SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/In Depth

Tracks get to work on upgrades

Projects aimed at providing a better fan experience

Six months into the $400 million rebuild of Daytona International Speedway, track President Joie Chitwood can hardly contain his excitement. Construction is ahead of schedule as the facility shifts to operations mode for its first racing events, including the Daytona 500.

“It’s amazing how much work we’ve done to date,” Chitwood said over the phone before boarding a flight to Chicago to announce Toyota as the first founding partner for the Daytona Rising redevelopment. “We have 60 million pounds of concrete in the ground and when it’s all said and done, there will be 40 million pounds of steel in the air, taller than certain areas of the grandstand. We’re planting a flag in Daytona and are going to make sure this is the only motorsports stadium in existence.”

Daytona International Speedway’s extreme makover is taking shape. The project is slated to wrap up by January 2016.
Photo by: Daytona International Speedway
The massive three-year project signals a new dawn for NASCAR’s signature track and stock car racing in general.

International Speedway Corp. alone is in the early stages of a five-year, $600 million capital expenditure program covering its 13 facilities, including Daytona. Speedway Motorsports Inc., meanwhile, is investing millions this year to install a new video board at Texas Motor Speedway. It is the only substantial upgrade for SMI tracks in 2014 after the group spent $1.4 billion in improvements from 1995 to 2012, SMI spokesman Scott Cooper said.

Overall, both groups and NASCAR are pushing for these improvements to help resolve the issue of declining attendance at their facilities over the past several years and bring in new amenities their fans are accustomed to enjoying at major league arenas and stadiums. Combined ticket revenue at ISC and SMI, which play host to the majority of Sprint Cup races, has dropped by more than $175 million since 2007, or roughly 41 percent. At the same time, NASCAR is facing the same issue as other major league sports, competing against the home theater experience.

“We have to come back to getting folks off the couch,” Chitwood said. “There’s a lot of entertainment options out there, and as much as our television partners put on a great show … we have to make sure our events are compelling and make a lot of sense.”

Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, agrees with Chitwood’s assessment. The track, which opened in 1997, no longer jams 200,000 race fans into its facility but still draws up to 140,000 for Sprint Cup events, a number covering the infield crowds, Gossage said.

“There’s been a shift demographically and I think culturally,” he said. “Television coverage has improved so much that people are more likely to stay at home and watch the event on TV. That’s one of the big reasons why we’re putting in [monster video board] ‘Big Hoss.’ You want to give the fan every reason to choose to come out to the event. We needed to step up our game considerably. Now, you’re not going to miss anything when you’re here … that little piece of debris on the track that you can’t see, so you think, ‘NASCAR threw a caution for no good reason?’ Now you can see it.”

For many facilities hosting NASCAR events, the starting point for improving the fan experience begins by reducing
Toyota has become the first of four founding partners for Daytona’s renovation. It will have naming rights to one of five entrances to the venue.
Photo by: Rosetti
large numbers of bad seats at their venues, some of which grew to 100,000-plus capacity through expansion over the past 25 years. Some tracks that added thousands of backstretch seats, such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Richmond International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Texas Motor Speedway, now see those sections sit empty on race weekends. As a result, they are tarping thousands of unsold seats or eliminating them to create new fan destinations.

The extent to which it makes sense to downsize tracks is market-specific, said Jill Gregory, NASCAR’s vice president of industry services.

“You’ve got varying degrees of investment across all of our facilities,” Gregory said. “The seating configuration is part of that. Each track is looking at what their market wants and trying to figure out what the right mix is.”

Daytona was among the first tracks to announce that its capacity would shrink, by 40,000 seats after the track renovation is completed in January 2016. Last month, ISC announced seven more of its tracks would reduce capacity by a combined 94,000 seats. Driving the adjustments is ISC’s strategy to promote sellouts and create excess demand, according to the company’s public financial filings.

“The grandstand capacity changes are really part of a longer-term commitment to improve the at-track experience through better sight lines and greater access to the facilities’ amenities, including pre-race experiences,” ISC President John Saunders said.

Talladega shrinks to 78,000 seats this year, in large part because of the removal of the 18,000-seat Allison Grandstand on the backstretch. It’s being replaced by a combination of recreational vehicle spaces reserved for corporate sponsors and higher-end individual rigs, track Chairman Grant Lynch said.

The track at one time had 147,000 seats. Over the past five years, Talladega has replaced most of its seats along the frontstretch with bigger chairbacks and more leg room, effectively reducing the track’s total capacity, Lynch said.

Those who bought seats in the Allison Grandstand, which started off Turn 2 and stretched 4,000 feet halfway to the superstretch, are being relocated to a nicer seat in a better location along the frontstretch. The price stays basically the same, $50 for a two-day ticket.

“That was our entry-level ticket,” Lynch said. “Now, they’re on the side where all the drivers’ souvenir rigs are and where our tram systems operate more efficiently. It gets everybody on the front side where they should have a better experience.”

Both Richmond and Chicagoland Speedway are reducing capacity by 15,000 to 20,000 seats, in part by repurposing real estate as hospitality villages and other fan destinations.

In Richmond, officials removed the 10,000-seat Henrico Tower along the backstretch in favor of developing an open-air bar for fans to get out of their seats and take a breather during the race. Fan surveys indicated the old seats “weren’t getting high marks and there was a decent amount of dissatisfaction,” said Dennis Bickmeier, the speedway’s president. “They were climbing four stories to get to their seats and there were not a lot of amenities there. That made it difficult for those ticket holders and they were not renewing at a high rate.”

Those who did renew their tickets for the backstretch have been moved to the frontstretch where they now have a view of pit road, Bickmeier said.

The full concept for the revamped backstretch space has not been announced yet but it will tie in to a track tradition called the “Richmond Stroll,” where race fans can walk a full lap around the track just outside the facility and still be connected to the event.

“We want to use it to our advantage,” said Bickmeier, who sees similarities between Richmond and his days working for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim Stadium, which transitioned between football and baseball to provide the best possible sight lines. “Part of the stroll is to stop and enjoy a cold beverage.
We want to do something back there that honors the history and tells the story of Richmond. I’ve seen it done at Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. It’s a great branding opportunity as well. We’re talking to companies and agencies about it.”

Texas Motor Speedway, meanwhile, an SMI property, made the decision not to sell about 13,000 seats along the backstretch this year in large part because of the installation of Big Hoss, a gigantic Panasonic video board under construction in the center of the backstretch. Measuring 218 feet wide and 95 feet tall, Big Hoss ranks as the largest single video screen in sports, for the moment (see related story). The seats in question do not have a view of the board.

“Why spend millions upon millions of dollars to build this incredibly nice amenity and then sell a ticket to somebody to have their back to the board? Why not put everybody on the front straightaway?” Gossage said.
“We’re just going to leave [the backstretch seats] alone. There’s no reason to cover them with a tarp because then the media says, ‘Look, you’re hiding them.’ No, we’re creating revenue [with the monster board]. We’ve talked about taking them out, but what if demand changes? Then you have to put them back in.”

Talladega has replaced most of its seats along the frontstretch with bigger chairbacks.
Photo by: ISC Photography
The same questions surround Charlotte Motor Speedway, which in 2011 became the first SMI property to install a giant video board in the center of the backstretch. The board can’t be seen by those sitting in the 40,000-seat Diamond Tower Terrace on the backstretch.

The terrace has been tarped off for past Sprint Cup races, and SMI officials have considered removing the seating and pouring a concrete slab for motor homes in its place (SportsBusiness Journal, Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2013). To date, SMI has not announced the future of those seats.

“Our focus is on maximizing the fan experience at all of our tracks, and in some cases that means lost seats,” said Marcus Smith, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and SMI, its parent company. “Putting the biggest TV in the world at Texas Motor Speedway will result in a loss of some seats, but it’s a great trade-off.”

As a companywide policy, SMI Chairman Bruton Smith prefers not to tear down seats, according to Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“Bruton is a strong proponent of selling what you got, and so even though the economy has been challenging and not all the seats have been sold, what we’ve tried to do is adjust the pricing,” Gappens said. “An entry-level seat down in turns 3 and 4 when we bought the track in 2008 was $60. Today that ticket is $25. You try to create an entry point and affordability for all segments of your fan base.”

Back at Daytona, downsizing the speedway by eliminating backstretch seats and increasing the size of all new seats installed throughout the facility makes the most sense for improving the fan experience, Chitwood said. The track will seat about 100,000 when the project is completed, compared with 147,000 before construction started.

“I feel like we’re in a good position and I’m excited about what NASCAR is doing to improve the sport,” he said.

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