DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Daytona International Speedway just completed one project and is about to start another.
NASCAR’s most famous track finished installation of revamped cross-over gates on Wednesday, a day before drivers and teams took to the high-banked oval to begin preparations for Saturday night’s 400-mile race.
The gates were reinforced following a frightening wreck in February that injured nearly 30 spectators. Daytona and Talladega added cables at the crossover gates, which allow fans to move between the grandstands and the infield before and after races. The tracks also installed supplemental tethers between the gate frame and support posts.
“I felt before that it was safe place,” track president Joie Chitwood III said. “We’ve been around 55 years and, yes, things happen. But we’ve done a really good job of giving fans a safe and fun environment. You never stop doing that.”
One of the eight gates at Daytona collapsed when rookie Kyle Larson crashed on the final lap of the Nationwide Series race a day before the Daytona 500.
Larson’s car went airborne, slammed into the fence and spewed debris into the stands. Larson was unharmed, but dozens of fans were taken to hospitals for treatment, including one who was hit by a tire.
Daytona spent hours repairing the fence before the 500. After the race, the track hired a structural engineering firm to review the fence and propose improvements. NASCAR also was involved in the process.
The next Daytona project is considerably bigger and way more expensive.
The 2½-mile speedway is overhauling the frontstretch to enhance the “fan experience.”
International Speedway Corp., which owns Daytona and 12 other NASCAR tracks, estimates the redesign with cost between $375 million and $400 million.
The three-year project, scheduled to be completed by January 2016, begins Friday. And it won’t have a traditional groundbreaking ceremony.
Chitwood came up with a creative and competitive campaign for the event, called “Daytona Rising.”
He is pitting current and former NASCAR drivers and a crew chief in a driving skills test, a competition on Caterpillar front-end loaders that will give the winning team the honor of breaking ground on the redesign.
NASCAR drivers Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman are paired on one team. Fellow drivers Greg Biffle and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne comprise another team. And three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip and former crew chief Larry McReynolds form the final team.
The teams have to maneuver an obstacle course while carrying items including tires and sand. The event will be treated like real NASCAR races, complete with driver introductions, the national anthem and a Victory Lane celebration that includes champagne and trophies.
“I have a lot of input when it comes to doing fun and crazy things,” Chitwood said. “Maybe it’s because I was a stunt man. We thought if we’re going to do this groundbreaking, we need something more than just shovels and a picture. Let’s Daytona-style this thing. ... I’m kind of proud of it. This fits NASCAR. This fits Daytona. Let’s not just do a photo with gold-platted shovels. This just feels like NASCAR.
“We’re only going to do this one time in my lifetime, so we want to make sure we get it right.”
The redevelopment will give Daytona’s aging grandstands a modern look and feel. It will include expanded entrances and a series of escalators and elevators to transport fans to three different concourse levels, each featuring spacious and strategically-placed social “neighborhoods” along the nearly mile-long frontstretch. Those 11 neighborhoods, each measuring the size of a football field, will allow fans to meet and socialize during events without ever missing any on-track action.
The project also includes the removal of backstretch grandstands while wider and more comfortable seating will be installed throughout the frontstretch. When the project is complete, Daytona will have reduced its capacity by 46,000 seats to 101,000.
Reducing capacity has become a trend in NASCAR.
International Speedway Corp. announced Wednesday that it will continue decreasing seating capacity at its racetracks to create more ticket demand.
ISC will target seating that doesn’t include sightlines to pit road and the opportunity for fans to take advantage of prerace events and track amenities.
“There is simply too many seats in inventory at several facilities in our portfolio,” ISC President John Saunders said during a conference call to announce ISC’s second-quarter earnings. “The seats that we have today don’t necessarily offer or project the best experience for our fans. ... An engaged customer, one who understands the sport and has a good at-track experience, is more likely to return.”