Board chairman recalls Dover Downs’ early days

DOVER — Henry Tippie remembers when the land Dover International Speedway now sits on was a military depot.

In the years after World War II, the property served as a surplus facility, with a B-25 Bomber that sticks out in Mr. Tippie’s memory.

Dover was much smaller then, with fewer than 10,000 residents and, according to Mr. Tippie, only one motel.

Henry Tippie, 88, chairman of the board of Dover Motorsports, left, sits inside the company boardroom with CEO Denis McGylnn. Mr. Tippie has been involved with Dover Downs and Dover International Speedway since the beginning — February 1953. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Henry Tippie, 88, chairman of the board of Dover Motorsports, left, sits inside the company boardroom with CEO Denis McGylnn. Mr. Tippie has been involved with Dover Downs and Dover International Speedway since the beginning — February 1953. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Mr. Tippie has been involved in Dover Downs since the beginning — before the company was even a thought in the mind of John Rollins.

Mr. Rollins, a business magnate who died in 2000, played a major role in the creation of the speedway and its parent company, Dover Motorsports Inc. (known as Dover Downs Entertainment Inc. until 2002).

The speedway and the hotel and casino that eventually followed have blossomed. Dover Downs has grown to become a major company that employs more than 1,000 people, while the speedway annually hosts two NASCAR weekends, two major musical festivals and dozens of horse races.

Mr. Tippie downplays his own role in that growth, but he’s been involved in Rollins’ business enterprises for 62 years and counting.

An adviser, owner of or board member to at least six companies, he is the chairman of the boards for both Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment Inc. and Dover Motorsports. Between his own interests and his role as operator of a large trust, Mr. Tippie controls more than 50 percent of the stock for both companies, effectively giving him the “ability to determine the outcome of the election of directors and to determine the outcome of many significant corporate transactions,” according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

But while he controls more than 15 million shares in all, he’s content to watch from afar and play a part in big-picture policy rather than day-to-day events.

In the beginning

A native Iowan who received his degree in accounting from the University of Iowa and has the school’s College of Business named after him (“Probably the only school of business named after somebody admitted on probation”), Mr. Tippie has a long history with Dover Downs.

“That goes back to the beginning of 1953,” he said. “That’s about 62 years ago this past February. I actually came out here to visit with (John Rollins) and his brother, Wayne, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. That’s where they were headquartered.”

Henry Tippie, chairman of the boards for Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment Inc. and Dover Motorsports of Dover Motorsports, stands next to his portrait in the company boardroom. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Henry Tippie, chairman of the boards for Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment Inc. and Dover Motorsports of Dover Motorsports, stands next to his portrait in the company boardroom. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

While Mr. Tippie is 88, he’s in good health, with a sharp memory that quickly can recall the announcer and referee from a 77-year-old boxing match.

He reflected on his career and the company’s rise Friday in an hour-long interview at Dover Downs.

Just a few feet away, next to a portrait of John Rollins, a picture of Mr. Tippie hung on the wall, an indicator of his place in company history.

It’s a story that Mr. Tippie said he could not have even dreamed about.

In 1952, several years removed from graduating college, he placed an ad in an accounting journal and received five responses. There were three from government agencies (which were quickly thrown away), one from General Motors (which didn’t work out) and one from two men in a remote little town Mr. Tippie couldn’t place on a map.

The Rollins brothers, farm boys like Mr. Tippie, were looking to hire someone to help run their business efforts and provide financial knowledge. Mr. Tippie proved to be just the man.

“Their requirement, as I later found out, the first person that does not ask how to get to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, that’s who we’re going to hire,” he recalled with a chuckle.

He flew in to Washington, D.C., and took a bus over to Rehoboth Beach. That was in January 1953, and on Feb. 17, a date he still remembers, he began his work with the Rollins brothers. That experience, Mr. Tippie said, was the “opportunity of a lifetime.”

“None of us knew a lot of things,” he said. “We were just learning by experience.”

Despite that, and some inconsistent bookkeeping making Mr. Tippie’s job difficult, the group eventually found success. But it could be rough in the beginning.

“We used to work in terms of how to survive another week,” Mr. Tippie said.

John Rollins owned a broadcasting company and a car-leasing business, and he eventually got into the racing business.

According to Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of both Dover Motorsports and Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment, then-Delaware Attorney General David Buckson came up with the idea for a speedway in the 1960s. Melvin L. Joseph Construction Co. Inc. built the venue, and Rollins stepped up to provide additional funds when needed.

Although the speedway hosted its first NASCAR in 1969, the year it opened, it continued to struggle until about 1990, Mr. McGlynn said. That’s when broadcast revenues started to grow, thanks to ESPN and other networks.

‘More hits than misses’

It was a challenge, and Mr. Tippie said he even considered recommending that the company declare bankruptcy. But executives stuck with it, and Dover Downs remains today a large and iconic structure off U.S. 13.

Mr. Tippie lived in Delaware from 1953 to 1967 and now resides in Austin, Texas. He flies back to Delaware about eight times a year, including for quarterly board meetings and NASCAR races.
Friday, though, was a day to reflect about the past and to enjoy the present. The highs and lows of today’s business world were pushed aside.

He was in town for a performance by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a big band group like of those popular in the middle decades of the 1900s. After reminiscing about the genre, Mr. Tippie reflected on the changing times.

“This has been an interesting place to see how it’s come from nothing, from a war surplus location to what’s here today,” he said.

The constant with his business success has been working with good people, Mr. Tippie said, praising the workers at Dover Downs. He’s stayed in the background for most of his career and did not get involved in Dover Downs until several years after operations began, happy to let a passionate Rollins run operations.

Many people helped shape the Rollins empire, a conglomeration that now includes many corporations, such as the pest control company Orkin. Among the key figures is clearly Mr. Tippie, who has seen the company grow from humble beginnings.

“I think we had a lot more hits than misses, that’s the way I’d put it,” Mr. Tippie said with a laugh.

“Anybody that tells you they never do have a miss, I wouldn’t believe too much else what they’ve got to say.

“We certainly had our misses, but the way I always looked at the misses, you know, that’s additional education and we move on down. Every day’s a fresh start.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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