How I Got Here with Mike Zizzo

This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on Up next: Mike Zizzo, vice president of communications at Texas Motor Speedway.

First of all, what do you do here at Texas so we can understand how you got to this point?

I handle all the media relations, so that entails any driver events that we do, setting up credentials for media, working with the marketing team on certain initiatives we have there, and then being on the executive team here at TMS. We get to do advances with drivers. We have Daniel Suarez this year, we had a special guest in Jared Leto earlier this (month), which was really cool. And we’ll have Kevin Harvick in the fall. So a lot of media events and such. It’s basically just managing the media and making sure when they come and visit us that we get the coverage that we’re looking for as well as accommodating them as guests for the weekend.

How long have you been here working at the track now?

Feels like 50 years. (Laughs) No, I joined in ’05 after I left NASCAR, so I’m starting Year 13.

Obviously you didn’t just magically plop down here in Texas and start your career here, so where did this whole thing begin for you?

I was a scribe just like you back in the day. I graduated from Florida Southern College in Lakeland. I wanted to be a sports writer, and I was fortunate enough to land at a major paper at the Orlando Sentinel. Just like any young scribe, I started out on the agate desk and did a lot of box scores before I got my break.

People were calling in with their high school football scores and you were taking the stats on the phone?

That was the worst thing ever when we had to do it. We got a call-in and you’re like, “Oh, no stats, please.” And then you got to move up and you actually got to cover a game, which was awesome. But I worked at the Lakeland Ledger when I was at Florida Southern, so I got a lot of game type experience and live experience, which was great. That helped me at the Sentinel, and I covered everything from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first year to the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Citrus Bowl to a lot of preps. So it was a great experience for me, and that actually led into racing, which was actually odd for me.

So did you cover much racing to that point. How did the move to go into racing get on your radar?

They put it on my radar. I was living in Cocoa Beach and I was covering Brevard County preps and some college sports and pro sports like spring training, and then I got the call. They’re like, “Congratulations, you’re our new auto racing writer.” I grew up in New England and my dad loved cars, but he never went to any races or anything. And they’re like, “You’re the auto racing writer.”

I’m like, “What? I don’t know anything about auto racing, I grew up in New York. The only thing I saw going around in circles is horses, like at Belmont.” And they’re like, “Well, you better learn it.”

I swear, I was so panicked because it was one of those sports I’ve never really followed. I did a little bit … growing up as a kid, I loved Mario Andretti because he’s Italian and I was rooting for him in the Indy 500. And then in NASCAR, (I knew) Richard Petty and all that, but I never really followed it enough that I could cover it.

So when they told me that, I was panicked and like, “What am I gonna do?” and my good friend in Cocoa Beach, Mark Tate, he grew up in Hickory (N.C.), grew up with the Jarretts, so he was over the moon that I was gonna cover NASCAR. I said, “You’re gonna be my mentor.” So I’ll never forget, I was so panicked that we went up to Daytona during testing and I said, “We’re gonna go around the garage and you’re gonna help me here.” And he was explaining everything.

It was awesome, and he knew a bunch of the guys that were on the crews, they were like, “Hey, Mark Tate!” and it put me at an ease. It was a great training period for me, especially at testing because it’s more laid back and not a lot of reporters there where I can ask that stupid question, and it was really cool.

We asked Jack Roush of all people about testing and trying to get that extra tenth of a second on a car, and he started telling us about this matrix system they did — they changed the springs with the shocks and they all these different changes to find the ultimate. So I’m thinking, “Everyone knows about the matrix system.” So who do I find of all people, the novice, I’m like, “Hey, that’s Hut Stricklin. I’m gonna ask Stricklin about the matrix system, if they use it on their team.” So Mark and I walk up to Hut, and we’re talking to him about racing and the system and I ask him and I say, “Jack Roush is talking about this matrix system. What do you know about it?” And he goes,”May-what?” And all of a sudden his crew guy goes, “Hut, get in the car.”

What year was this when you started on the racing beat?

1992 was my first race at Atlanta. which was Richard Petty’s last race, Jeff Gordon’s first race, and my first race. So it was ’92 I believe, right? 

That’s the other part of the story. People talk about Petty and Gordon, but they don’t say Mike Zizzo’s first race.

I’m way down on that list. But I also went with Mark Tate, he went with me to that race and I’ll never forget on that one, he said, “Before we ever get going, we’re gonna go to Turn 1. We’re gonna stand in Turn 1 outside the fence so you can realize what these guys do for a living.” And I was blown away and I said, “Wow, this is incredible.”

And if you recall that race, (Alan) Kulwicki wins the championship, Davey Allison gets in a wreck, Ernie Irvan’s involved, Bill Elliott, he stays out and gets the laps and he gets more points — there were so many storylines. I’m like, “This is awesome.” There’s so many great storylines and in fact, I got on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel for Richard Petty’s last race. So it was just an incredible experience, that first one. And then to be inside the community and see how accommodating they were and the drivers, it won me over immediately.

How many years did you cover racing before you went to the dark side of PR, as the journalists say?

I went to CART, which is IndyCar, in 1996. So I didn’t cover it a ton, but enough where I was pretty well-versed on both IndyCar and NASCAR. I got a call from IndyCar and they were looking for a news manager. Basically, they were looking for a former sportswriter who could write releases and such.

I didn’t know if I wanted to go that way or not. It was back in the day when newspapers were flourishing, and I loved what I did because I got to cover such a variety of sports from the World Cup to the Citrus Bowl to all kinds of major events, so it was a great experience. And then they said, “Well, with CART, you can travel the world. We go to Australia and Japan and Brazil.” And that kind of won me over.

Mike Zizzo during his days doing PR for CART. (Courtesy photo)

That would be a very attractive opportunity to take advantage of. So you got to do that. What was that experience like?

Absolutely incredible. Not only being part of a sanctioning body and seeing the inner workings of a sanctioning body, but traveling to different venues all across the world was just fabulous — meeting people, understanding cultures, like in Japan. Having a great time with drivers in Australia, Surfer’s Paradise. We have so many stories with Dario (Franchitti) and Greg Moore and all those guys.

It was just such a cool experience because you went to places I would probably never vacation to at times. For instance, I went to Tokyo. I would probably never vacation there, but I had an incredible experience. Going to down to Rio for Brazil, another place I would probably never vacation or think about. Australia, definitely. I want to go back there; I was so fortunate to go six, seven times, but I’ll go another 10 times. It’s a beautiful country.

And then even Canada. Living in the United States, I’ve never dreamed of going on vacation to say Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal — we hit all those cities and they’re absolutely fabulous. I tell all my friends, if you want to do a quick trip, go to Toronto in the summer, go to Vancouver, go to Montreal. They’re fabulous cities. So I was very fortunate to realize all the different countries and cultures and enjoy it.

Unlike some of the people we had that travelled with us who are like, “Where’s the McDonald’s?” I’m like, “No, we’re in Tokyo, I’m gonna try sushi, I’m gonna try some specialty items.” When we were in Australia, same thing — and they’d be looking for American food.

Why did you go from CART to NASCAR, then?

I loved CART, I loved open wheel, and that was during the split, so at times it was difficult. But probably the most difficult thing for me was we lost a number of drivers during that period — one in particular, Greg Moore, who I was extremely close with.

At Fontana.

Yes. And then also Alex Zanardi, another driver who I was very close with, lost his legs in Germany, which was over the course of 9/11, which was very difficult on me. I thought I was going to leave the sport then. I had so many friends in it that drove cars that every time we raced, it was just very difficult for me to watch it and hope we got through the race.

So that took a toll on you. It started to weigh on you, the danger aspect of it and it took an emotional toll?

Big time. I’ll never forget the whole 9/11 situation. We went over to Germany and if you recall, everyone in the United States, all the sports decided not to run at all or have any games (the week after 9/11). And we had to make a decision at the facility we were at. That entire region in Germany put their money in, and they told us, “If you don’t run here, you’ll bankrupt the region.” So we had that weighing on us as well.

Plus we already had everyone over there in Germany, so we’re like, “Why don’t we run and honor those victims of 9/11?” And we still got some criticism, but we thought it was the right thing and eventually we renamed the name of the race and we were all dealing with that as Americans.

We were scared. We got over to Germany and we landed, and we’re in our room and we’re exhausted and we all took a nap. Steve Shunck, who worked with us, calls me and he says, “Turn on the TV.” I said, “I have it on, there’s some movie on where a plane just hit the Twin Towers.” I couldn’t understand it. You couldn’t fathom that that was actually happening. He goes, ”No, that’s happening right now.” I’m like, “Oh, is it a private plane?” He’s like, “No, it’s terrorists.” And I’m like, “Oh my God.”

So after that reality hit, we’re like, “We’re stuck outside the United States.” And then we see CNN on the ticker it says, “The CART contingent in Germany is the largest American contingent outside the United States right now.” So now we’re all worried — is something gonna happen to us? Are we ever gonna get home? So we’ve got that weighing on us.

And then we have this great race and (the Germans) did fabulous tributes to us. People over there were just amazing how heartfelt they were about talking to us about the situation and how sorry they were and thanking us for running that race. We were a couple of laps away from (finishing) that race, and then Alex Tagliani and Alex Zanardi got into it. As soon as (Tagliani) hit him, I was like, “Oh my God, this is bad.” And he lost his legs.

They saved his life and Dr.  (Steve) Olvey called me, he says, “You need to come now, we’re getting on the helicopter.” So I went with Alex’s wife and then Ashley Judd was on that helicopter, too. I followed behind the main one, and we got to the hospital and they landed us on the pad. We had to go down (into the building) and we saw the stair where they took him down, and there was just blood everywhere.

And then we get down there and all the drivers are there — they got there as quick as they could — all his buddies, Tony (Kanaan) and Dario and Max (Papis) and Jimmy Vasser. We didn’t think he was gonna make it. We were so scared and we’re like, “God, please just let him make it.”

And then when we found out he was gonna make it, we need a little brevity in that room and we’re like, “Man, is he gonna be pissed when he finds out he lost his legs in that deal.”

So his wife was in there, and she came out, she’s like, “He’s doing alright.” And when we finally got to see him. He’s like, “I’m just glad to see my wife.” And he just had a child. He’s like, “I can do whatever I want without legs.”

And he has been a huge inspiration to me ever since then because the way he handled that situation was absolutely amazing, and he’ll joke about it. I’ll never forget when I called him afterward, I said, “Hey, I just wanted to check in on how you’re doing, all that.” He goes, “I have a dilemma.” I said, “What’s wrong, Alex?” He’s like, “I have to get fitted for new legs. I’m like you — I’m Italian, I’m short. I can actually be over six feet now. But then I’m gonna have to get new clothes.”

So that’s the way he handled it. I’ll never forget from that day, he said, “I will play soccer with my son, I will go swimming with my son, I will do everything with my son and family that I’ve always wanted to do — with or without legs.” And he did.

That’s unbelievable. Wow. So how soon after that did you say, “You know what, I gotta do something else. I can’t be so involved in CART.”

I thought I was gonna quit then. I decided to just stick it out because I just loved the sport, and then Jim Hunter called me at NASCAR. Actually a head hunter called first, and then Hunter called me, and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come visit with me?” NASCAR was extremely successful like it is today, actually even moreso back then. And I met him on a Saturday, I drove up from Cocoa Beach and we talked for like three hours. It was an absolutely amazing conversation. I’m like, “I would love to work with this man.”

I’m not sure how many people they have in the Integrated Marketing Communications department now — I’m guessing at least 30 or something like that. How many people were on the PR staff when you went to NASCAR?

We didn’t have a fancy name either, we were just the PR team. We probably had, I’d say eight or 10 people — and that was with assistants and everything, so it was very streamlined. It had Hunter, it had a director, managers and coordinators, and that was it, and assistants. We all worked together really well. We got a lot done.

What I liked about it back then with Herb Branham and Kate Davis and everyone was we were extremely tight with the drivers, because we did so much with them. We worked with them on a daily basis.

I was fortunate enough that Hunter wanted me to handle the competition side of PR because of what I did in IndyCar. So he moved me up to the R&D Center and I got a lot more integrated on the competition side, which was a lot of fun, and dealing with Mike Helton. Also the R&D team with Gary Nelson and everything. So it was very educational to me.

Kate Davis and Mike Zizzo pose with Jeff Gordon. (Courtesy photo)

What did you learn from the CART stuff that applied to the NASCAR stuff that you could take there?

I guess the biggest one would have been crisis management (in the aftermath of serious accidents), unfortunately. Hunter quizzed me a lot about how we handled things, how we changed some of our processes in terms of crisis management. Because every time we had one, I got very involved in it because I knew we had to make changes ever since my first year when we lost Jeff Krosnoff. I saw a lot of things we didn’t do right. But it’s a crisis, so that happens.

So we talked a lot about crisis management, and I learned a lot on the NASCAR side about how integrated they were with each department to take one item and make it as big as possible, like the Chase back then — the “Chase for the Championship.” We would have meetings and they would integrate all the departments and say, “What are you gonna do to make this big?” whether it was marketing or PR. That was very educational for me about seeing a big company take something and raise it to a higher level.

So you’re living in Florida. Now you’ve worked for a newspaper, you’ve worked for CART, you’ve worked for NASCAR itself. Why Texas Motor Speedway?

I had no plans to leave NASCAR. I loved it, I loved working for Hunter. I loved the sanctioning body, it was a lot of fun. I felt very privileged to work there. And Eddie Gossage calls me and he says, “I’ve got an opening down here. I want you to come down.” I said, “I don’t have an interest, I’m happy here.” I’d only been to Texas for the race. He’s like, “Why don’t you come down and just talk to me?” I said alright.

So I came down, we had lunch, he took me out to the facility. Even though I’d been there, when it’s empty, it was massive. I was like, “Wow.” And we talked and had a great conversation. I’ll never forget he said, “You’ll be working for me.” And I said, “We’ll see about that.” He says, “I can give you something NASCAR can’t.” He goes, “It’s not money, it’s not this, it’s not that — I can give you time off.”

I had gotten to that point with NASCAR where I was doing 28 to 30 races because Hunter’s back was going out, so Mike Helton liked me to be that No. 2 guy on the competition side. So as much as I loved it, I started to feel the burnout a little bit. And I called Eddie the next week, just like he said, and here I am.

But the backstory on that was that CART incident at Texas.

Which is what?

This would have been 2001. So we came down here, the first CART event at Texas, a big deal. And you know Eddie makes everything big, and it was gonna be exciting. We did the premiere of Driven — not a great movie, but it was part of the week — and we didn’t run the race.

The G forces were so high on the drivers that the drivers were passing out. It got extremely dangerous. Mauricio Gugelmin hit the wall in Turn 2 here and wound up in Turn 4. It was crazy. There were going like 236, 238 miles an hour on a mile-and-a-half track.

So the G forces were taking such a toll, even on the CART drivers who were used to high G forces, that they just could not get around the track?

Correct. You’re not supposed to do sustainable Gs at more than four to six seconds, I think. And I’m trying to remember back then, but on a 22-second lap they had, 18 seconds of sustained Gs. Michael Andretti talked about it feeling like he had a 100-pound weight on his lap the entire lap. Max Papis was talking about he didn’t know if he was on the frontstretch or the backstretch. We had another driver black out for a little bit. And it was scary.

But then we had to do the press conferences (to announce the cancellation). Eddie wanted to do one and we were gonna do our own.

Like dueling press conferences?

Yeah, and it almost turned into a duel between me and him because we’re trying to protect our brand. And we did two separate press conferences, which I didn’t want. We took our stance, he took their stance and that occurred and we left here and that was a disaster.

Then I went to NASCAR, and what’s the first race I go to? Hunter sends me to Texas. And I said, “Jim, you know what happened at CART?” He goes, “Oh, I know. And you’re going there.” And I said, “Oh, hell.”

So there was a lot of bad blood with Eddie?

I thought so. I’m like, “I’m gonna go in, I’m gonna take my beating from him.” And we had the safety meeting, and he was in there and he said, “Can I grab you for a second?” And after this meeting, I said, “Oh, I’m gonna get berated and he’s gonna tell me to pack up and leave the track.” Although Hunter had said, “If you get that from him, you’re staying.”

So he pulled me aside and he said, “Hey, I hope there’s no hard feelings. I realize what you were doing, and I hope you knew what I was doing.” I said, “Yeah, we were both protecting our brands. I appreciated how you protected your brand and I had to do the same. That’s our lifeblood. You can’t compromise on that, and I don’t expect you to do so either.”

And that conversation, I don’t know if it led to him making that call where he said, “Hey, I want Ziz to work for me.”

That had to help the respect level you guys still share today, and you’ve been able to work together obviously really well. I don’t know how many other lengthy PR guy/track president combos are out there, but I imagine that you’re probably the longest.

Probably. Although he says I’m day-to-day all the time. And I believe it.

So you’ve made a home here. Is this is where you see yourself ending your career? What else do you want to accomplish in your career?

I love it here, got married here. My wife’s from Fort Worth, and we’ve got two great kids that love living in Texas. I still miss Florida, but I love Texas. I see myself staying here.

Really, over the years, I like to help people. So I think as time goes on, if I have the opportunity, I’d like to do something where I can help make an impact on a community. I deal with the “Speeding to Read” program at Texas Motor Speedway with literacy and elementary school kids, which is dear to my heart just because of the impact you can make with just a little work. Seeing the kids’ faces and all that, so whether it’s on the charity side, whether it’s with education, it’s just something dear to my heart. I just love the look you see on someone’s face when you can help them, whether it’s with education or just a charitable good deed.

Speaking of helping people, you get some people who want career advice from you and say, “Hey Ziz, how do I get to where you’re at? I’d love to work at a track someday.” If somebody’s reading this and is interested in that kind of career path, how would they go about getting started these days?

I thought journalism was a great route for me and I think journalism to this day is still very important to what I do in terms of writing press releases, strategic writing, script writing, all that type of writing, as you know as well. It’s very important to write intelligently and also creatively.

I’d say internships would probably be the one I think is most beneficial. When I look at resumes, I look at what they’re done in terms of internships. Because I know when I was in college, I was a good student, I was a B student. But when I worked at the Lakeland Ledger, I learned so much more. It wasn’t about the inverted pyramid while writing a story, it was about deadlines and hustling your butt off and getting that story to them in nine minutes or whatever that was, and you’re in a panic mode, but you have to learn that.

I think internships give you a great perspective on a racetrack, how things are run. And you also get some mentorship if you have someone that works at a racetrack or with a baseball team, and they want to spend some time with their interns. I think you can learn a lot.

Mike Zizzo and longtime friend Tony Kanaan. (Courtesy photo)

3 Replies to “How I Got Here with Mike Zizzo”

  1. I remember when I called Mike Zizzo at NASCAR years ago and asked him to help arrange a meeting at the NASCAR race at Kansas with a little boy suffering from cancer and his hero, NASCAR race driver Bobby Labonte.
    Zizzo junped right in to help. Unfortunately the little boy became too ill to attend that Kansas race, but he and his family finally got to meet Labonte and all the other drivers later at Phoenix. John Andretti even went to that child’s Kansas home and took him toys and played with him all day, and became a close friend with that family. So Kudos to Mike Zizzo for giving all his help as soon as I called him…and to all the NASCAR drivers who brought so much joy to that ill child….
    Kay Presto
    Award-winning Motorsports Journalist

  2. From the day I met Ziz in 1977 when he moved from Long Island,NY to Cheshire,CT he has always been that kind,generous and loving person. This story could go on and on with nothing but praise for a man I am truly blessed to call my best friend.

  3. I would never be in a position to hear about all these racing world stories without this feature. Amazing life stories are being told here.

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