Pocono President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky admittedly leads an interesting life. But this off-season, he had the unusual opportunity to go to Cuba, joining the select few who were the first to visit the island after President Obama normalized relations.
“I’m a member of YPO, Young Presidents’ Organization, and the Chair of the Education Committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter and decided we should go to Cuba and check it out,” Igdalsky said. “So, we did so as a chapter and there were 22 couples who went on a Friend to Friend mission. We got a chance to meet some great people, talk to some interesting political folks there from the Cuban government, and talk to the people about the way they see things. We tried to get a real feel for what Cuba was back before all this happened, to see how it is now and to see the potential of what that country can be.”
While Igdalsky and his fellow travelers were briefed about what to expect on their foray into Havana, he also experienced more surprises than he had expected.
“The briefing we got the night before we left at our dinner, they said we’re going to land, we’re going to see this big beautiful terminal that the Canadians built and then we will drive right past that and go to the barn at the back of the airport,” Igdalsky said. “And that was pretty much what they did. They sent the Americans to the back of the airport. We didn’t get to go to the new, fancy terminal they had there. I guess it was the original terminal there at the airport.”
“I was surprised when I got there,” Igdalsky continued. “I was surprised by the people, how much they love Americans and how friendly they are in general.”
“Tourism has become a big, big piece for them. They are getting three million tourists a year right now. And that’s without the American market. That’s the one thing they are kind of scared about because if the American opens up and everyone wants to go there, they can’t handle it. They are at their capacity right now for what they can sustain tourism-wise. You’ve got eleven million people and you have three million people coming each year. That’s a drain on them. And their economy, the way it is structured, isn’t really geared toward that yet.”
“You can see change afoot,” Igdalsky said. “You can hear the way they talk about the past, the present and the future. They’re excited about the possibilities of negotiations opening up with the US government and they are really excited about what the future holds for them as a people.”
“And it’s a very proud country. They are proud to be Cubans. Regardless of all of the political crap that we see, they don’t really see it. They won’t talk about any of that stuff. They just want to talk about life and living and enjoying life as best they can.”
One of the things that impressed Igdalsky the most was the sheer beauty of the landscape of the island itself.
“That was one of the things that really blew me away,” Igdalsky said. “I thought it was just going to be all these old buildings that were dilapidated and falling down. And you saw some of that. But you also saw these big, beautiful hotels and resorts and country clubs that they have managed to keep up. So, the structure is already there.”
Another aspect of Cuba, for which it is well-known, is its older cars. And with Igdalsky being a car guy, that was also of interest to him as well.
“I knew the older cars were going to be there but I thought that few would be in good shape given the age and the fact that they are on an island with salt water,” Igdalsky said. “I was absolutely blown away by the quality of some of those cars, what they have done to keep them looking fantastic. The interiors looked like they just rolled off the show room floor.”
“They’ve redone them to almost original spec,” Igdalsky continued. “They have plastic on the leather and cloth so that it doesn’t wear. A lot of them no longer have the original V-8 engines and now are running diesel engines. I was in a ’56 Bel Air and it had a Mercedes diesel five cylinder engine in it. These guys have so much pride in their cars, the same kind of pride we have in our cars. You see that passion for their cars as you talk to them and ride around with them.”
“As we talked to our driver, he said “Yeah, I have two wives, my wife and my car.”
While Igdalsky did not do any business particularly as it relates to Pocono Raceway, he did meet some business leaders passionate about their country’s development. And of course, he brought back the obligatory Cuban cigars and rum.
“There are entrepreneurs there that are starting to change the perception of the country,” Igdalsky said. “There are two hundred some odd jobs where people can be self-employed and don’t have to work for the government. You are seeing some development coming out of the ground floor.”
“And you see the excitement. We talked to people that had restaurants and other businesses and you could see the excitement as they talked about their love for their country and what the future holds for them, crossing that boundary of the unknown and to be part of the country they love.”
“I didn’t do any business at all,” Igdalsky continued. “This was all about bringing medical and art supplies to the island. We also did some education stuff as well.”
“It was a very unique experience. I was there more as a human than as a race track owner or promoter.”
“As I said, I like to travel and to see that world. I was really surprised by the people and I have a new-found love for the Cuban people and their country.”
By Mary Jo Buchanan, speedway media
January 24, 2015