Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

Daytona speedway plans major revamp

TAMPA — Joie Chitwood oversees NASCAR's most famous racetrack, a 2½-mile monster with seating for hundreds of thousands and a tradition that's hard to match.

The high banking and trioval shape at Daytona International Speedway are the same as what Lee Petty raced on when he won the first Daytona 500 in 1959. Some grandstand seats are the same, too.

Chitwood knows his old track is, well, old, and customers now seek more creature comforts. That's the part he sees as "a chance to affect the customer's experience for 50 years."

The speedway is in the early phases of what track officials hope will be a redefining redevelopment, and they released artist renderings last week of what the result would look like. Chitwood is still months from submitting a proposal to the track's owners, International Speedway Corp., but upgrades would include grandstands and seats, entrances, gates and concession areas. Specifics are coming in a few weeks.

Government hurdles such as zoning have been cleared, and an architect has been chosen, Rosetti Associates, which was behind Ford Field in Detroit, among other projects. Cost is to be determined, as is a start date.

"I don't get a second bite of the apple (in making a pitch) because they have 11 other tracks that need resources," Chitwood said Thursday of International Speedway Corp. "This is, I think, the one great chance we've got to do something special at Daytona."

One major factor is unique to racing: The most desirable and priciest seats are in the top rows, because fans seated higher can see more of the gigantic track. Those also are the fans who have the most work to do if they want to do anything but watch the race from their seats.

"You have to climb every stair (from the ground) to get to the top row," Chitwood said. "Let's say you want a beer at Lap 100. You have to go back down the stairs to the bottom. You're going to do it one time; you're not going to do it more than that. … That's a big thing we're going to focus on."

Chitwood, a Tampa native and a graduate of USF and Florida, calls ticket buyers personally and talks to them at the track. Those encounters can have an effect.

At a Nationwide series race in July 2011, he met a fan who asked why the track could take money from sponsor Drive4COPD, a public health campaign for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, while allowing smoking in the grandstands. That helped lead to a policy change last year in which smoking was banned except in designated areas.

That brought the track in line with stadiums in other sports, and Chitwood is aware that those places are a point of comparison and competition, too. That guides the renovation conversation.

"We're a racetrack. We're a great racetrack," he said. "How do we really turn ourselves into a stadium?

"And that's really the goal. That's what we have to do for the next 50 years. If we don't, we're going to continue to Band-Aid here and Band-Aid there, but we might not ever really get to the crux, which is: We have an aging property that needs a good facelift. And I think that's what our fans expect."

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