DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The race is on to transform Daytona International Speedway from an outdated track into a state-of-the art facility.
Don't mind the mess for now. Just enjoy the view.
The grandstands look like a gigantic Lite-Brite board with red, yellow, green, white and blue plastic seats mixed together, turning a bland design into a vibrant setting ahead of Sunday's Daytona 500. The $400 million overhaul known as "Daytona Rising" added a series of escalators and elevators that will take fans to three different concourse levels which feature spacious social areas along the nearly mile-long front stretch.
"I've seen people just wander," track president Joie Chitwood III said. "It's nice to see them just wander around and soak it in. I think it's because it's so different from what they've seen at a racetrack before."
The modern twists at aging tracks are a costly attempt to attract new fans who can follow a race just fine on their TVs or handheld devices without the hassle of a day out among the crowd.
The heady days of regular 100,000-plus crowds have mostly gone the way of the Car of Tomorrow as fans are parked at home instead of headed to tracks that often lack modern comforts found at other sports stadiums. There are few spots to hide during rain. Wireless networks are erratic. So much seating is simply rows of uncomfortable metal bleachers. Cup holders are a fantasy, big screens to watch the action a rarity.
So changes have begun and the plan seems simple and overdue: Slice seating and spruce up the view.
Charlotte Motor Speedway will cut 41,000 seats and one of its towers. Atlanta Motor Speedway is dumping 17,000 grandstand seats. In 2013, International Speedway Corporation tracks California, Chicagoland, Darlington, Homestead, Michigan, Richmond and Talladega removed some 100,000 seats from its facilities.
Daytona, which opened in 1959, will dip from roughly 147,000 seats to 101,500. The July race will go on without the iconic tower emblazoned with "DAYTONA" that houses suites and race control. The backstretch stands are headed for extinction.
"I will tell you that every sport has some challenge in one capacity with their live gate because of the economy and because of our great television partners," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. "So everybody has something that they're trying to make the live experience even better, and we're no different."
Texas recently installed a 218-by-94 foot high-def videoboard dubbed Big Hoss. Dover may add a party deck. Some tracks — like Dover and its wildly popular summer Firefly Music Festival — are thinking outside the pit box and want to book events that can lure younger crowds and generate needed cash at venues that mostly sit empty for 50 weekends every year.
Dover started downsizing over the winter, removing about 17,000 seats. The track, site of two NASCAR race weekends, opened in 1969 and once boasted 135,000 seats. Dover hasn't come close to hitting the 100,000 mark for a Sprint Cup race in years and large swaths of empty sections are covered by advertising tarps.
Empty seats look bad for the race track, bad to the sponsors and are bad for the health of NASCAR, regardless of the TV deal. NASCAR completed an $8.2 billion television package last season, and more than half of that money trickles to the tracks.
NASCAR tracks don't reveal attendance figures, and while many sports events would love to attract even 60,000 fans, the vacant seats at a NASCAR race look unappealing on television because those people are spread over 100,000-plus seats.
"We have to get past the feeling that we have all failed and just understand the reality of the situation," Dover president Mike Tatoian said.
Tatoian said Dover will have 95,500 seats this season and could shrink eventually to about 85,000. Dover could build a deck or suites by June 2016.
"Everybody uses buzz words. Repurpose, resize, but the fact is, we have to remove seats," Tatoian said. "I'm all for the buzz words, but to create demand back into our sport, one way to do it is to remove seats. The tracks were just overbuilt."
Daytona officials have expressed interest in holding a major concert or hosting a college football game, which Bristol will do in 2016. Chitwood — who has been involved in his family's motorsports entertainment business, the Chitwood Thrill Show — said a non-racing event for 2016 at the track would be announced within two months.
"Maybe it's the world center of entertainment," Chitwood said, "instead of the world center of racing."
The remodeling project is scheduled to be completed on time and on budget by January 2016. It will give Daytona's weathered grandstands a modern look and feel. Wider, more comfortable seats will be installed, as well as improved concessions and countless big-screen televisions that will keep fans abreast of the action even when they step away from the stands.
NASCAR fans are sure to be wowed — if they come.