Taking the checkered flag: Jerry Dunning puts brakes on career at Dover Speedway

Stepping away from Dover International Speedway is something that obviously won’t come easy for Jerry Dunning. The facility has become sort-of a third child that he has watched grow up over the years. (Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

Stepping away from Dover International Speedway is something that obviously won’t come easy for Jerry Dunning. The facility has become sort-of a third child that he has watched grow up over the years. (Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

DOVER — He doesn’t have a household name such as Petty or Earnhardt when it comes to NASCAR fans who make the bi-annual trek to Dover International Speedway.

But standing in the shadows of the gauntlet of activities that swirl around Dover’s monstrous high-banked, one-mile oval is just fine with Jerry Dunning, senior vice president and general manager of Dover Motorsports.

It is under Mr. Dunning’s watchful eye that Dover International Speedway, which opened in 1969, has staged successful races at its dual-purpose motorsports and harness racing facility for the past 44 years.

When the checkered flag waves on the Citizen Soldier 400 Sprint Cup Series race this evening, Mr. Dunning will take a deep breath and step away from a career that began with a job in the track’s maintenance department in October 1972.

While Mr. Dunning has never been one to seek out the spotlight, he has been an instrumental cog at the speedway throughout the years, right alongside his friend and co-worker Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports.

“It would not be an overstatement to say that Dover Downs and Dover International Speedway, as they stand today, are very much the ‘Houses that Dunning built,’” Mr. McGlynn said.

“Jerry has basically had a hand in every significant development here over the last 44 years. Whether it was designing something, building something or determining how things should flow, everything had his fingerprints on it.”

Now, Mr. Dunning is set to step away from the hustle and bustle of Dover International Speedway and spend some quality time with his wife, Candace, perhaps do some traveling and spoil a couple of grandchildren.

If somebody had asked him a couple of years ago if retirement were in his near future he probably would have said, “No way.”

But with his sons Josh and his wife, Allison, and Brandon and his wife, Jesse, having had children in recent years, his admits his perspective on life has changed.

Stepping away from Dover International Speedway is something that obviously won’t come easy for Mr. Dunning. The facility has become sort-of a third child that he has watched grow up over the years.

A labor of love

Working at the speedway has been a labor of love for Mr. Dunning.

He said he applied for a job in the track’s maintenance department a year after graduating from Smyrna High School in 1971, just hoping to latch on with anything. He had attended a trade school for heavy equipment after graduation.

“Actually, it’s interesting,” Mr. Dunning said. “I had an uncle who was working [at the track] at the time and I was a year out of high school wondering ‘What am I going to do with my life?’

“I needed to do something besides staying at home and working on the family farm, which wasn’t too ideal at the time because in the early 1970s the future of farming didn’t look too bright … and they’ve had their ups-and-downs, of course.

“That’s what got me to come out for an interview. I interviewed for a maintenance job and started working in the maintenance department and you can kind of say the rest is history. I came here for a job and ended up with a career.”

His first job at the speedway was managing a small crew of people doing maintenance on the track and grounds. It also involved operating the heavy equipment.

Explosive growth

It turned out his job paralleled the explosive growth of NASCAR in the 1980s, and his role at the race track expanded from simple equipment work to literally having his fingerprints on virtually everything that went on at the facility.

Like most leaders, Mr. Dunning points to the people around him for helping the speedway become a success story.

“It’s all about surrounding yourself with great people,” he said. “That’s one thing that strikes me the most about working here. You can’t do these things without great people and we have a lot of great people working here.

“It’s seeing these people working together, accomplishing the goal of having a successful race weekend. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mr. McGlynn started working at what was then called Dover Downs just five months before Mr. Dunning was hired.

Mr. Dunning insists the two have always worked in step with one another and, as far as he can recall, have never really had an argument with one another.

Mr. McGlynn obviously has a ton of respect for what Mr. Dunning has been able to accomplish as he helped oversee the motorsports facilities’ growth from around 20,000 seats in 1972 to 135,000 seats in 2001.

In 1986, a modest 3,200-seat grandstand addition began expansion at the complex that continued through 2001, a process unequaled by any other NASCAR track.

In recent years, amid a sputtering economy and declining number of race fans, the track has scaled its capacity back to around 90,000 seats.

“Jerry was a 19-year-old kid when he came to what was then Dover Downs Inc.,” he said. “His job was to mow the grass and work on the horse track during racing seasons. Over time, as people left, he took on more and more responsibilities, eventually becoming our Chief of Maintenance.

“Then, as NASCAR exploded, he became involved on the operations side, eventually taking on major responsibilities there as well.”

Over the years, Mr. Dunning helped oversee the racetrack’s transition from an asphalt racing surface to concrete in 1995 and its installation of Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barriers to the walls in the 2000s, among several other exterior improvements such as the Monster Makeover, which included the popular Fan Zone outside the fourth turn.
While it only hosts two NASCAR weekends a year, it seems as if there’s always something going on at Dover International Speedway.

Mr. Dunning believes the racetrack is ready to move on to a future without him.

“Over the past year or so I’ve been letting other people take on responsibilities that I have had to take care of over the years,” he said. “We have a good group of people working here at the track and they’ll be just fine. Trust me.”

Dover International Speedway always has.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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