Construction magnate and self-described "gearhead" Dale Dillon has built offices for high-speed racing teams, laid tracks for IndyCar contests in two cities and, despite having only one leg, raced open-wheeled cars competitively around the country.
Now, the Indianapolis-based contractor is poised to become the face of Baltimore's Grand Prix race. He confronts the daunting task of crafting a new image for the racing festival — which drove the previous organizers to financial collapse — and pulling together the massive event in little more than six months.
Those who know Dillon well say the 57-year-old's passion for racing, no-nonsense attitude and business acumen make him an ideal candidate to take over the troubled Labor Day weekend event.
"He is incredibly savvy, particularly on the operations side," said Sarah Davis, the senior director of business affairs for IndyCar. "He knows what it takes to build a race track in the middle of the city. Without question, [he] is an asset moving forward as the Baltimore race continues."
Dillon, who has teamed up with former Constellation Energy Group executives to form Downforce Racing, says he will draw on his experiences running operations for IndyCar races in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto as he plans Baltimore's race.
"I think that model can be recreated here and modified for Baltimore, where it can be a long and profitable race," he said.
A racing fan since childhood, Dillon lives in Indianapolis, the birthplace of IndyCar, with his wife of 34 years. His company, Dillon Construction, builds offices, medical and retail buildings and recently completed a factory where the chassis for IndyCars are pieced together.
Joining Dillon in Downforce Racing are two local men with backgrounds in finance. Felix Dawson, 44, formerly headed Constellation's commercial trade division, which ran into financial difficulties that led to layoffs in 2008. Dawson previously worked at Goldman Sachs and Arthur Andersen. Daniel Reck, 45, worked under Dawson at Constellation, and was a vice president at Enron, the Texas-based company that imploded amid scandal in 2001
Dillon, whose relationship with IndyCar stretches back more than a decade, is positioning himself to be one of the top promoters of the open-wheeled racing series. He is lobbying to bring a race to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., next year which would put his company among an elite circle that organizes multiple races in the IndyCar series.
It was at the recommendation of IndyCar executives that Dillon came to Baltimore last year to serve as the previous race organizer's general manager in the final, frantic weeks before the Labor Day weekend festival.
Dillon was the third general manager in six months for the group, Baltimore Racing Development. He quickly established himself as a forceful and at times pugnacious leader.
"He's a no-nonsense guy who wants things done his way and seems to favor a structure where he pulls the strings and everyone acts accordingly," said Lonnie Fisher, who was Baltimore Racing Development's special projects manager. "He believes that he has the playbook and he expects others to run it."
Fisher said Dillon's frank style ruffled some feathers in the group's offices in the Camden Yards warehouse.
"He doesn't much care about emotions or feelings," Fisher said. "You can get yelled at one minute, and the next, it's forgotten, as long as you fix what's wrong."
Dillon acknowledges that his forthright manner can rub some people the wrong way. But, he says, it also makes him an effective leader.
"I am a pretty direct individual," said Dillon, speaking by phone from the Baltimore offices of Wilkes Lane Capital LLC, the investment firm that Dawson and Reck now run. "I never mean it personally, and generally, people realize I'm just trying to get to a goal in the end."
The son of two Indiana natives, Dillon moved frequently during childhood because of his father's Air Force career. But each spring, the Dillon family would head back to Indianapolis to watch the famed race there.
"Every spring, we would be loaded up in a station wagon and taken to watch time trials in the race," he said.
As a teenager, Dillon was drawn to speed, racing motorcycles and go-carts. He ran track and played football in high school, but his athletic career ground to a halt while he was a student at Purdue University. He was diagnosed with bone cancer.
Doctors amputated Dillon's left leg above the knee. At age 20, he had to learn to walk again. Dillon credits a strong network of friends and family members with helping him weather the crisis.
Dillon went on to supervise the construction of another racing group's shop,the place teams build and repair their high-speed cars, forging a reputation in racing construction.
"Being based in Indy, there are a lot of crossed paths between racing and ourselves," he said.
Green was so impressed with Dillon's work that when he organized an IndyCar race in St. Petersburg in 2005, he hired him to supervise operations.
"It was not just building the track, but huge electrical requirements, fencing requirements," said Green. "He was a great savior for us."
Green laughed about Dillon's quick temper.
"He's laid back to a point, but… if someone promised him something and didn't produce, I don't want to be around," he said. "He can get pretty mad pretty quickly, but at the end of the day, he'll resolve the problem."
Dillon worked for the St. Petersburg race for five years, and also worked for a year and a half on a race that Green organized in Toronto.
After leaving those racing groups, Dillon teamed up with race driverRyan Hunter-Reay and Staarke Taylor,an Izod executive, to propose bringing an IndyCar contest to beachfront streets in Fort Lauderdale.
Although the details have not been finalized, the race, which would begin next year, has been backed by Fort Lauderdale officials and business owners.
Dev Motwani, who owns several hotels along the proposed race route, said he has been impressed by several presentations that the group gave about the race.
"The team certainly seems qualified," he said. "Dale seemed to be the more senior team member."
Baltimore officials praise Dillon's strong leadership skills in pulling together the city's race last year. He became Baltimore Racing Development's manager about 30 days before the race, and scurried to organize a safety plan and race control room.
Peter Collier, who served as the company's group's chief operating officer, said Dillon swiftly took the reins of a chaotic group torn apart by leadership struggles.
"He took charge at a time when we really needed it," Collier said. "Dale was able to work very cohesively with the city's public safety team and with the league."
Dillon said he is considering moving to Baltimore during the months leading up to this September's race, and that he was not intimidated by the prospect of juggling his construction company and the event.
In what is left of his free time, Dillon enjoys getting behind the wheel of a race car himself. For the past several years, he has competed as part of the Sprint series, racing open-wheeled cars on dirt tracks.
C.J. Rayburn, president of a company that has made some of Dillon's race cars, praised his ability on the track. Dillon used to race with Rayburn's team.
"He goes about racing real intelligent," said Rayburn. "It didn't matter where we took him, he would get in there and mix it up with the best of them and absolutely amaze people."