You’ve been there…standing stiff-backed at a stadium savoring the final note of the national anthem as the fighter jet fly-by thunders over your head. Spine-tingling moments like these, right before the familiar refrain of “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” inspire anxious crowds and set the mood for sporting events. But if you are Jay Howard, president and founder of JHE Production Group, Inc. (JHE), your inspiration started well before that thunderous roar, because it was you who planned it.
Howard and his 22-person team are responsible for conceiving and executing hundreds of such events nationwide. From NASCAR prerace shows, to the popular Food Lion Speed Street Festival downtown, to pregame and halftime entertainment for the Charlotte Checkers and the Carolina Panthers to the historical Centennial of Flight at Kitty Hawk late last year, JHE creates the dazzling special effects, entertainment and photo ops that not only make these events more interesting, but worthwhile for corporate sponsors.
To successfully pull off a JHE production, fastidious planning begins on day one with an apocryphal creative session, followed by a close accounting of all the resources needed to put the gears in motion. This includes design and production of elaborate sets, assembly and disassembly, wiring, talent coordination, sponsorship acquisition, and perhaps most importantly…timing.
Take, for example, the All-Star NASCAR race at which Howard’s company had to set up a 125-foot by 25-foot stage, wiring and equipment in seven minutes, and run a live broadcast for twenty-seven minutes introducing 260 racers. Then, imagine having to disassemble all those materials in a mere three minutes. Says Howard of these challenges, “Everything in NASCAR is run in a factor of “43.” With every race beginning precisely on time, network TV waits for no one.”
A Concord native, Howard was spoon-fed NASCAR at a young age. He says that this wasn’t just because of its entertainment value, but because it was such a staple of the community.
Besides the immersion in NASCAR culture, Howard also attributes his unusual occupation to genetics. “My grandfather owned and operated Cabarrus Theatre. Those were the days when, in his words, ‘We had to bally-hoo around town to get people to come see the show.’” Additionally, his father and other grandfather were skilled electrical contractors, and Howard developed a talent, and passion, for math and logistics.
It was also his father that connected him with H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, NASCAR scion and current president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Recalls Howard, “In 1981, my freshman year at Appalachian State University, Humpy hired me to be his “go-fer” for the Coca-Cola 600 Race. Ever year after that, he kept me on, and I would schedule my classes contingent upon who would allow me to take off that one week in October when racing came to town.”
Howard made a huge impression on Wheeler, who hired him to run PRN, Performance Racing Network, which is responsible for all the radio broadcast rights for the races. Shortly after that, Wheeler increased Howard’s responsibilities, signing him on to produce all the high-energy pre-race shows at the speedway. Admits Howard, “Humpy put a lot of faith in me early on. I can honestly say that every thing I have ever been involved in has been done without precedent, and without a template. I knew nothing of radio, I knew nothing of producing shows. But I listen, and observe everything. A lot of people undervalue the ability and willingness to do that.”
In 1987, Jay Howard started JHE Production Group, with Wheeler as his first client. From there he picked up production of pre-race shows in Atlanta and Texas; signed major clients like R.J. Reynolds and its Winston Million and No Bull 5 programs; then, in 1996, got a call that would increase his opportunities dramatically.
Says Howard, “In 1994, Charlotte hosted the ‘Street of Champions’, an uptown street festival to celebrate the NBA Final Four. It worked so well that the Chamber of Commerce and officials at Lowe’s Motor Speedway created ‘Speed Street 600,’ a similar celebration for racing fans. Its first year went well, but the second year of production was very involved and they lost their event director 75 days before the event. They came to us. So, in 75 days, we put together a plan to produce the whole show. Now the event is titled ‘Food Lion Speed Street,’ and we have produced it ever since. 2004 will be our ninth, and the event’s tenth, year.”
Food Lion Speed Street is a three-day event that draws over 400,000 people. It is the largest NASCAR festival, and arguably the largest street festival for a sporting event. A mélange of music, personalities, street vendors and corporate showcases that glut several blocks of uptown, it exposes motorsports to non-followers, as well as drives core NASCAR fans to the Charlotte race instead of other venues.
Explains Howard, “Our productions are an extension of sporting events. We know that people don’t come to Charlotte because of Food Lion Speed Street, they come for the racing. However, what Speed Street does is gets people off the fence when they are determining which race they are going to travel to. By offering post-race entertainment, a nightlife, interactive displays where they can kick the tires, meet the racers, take home lots of free stuff and have an overall racing experience outside the track, we make our race look a lot more attractive.”
“A Beautiful Mind”
Most people cannot even conceive of what it takes to coordinate these events from planning to execution. Most are content to sit back and enjoy the show. However, one of the things that has made Howard so successful is his ability to compute numbers at the drop of a hat – before the hat hits the floor.
When he had 75 days to plan his first Speed Street, he graphed the street grids, divided it up into sponsor and vendor areas, computed the cost of production and presented an 8-foot long schematic to Coca-Cola. The company’s response? “You got this figured out pretty quick.” Then equally as quick, they signed onto the program.
“You’ve got to develop a good program for sponsors,” Howard explains. “The days of sponsorships being about hanging a banner are over. Companies need documented impressions, interactivity with the consumer, and a return on investment. We provide this for them. Additionally, we are extremely fortunate to have developed great partnerships with the media to promote our events. This delivers the exposure to produce the numbers our sponsors need to see.”
In addition to crunching finances, Howard has also developed mathematically based scenarios to coordinate events. He created a matrix to compute accurate fly-bys over events. He determined that a 1 minute, 10 second version of the national anthem has 150 beats, and created a system to gauge the speed of the jet with the time available before the singer ends with “home of the brave.” By interpolating the two sets of data, the production team can instruct a pilot to speed up or slow down to produce that dramatic rush as the song hits its final crescendo. For those pilots who hit dead-on, he presents a “Time Over Target, Home of the Brave” commemorative coin, which has become a token of accomplishment for these fliers.
He says “I had to create a way for my crew to coordinate these events in my absence. The fly-by matrix is a cheat sheet that makes it easy to direct the production on target.” When asked how he manages to handle all of he details involved in these productions, he replies simply, “I have found that if you can reduce a problem to a mathematical equation, you can always find a solution.”
“The Right Stuff”
In addition to flight matrixes, assembly and disassembly of stages, wiring, fireworks, victory laps and on-air presentations, JHE also must sign entertainment talent, meet their needs, build the sets and oversee the production.
According to Howard, the much-heralded Centennial ‘First In Flight’ Celebration in Kitty Hawk, was his company’s piéce de resistance. A smorgasbord of entertainers like Aaron Tippin, The Beach Boys, The Temptations and John Travolta we joined by historical figures such as John Glenn, Buzz Aldren, Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager. An intense air show featuring historical and state-of-the-art fighter planes awed the crowd, a trained bald eagle circled the grounds to land on the Kitty Hawk Memorial, and a special visit by President George W. Bush hallmarked the event. Howard shares the importance of the celebration, “Before the presentation, I was standing on a cooler looking over at the most influential men and women in aviation, and I just went numb. I said, “I don’t know who decided I get to talk to you guys, but here we go.” He adds, “Mr. Harry Combs, founder of the Learjet, presented a replica of the Wright Brothers first plane, and delivered an incredibly moving dedication. Three days later he passed away. We think he lived for this event and my team is so proud to have been a part of that.”
For several days during the event, Howard was sequestered with the Secret Service and White House staff ‘deconflicting’ the President’s arrival. Meanwhile his entire staff – all fourteen people, handled business on the ground.
“JHE’s ‘Time Over Target’”
For the success he’s experienced, Howard heaps accolades on his team, which is divided into Operations, Production and Special Events/Administration. He also remains grounded and humble regarding his own contribution. “In this business, experience is everything. You learn from every mistake, every nuance, and determine how to make it better next time. It’s not unlike an immune system, once a negative component is introduced, we attack it with everything we’ve got, integrate that information and move on.”
He adds, “There are always going to be things that you cannot control – the weather, radio interference, a singer who isn’t following the schedule. But our job is not only to bring as many things as possible under our control, but also to have a plan B, C, whatever, to pull things off in a great fashion. It requires a lot of tap dancing, but if you are in your element – and we have to be – the attendees never know that what they saw was ‘Plan C.’”
Howard maintains a steady finger on the pulse of his company, but is leaving more and more of it to his team. By translating experience into systems, many of the presentations are turnkey operations. However, there is always a drive to keep things fresh, exciting, and to create bigger and better events. He says, “We are only as good as our last job, and if we don’t keep the adrenaline flowing for ourselves and the attendees, we aren’t fulfilling our obligations.”
He adds, “We execute every production as perfectly as we can, and our goal is always to hear the client say, “Man, am I glad I called YOU. There is no better resume than that.”
JHE’s reference list is long and impressive, and Howard has received personal thank-you’s from the Air Force, Governor Easley’s office, Texas’ Office of the Governor, D.C. Comics, Darrell Waltrip – the list goes on and on.
When asked if after twenty-three years producing these events is still fun, Howard replies, “Absolutely! I doubt I will ever stop those fist-pumping moments when jet fighters fly over head and hit that last note, dead on.”