SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Other News

Daytona’s FanZone has tracks’ hearts racing

The Nextel FanZone entertained Daytona 500 fans for an extra $85 a pop.

Several racetrack executives are hoping to emulate the success of Daytona International Speedway’s new Nextel FanZone following rave reviews from facility operators and fans during NASCAR’s season-opening Speedweeks.

Daytona’s new theme park-like infield, part of the track’s $50 million in renovations and highlighted by the 4.6-acre FanZone, which includes a bistro-style restaurant and roof-top spectator deck overlooking the garages, is the most recent extension of the track’s attempts to bring fans closer to the sport.

It also was a nice new revenue source, selling out for the Daytona 500 at $85 per person — on top of the price of the race ticket. Admission was $20 a day, in addition to the price of a race ticket, during the rest of Speedweeks.

John Saunders, chief operating officer of International Speedway Corp., which owns the Daytona track, would not provide specifics about FanZone attendance, but industry insiders said attendance on Feb. 20, the day of the Daytona 500, was between 8,000 and 9,000.

“I think what Daytona did was provide a model, a blueprint,” said Homestead-Miami Speedway President Curtis Gray.

Saunders, whose company owns Homestead-Miami and 10 other Nextel Cup tracks in addition to Daytona, said similar renovations will be done on a facility-by-facility basis. He mentioned Phoenix International Raceway and Richmond International Raceway as older tracks that could use just such a facelift.

A family stops for a photo op in front of the FanZone’s Bistro restaurant.
“The experience from this past weekend, in my view, will set a new standard for motorsports entertainment,” Saunders said.

In addition to existing tracks, Saunders said any new ISC tracks, including possible facilities in New York and the Pacific Northwest, will come equipped with similar fan-friendly infields.

“Those will be constructed in such a way that those type of amenities will be embedded in the original facilities,” he said.

The FanZone, presented as a mini theme park, had a stage that featured musical acts throughout the day, a bistro restaurant with a menu that included jumbo lump blue crab cakes and grilled shrimp, and various sideshow-style acts all within an enclosed area that included a picnic-table patio. The highlight of the FanZone was the 490-foot-long, 30-foot-wide Fan Deck that allowed fans a bird’s-eye view of the garage area.

ISC’s in-house design team, North American Testing Corp., did the conceptual design for the FanZone with the help of Kansas City-based design firm HNTB. The FanZone was built by Jacksonville-based Haskell Corp.

Marcus Smith, executive vice president of national sales and marketing for ISC rival Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns six Nextel Cup tracks, said NASCAR and the tracks have had to be creative in terms of figuring out new ways to continue to allow fans to have access to the sport.

NASCAR’s accessibility in the last few years has significantly decreased as the sport has grown, with hospitality requests and driver demands much more common. The tracks, in turn, have been forced to look for ways to include the fans without congesting the garage area and overcommitting the drivers and their crews.

“We’ve seen talk about the idea of ways for fans to get in the garage without actually getting in the garage,” Smith said, adding that the FanZone also raises expectations for fans’ experiences at the track. “Dover started with the Bridge [overlooking the racetrack], and now Daytona has done a better job and improved on that idea. I am sure the next project, whether ISC does it or whoever does it, will try to improve on the existing model.”

Fans watch the action from a FanZone deck in front of a jumbo video board.
Smith did not say whether SMI had specific plans to upgrade any of its facilities soon.

Jeff Boerger, president of ISC-owned Kansas Speedway, which opened a similar, scaled-down area called the FanWalk in 2001, said his track already is considering a food court similar to the one in Daytona, but it would not include a separate admission.

“We may look at doing something similar to the bistro,” Boerger said. “This is an area we may look at to improve the fan experience.”

Brett Shelton, president of ISC-owned Michigan International Speedway, which is undergoing renovations to its frontstretch fan plaza area, said his track is looking to make improvements to its infield in the next couple of years and will likely borrow the theme park-like format.

“It had a Disney aspect to it,” Shelton said. “When we look someday to make changes, we would have to look at all those great attributes that you saw at Daytona and apply them to what we do at [Michigan].”

Matt Alexander, president at Chicagoland Speedway, said he has wanted to build a Turn 4 Club similar to Daytona’s Daytona 500 Club, which provides a hospitality and entertainment area in the infield overlooking victory lane.

“What I had in my mind for Chicagoland, they have in reality,” Alexander said. “It really helps to see your vision work.”

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