Flat Spot On: More Changes at Daytona Are Coming
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Once upon a time, along about Gen-2, drivers quit teams at the drop of a hat. Sometimes they got fired on Monday after a car owner felt his prized, potent entry had been balloon-footed around on Sunday. Even the great David Pearson was cut loose by the Wood Brothers 35 years ago on the Monday following the Southern 500 for leaving his pit stall too early – after lug nuts had been removed on two wheels.
These days we have a driver who is signed to a lucrative multi-year contract next year who remains locked into his deal for this year. And, Kevin Harvick’s among the favorites to win the Daytona 500. Next thing you know, a woman will be leading the field to the green flag for Sunday’s race.
Or, they’ll be tearing down the grandstands.
After many big hints about a proposed remodeling, on Friday a formal presentation was made on the Daytona International Speedway’s future. But first, before any action takes place, the right political levers need to get pulled to generate a public-private partnership between the International Speedway Corporation and the state of Florida. ISC will invest $250 million and hopes to get the same financial breaks other Florida sports facilities receive, which requires legislation.
This proposed partnership would comprise another big change for NASCAR racing in general and the France family, owners of the ISC. It would not, however, be the first public-private cooperation. The Kansas Speedway,
which opened under ISC ownership in 2001, was the first to engage a public-private approach, which was brokered by Lesa France Kennedy, now the CEO of ISC.
Given the “big picture” presentation made by track president Joie Chitwood on Friday, if the Daytona project goes forward the grandstands won’t actually be torn down. The front stretch grandstands that are nearly one mile long will be radically re-modeled. In truth, the France family’s Speedway by the Sea has always been behind the times when compared to other sporting facilities. So it will be interesting to see details of the concept introduced by Chitwood and a timeline for construction if the political process goes forward successfully.
In his overview, Chitwood outlined a new front entrance with “vertical transport” (escalators) and a fan concourse running the length of the grandstands. Other entrances on the front straight grandstands will have re-modeled “injectors” (for easier fan access).The current tower at the start-finish line will be remodeled, but it remains to be seen if additional suites across the top levels will be added. The lowest rows next to the track will be higher than the current layout, allowing for good sightlines of the entire circuit for all ticket holders. And the seats will be larger and presumably more comfortable.
Other than the timing, questions that remain to be answered include whether the schedule for races will be altered. It’s hard to imagine a construction project hosting the Daytona 500 in the future. Is it possible the track might swap its July race for just one season with the ISC-owned track in Homestead, Fla. to create a 10-month time span to complete the re-modeling? That could put the Sprint Cup season finale at a newly revised Daytona track at the end of the season and avoid the Daytona 500 being held in the middle of a builder’s mayhem. (Thanks and a tip of the hat to Chuck Givler of the Lehigh Valley Express-Times for this marvelous theory.)
You can put a lock on the fact fewer seats on the front stretch will be present at the new version of Daytona – but
Chitwood said he’ll keep a close eye on holding down the cost of tickets. Just how fewer seats sold at the same prices will generate more money for the state and the economy remains one of those fuzzy political details. I guess the idea is to preserve the ongoing influx of out-of-state fans and their money each year during Speed Weeks and in July for the 400-mile race.
In general, the presentation by Chitwood, introduced by three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett and a slick film citing “mythic proportions” and “universal awe,” was short on detail and long on elected officials, who shared the front rows with Ms. France Kennedy.
The day before this announcement, of course, notice was given that the two qualifying races held four days before the Daytona 500 will be run at night in the future – presumably to sell more tickets to those local fans who can’t take a day off from work to watch the races and to increase the national TV audience by the same logic.
Bigger, broader change is a-coming with the track’s re-modeling in order to improve the fan experience. Despite the hyperbole – and the fact the word racing didn’t get into Chitwood’s polished presentation until five minutes had passed – it’s a change that is much needed. The last time the track was spruced up, mostly with some added palm trees and better signage, followed on the heels of Bruton Smith taking Speedway Motorsports public, forcing the France family to keep up with the times in anticipation of its own public offering for ISC stock.
This time, Kennedy and the France family are leading with a major public-private initiative, which might become a tool used more often by other promoters in the future as well as ISC.
Chitwood mentioned the seats his father has held with season tickets for 26 years, from which the son saw his first Daytona 500. And he also talked about being able to “see the track” and “see the angels” from the proposed fan concourse. It makes one wonder what Big Bill France, the creator of the track who might be termed NASCAR’s premier heavenly spirit, would think about this development, or how a driver like Tiny Lund would view the “new Daytona.”
Lund’s famous victory in 1963 is being fondly recalled this week, because it’s the 50th anniversary. After helping to rescue Marvin Panch from his burning Maserati during a preliminary race, Lund took the place of Panch in the Wood Brothers Ford and won the 500. The not so tiny Lund operated a fish camp, but lived to race until the day he was killed at Talladega in 1975.
As long as the track configuration remains the same and tandem drafting remains forever banned, I suspect all characters associated with the heritage of the sand, grit and passion of racing at Daytona would give a renovated facility the thumbs up.
If it comes to pass, I suspect fans will hardly lament the track facilities no longer being like they once were. Personally, I hope to live long enough to see the day when the grandstands are completely torn down and replaced by seating several stories above the track so fans can safely watch their driving heroes race at unrestricted speeds of 300 mph in modern cars equipped with as yet to be created safety features.
For the near term, we’ll just have to make do with “vertical transport” in order to “see the angels.”
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com Comments