DAYTONA BEACH —Aric Almirola used to love telling people about his relationship with Daytona International Speedway — how a driver from Tampa got his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at the same track he used to visit as a child.
"As a kid I came and sat in those grandstands," Almirola said. "I can't say that anymore. Those grandstands no longer exist."
In their place are revamped seats, entrances and concourses — the fruits of the $400 million Daytona Rising renovation project that will be on display in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. Drive down International Speedway Boulevard to the historic 21/2-mile tri-oval, and it quickly becomes apparent that the track is the same, but almost everything else has changed from the speedway Almirola remembers growing up.
The backstretch seats have disappeared. The sponsor-laden entrances are colorful and flashy, even from a distance. The iconic Daytona tower has been replaced with a sleeker box that reads "World Center of Racing."
"When a fan drives down ISB, I want them to catch their breath," track president Joie Chitwood III said. "And they see this new stadium and a marquee sign. It's what we should be if we're the flagship brand of NASCAR. … People should expect this. I think we've lived up to that."
Whether the track meets those lofty expectations won't be clear until after Sunday's full debut. But Chitwood said the early responses from last month's Rolex 24 and last week's Sprint Unlimited exhibition race have been "off the chart." During Tuesday's media day, the speedway announced that Sunday's race has sold out all 101,500 reserved seats.
Those wider, more comfortable seats are key upgrades to what Chitwood calls the world's first (and only) motorsports stadium. When two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip toured the facilities last week as a Fox analyst, he was impressed by the waterfall in one section and a Fox Sports bar in another.
"A fan is going to come and have the best time they've ever had," Waltrip said.
Technology plays a big role in that, too, with WiFi equipped throughout the grandstands that stretch nine-10ths of a mile. Not only can spectators follow the race on Twitter or post photographs on Instagram; they can also use an app to get directions to their favorite pizza spot.
"I'm glad we didn't lose sight of the technology it takes to enhance all the bricks and mortar that we put in," Chitwood said.
Chitwood, a Tampa native, also didn't want to lose sight of the history he witnessed first-hand since he started heading to the track when he was skipping class at Jesuit High.
Some of the old grandstands were named after racing legends. Though the new sections are named after sponsors, the speedway still shares racing history in other parts of the stadium.
"It's a balancing act," Chitwood said.
The speedway also had to balance greater safety concerns, even if it meant stretching the budget. The first row of seats is farther back and higher off the ground to lessen the risk of flying debris. After Kyle Busch broke his leg and foot during a wreck in last year's Xfinity series race, the track installed SAFER barriers along all of the walls.
While those upgrades were necessary for safety, the other renovations were attempts to help a sport facing sagging TV ratings and attendance compared to its peak a decade ago.
Chitwood admitted the backstretch stands offered a "subpar experience," so the track eliminated them, reducing capacity by more than 40,000. The speedway will try to make up for having fewer fans by making sure that those who do come have the best experience possible, starting from the moment they spot the track on the drive in.
"It's more about the brand, catching their attention and saying, 'I have arrived, I get it now,' " Chitwood said. "I understand why people are all worked up about Daytona and what it means."
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.