broadway in New York.
As he gained experience, Douthitt said he found himself working less on the tactical side of the business and more and more on the strategic and management side of the business.
In 2010, Douthitt was recruited to manage Heartland Park in Topeka. He embraced the new job with his typical energy and his role quickly expanded. Soon, Douthitt was elevated to general manager.
As Heartland Park begins its busy spring 2013 racing season, there is no more enthusiastic cheerleader for the facility.
“Racing is an out-of-body experience,” Douthitt said as he drove the park’s Dodge Charger through the turns on the road course. “All five senses are engaged.”
“What we’re most known for is the drag strip,” Douthitt said. “The most recognized event for the drag strip is the NHRA Kansas Nationals. It’s the top of the line for drag racing. It is a platform to put Kansas on a pedestal. This year is the 25th anniversary for the track and also the 25th anniversary of NHRA being in Topeka.”
Whether it is NHRA Nationals, street-legal drag racing, car clubs racing on the road course or racers kicking up dust on the dirt track, Douthitt is working hard to offer events that are family-friendly and fun.
“We try to do as much as we can to try to get the public on the property so they can experience some of the things out here,” he said.
The result is an enterprise that has a local economic impact of well over $100 million annually.
For 2013, Heartland Park will offer some new events designed to get even more people on the 750-acre property.
Douthitt said his experience reaffirms what he tells his son and what he would tell any student or recent graduate.
“Get that diverse experience or knowledge,” Douthitt said. “Employers are looking for people who are diverse. Experience as much as you can in education.”
For more about Heartland Park: www.hpt.com.