The annual Daytona 500 has always been one of the biggest events on the sports calendar. It is the biggest event in NASCAR. Like the Super Bowl is to football, the Stanley Cup to hockey, and the World Series to baseball, winning the Daytona 500 is what every kid who wants to be a race car driver dreams of. Winning one of these turns an ordinary driver into a champion and a great driver into a legend.
Daytona International Speedway, built in 1959, has hosted NASCAR’s biggest event every year since. The track was jaw-dropping when it opened. With its 31-degree banking in the turns and 18-degree banking in the tri-oval, the D-shaped track was something no racer had ever before seen. In fact, in the first Daytona 500, some of the drivers actually drove convertibles. They had no idea that the high speeds they would be able to maintain would require that the car be as aerodynamic as possible. The drivers with their tops down soon found out they were very slow compared to the hard tops. Thus, “the draft” was born.
For the next quarter century or so, the cars got faster and faster until qualifying speeds and race speeds often well exceeded 200 MPH. Every year, fans came back to Daytona to escape the cold temperatures at home, catch some sun, and watch their favorite cars and drivers go faster than ever. Legends like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarborough gave the fans reason to come back every February as they put on quite the show.
In the early days of Daytona, there were not a lot of frills associated with the speedway. At first, there were grandstands made up of mostly wood benches and walk boards. Later, metal seats were added. A seat cushion was an item you had to bring with you to every race.
If you had a ticket in the upper sections, known as “Towers,” then you walked up several flights of stairs to your seats. Nobody complained though because the best view in racing is up as high as one can go. That is why those seats were the most expensive in the house. There was a small concrete walkway on the tower level where there were restrooms and perhaps a hot dog stand along the way. The restrooms at Daytona have always been about as primitive as one can imagine. Many of the men’s rooms did not even have the luxury of urinals. Instead they had troughs running along all four walls.
The track has gone through many facelifts over the years. The Sprint Towers were a great addition along with the huge press box built on top. The 500 Club building in the infield with Gatorade Victory Lane outside of it was quite the improvement when it was built about a decade ago. The 500 Club would be the equivalent of the club seating in a football stadium, with high dollar food and beverage included in the package. You sit at restaurant style tables with people in black and white uniforms serving your food and drink. It is a great venue for hosting business contacts.
A few years ago, the Fan Zone was built in the infield. This was a huge addition where the fans could buy tickets to get up close to the teams as they worked on the cars, or check out the live bands performing on the concert stage, or hang out at one of the bars and eat and drink and watch the race on TV. Fans could also walk upstairs and check out the action on the track from on top of the garage while also watching one of the giant TV screens. Before all of these renovations, the crowd at Daytona was made up mainly of country boys from all over the south. NASCAR was a southern sport made up of southern drivers racing on southern tracks. But with cable TV, the sport grew a larger audience and the sport began to move all over the nation. With these new fans, the speedway needed to make improvements to get these people to come back again.
However, in the last 20 years or so, it has become apparent the sports stadiums can no longer attract people with just a sports event and some seats to watch it. Sports venues have now become more of a place to hang out with friends or entertain business contacts and “oh by the way, there is a game going on.” The Atlanta Braves built a new stadium, Turner Field, for the 1996 Olympics. Even though they moved in only a year later, they’re already building another new stadium. The Jacksonville Jaguars began playing on the site of the old Gator Bowl, which was completely torn down and a brand new stadium was rebuilt there in the mid-1990s. They are now about to embark on their second major renovation since then. Every ticket holder at a Jags game can enjoy the action while swimming in one of the swimming pools or hot tubs if they can squeeze in.
The Tampa Bay Rays play in a stadium that has only been in use since the 1990s, Tropicana Field. The ballpark is mocked all across the sports world for being outdated and ugly. It has been a constant source of ridicule, often being blamed for the Rays poor attendance. This is the reality of professional sports in the 21st century.
Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood knows this is the reality and has brought the speedway into this new era with Daytona Rising. The construction began at the conclusion of the 2013 Coke 400 and will be completed (if all goes according to plan) by the 2016 Daytona 500. When it is finished, Daytona will look like a state of the art sports venue, rivaling anything the “stick-and-ball” sports have to offer.
Escalators are already bringing the fans up to the higher level seats where they can walk around the huge, new concourse area before the race starts. Once up there, they can visit one of several concession stands where they can purchase anything from a hot dog to a panini. They can take their food over to a table and sit and enjoy their food while staying out of the sun for a while. In the old days of Daytona, fans went to the concession stands and then went back to their seats and ate. In fact, many fans spent all day sitting in their seats. Many arrived several hours before the race and stayed for a while after the race. That is because there really was nowhere else to go. That is no longer the case. The concourse levels have stores to go shop for your favorite driver’s gear, or bars to have a drink and watch a ball game on TV, or for the VIPs, when completed, there will be a Hospitality Area that will rival anything in sports, complete with suites similar to luxury boxes at any new football or baseball stadium.
The seats are no longer metallic chairs requiring a seat cushion but stadium chairs with cup holders, contour seats, and arm rests. With the third and fourth levels being well over 100 feet in the air, the view of the track and the surrounding area is amazing. Even with the three-story 500 Club in the infield, it cannot block the view of the backstretch from these new seats.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The new Daytona Rising project will triple the number of concession stands. There will be stands that serve the classics, burgers and hot dogs, etc. Some will have Bar-B-Que. There will be Italian and Mexican food. Pretty much whatever you are in the mood for, you will find if you look around.
As has always been the case, fans can still bring in their own food as well. So if a fan brings a clear backpack stuffed with sandwiches and bags of chips, and each person brings a soft-sided cooler with as many drinks as it can hold, then it is possible not to spend a dime at the track on food.
But should you run out or do not want to carry the extra baggage, $20 per person is plenty to stuff yourself. Another $20 should cover your drinks. A 16 oz can of ice cold Bud Light is $6. A burger and fries will run you $10. And the $8 bag of Kettle Corn, made right there at the speedway, is a must. It is Wednesday as I am writing this, and I just finished my bag that I purchased on Sunday, which I also shared with a couple of other people. And, oh, was that some good popcorn. If you do not care much for racing, you may want to tag along with your friends just for the food.
The atmosphere at Daytona has always been great. It is, after all, the biggest event in this sport and the most prestigious venue. The fans have always been excited about the Daytona and 2015 was no different in that respect. But now, with the additions of even more luxurious accommodations, there is additional "wow" factor associated with Daytona. When going up into those new seats that have been completed in Turn 1 and looking out at that view of the entire facility, it makes even seasoned Daytona veterans stand there and take it all in for a minute before looking for their seats. People make a point of showing up early to check out all the new concession areas and souvenir stands. In 2015, many caught the Kid Rock pre-race concert on one of the many TVs in the concourse area as well.
When folks finally made their way in to the seats, they were treated to one of the best national anthems in Daytona 500 history. Phillip Phillips sang a great Star Spangled Banner, which he also played on his guitar. At the end of the song, the Thunderbirds flew over the speedway in a V-formation. It was an awesome moment.
As has always been a fantastic Daytona tradition, the fans stand at the dropping of the green flag and remained standing for the first few laps. The 2015 Daytona 500 was the final for one of the all-time greats in Jeff Gordon, and he treated the fans to a thriller, leading much of the first half of the race. It was a fitting way to send the old Daytona out and welcome the new.
The area surrounding the speedway is among the best in sports. All around this massive facility there is a carnival-like atmosphere where fans can shop, eat, tailgate, camp, visit car themed exhibits, meet new people, and just have fun. This is the reason people bring their RVs and stay for days around the track (or inside the track). There is no worry about unsavory elements near the speedway at all as the local police are at every corner, directing traffic and keeping things safe. Fans never have to worry about finding a place to eat or drink or shop even though there are 100,000 of them in the area.
The fans at Daytona are a lot different now than in the old days of NASCAR. The old Daytona was a rough and rowdy place, especially in the infield. Some of the most legendary parties I've ever attended have been in the infield of DIS. Twenty-five years ago, it was a huge mud hole with Jack Daniels bottles, beer cans, and other assorted garbage overflowing the trash cans, and rows and rows of pickup trucks and campers flying confederate flags and blasting Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, or Hank Jr. as loud as possible.
Today's fans are more like a mainstream sports crowd. They are not there so much for the drinking and raising hell anymore. They are now there seeking autographs, photo ops, souvenirs, and to watch the action. Many bring their wives, kids, friends who may not be big sports fans, but who go because the speedway is now about hanging out and being at "the big event."
Whether this is a good thing or not may depend on who you ask. The speedway people much prefer it the way it is now. The fans who now come to the track drop money. They buy their food from the concession stands. They buy clothes from the souvenir vendors. They buy drinks at the bar. Most of them come to the race to spend money and take pictures.
For this reason, the backstretch grandstands are being torn down. Some will complain that "Joe Six-Pack" is being priced out of the race, but the track is in the business of making a profit just like any other business. By eliminating the "cheap seats" they will create a greater demand for tickets. And as track President Joie Chitwood explained to me over the weekend, they do not want first time fans to read this review and then buy a ticket on the backstretch and experience none of the upgrades. They do not want that first time buyer at the end of the day saying "I don't get it" because they ended up on the backstretch.
By the time all of the renovations are complete, the crowd at Daytona will be a bit like the crowd at a Super Bowl or World Series. It's not going to resemble the crowd at a Monster Truck event or a rock concert. If you are hosting a marquee event, that is a good thing. Plus, there are still plenty of races for the average Joe fan to attend at the speedway if they find the 500 is too expensive. If I were in charge, I'd keep the backstretch seats to give the pick-up truck crowd a chance to go to the 500.
When completed, there will be 40 escalators and 17 elevators to get fans up to these new upper level seats. To get to those escalators and elevators, fans can take a tram from the infield or across the street at the bus drop-offs. The buses can pick up fans from the free parking lots all around the speedway. Gone are the days when fans had to park their cars on the side streets and walk for a mile or more to the track and then climb up several flights of stairs to sit in the sun and bake while waiting for the race to start. Even though your car may be parked further away than ever before, there is ample transportation to get fans where they need to go without making them walk too far.
In past years, a three-hour traffic jam to get out of the speedway following the race was expected. At the 2015 Daytona 500 however, we made it from section 381 to our car parked in the infield, got out of the infield and back to our sister's house in nearby Ormond Beach in less than two hours. That's not bad at all.
The speedway is conveniently located near I-95 and I-4. So whether you need to get to Orlando, or head north on 95 after the race, you can easily find your way to the interstate. The police keep the traffic flowing to the track before the race and, more importantly, away from the track after the race by changing many of the streets to one-way, making traffic move as fast as possible. If fans take advantage of the park and ride areas, access is very easy.
The Daytona 500 is not cheap. Let's just be honest about that. With the tearing out of the backstretch grandstands, there will likely not be seats under $150 ever again. But to be fair, we need to compare the 500 with the equivalent events from other sports. Just for kicks, I searched for tickets to the Super Bowl the week of the game. The average ticket was being sold for about $5000 each. For five grand a family of four can buy great seats for all of the weekend's races, get tickets to the Fan Zone, and get Hot Passes for the pits, have plenty of money left-over for food, drinks, and new jackets, shirts, and hats for their favorite drivers.
So considering you can get tickets for the biggest event in the sport for just a bit over $200, bring in your own beer and food if you so choose, park your car in a free parking lot, take a free bus ride and a free tram ride to get there, I do not think there is a much greater return on investment in sports. Even if fans spend the thousands it costs to park their RV inside the track for eight days, buy food and gear there, and spend tons of money on alcohol, it still wouldn't cost them much more than a one day trip to the Super Bowl, if you can even find a ticket to buy for the game. So really, as far as Bucket List type events go, this one is very reasonable.
We already mentioned the fly-overs and the big time artists who give pre-race concerts. We already mentioned the easy access to the garages and pit road. So let's give some interesting facts about the speedway.
Daytona International Speedway has enough fiber-optic cable that if it were stretched out it would reach the North Pole. Why is this a big deal? Because there are over 100,000 fans with smart phones, trying to take photos, post them on social media, text their loved ones back home watching on TV about what a blast they are having at the race. With that many people in one place trying to do all of that, the speedway needs to have a massive amount of internet and cell phone signal, and they do.
This is also critical for the TV networks to be able to "plug and play" when setting up. Speed week is normally covered by several networks, unlike other sporting events that are covered by only one.
The bathrooms now not only have modern toilets and sinks that turn water on and off automatically, but they also have people keeping them clean during the races. These attendants even hand you the paper towels to dry off your hands. That's very upscale, especially for a venue where men used to use a trough for relief.
Daytona is so big that 15 NFL-sized stadiums can fit inside the facility. It could be as much as a mile long walk from one end of the front-stretch grandstands to the other. So imagine walking that far because you don't know exactly where your seat is located and then having to walk upstairs 150 feet. That's where the elevators and escalators come in handy.
When concluded by January of 2016, the days of corporate big-wigs being entertained in a big tent with an astro-turf floor will end. The speedway will boast a huge new Hospitality area on the third level near Turn One, complete with suites where sponsors can watch the action on the track.
So, if you are a race fan, or just a sports fan in general, the Daytona 500 is an event you will want to experience at least once in your life. It will be one of those unforgettable weekends you will share with your grandchildren one day.
In 1959, the Daytona International Speedway opened. It was a 2.5 mile monstrosity with 31 degree banks in the turns. It was unlike anything the drivers had ever seen. At the time, nobody knew about "drafting" because nobody had ever driven so fast that the air coming off the cars was actually a factor. In fact, in that first 500, some of the cars ran as convertibles. Of course, those cars did not do so well. Old timers who were there that year tell the stories about how they were in awe and maybe a little scared the first time they drove through the tunnel and saw the track. In the 50+ years since, Daytona has become one of the premiere venues in sports. Think about it: the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, BCS title game, and Final Four all bounce around to different venues. But every February, racing’s biggest event is held right here at the Daytona International Speedway.
This is a truly remarkable place. There is so much racing history, all in one place. The action on the track is always exciting with the restrictor plate racing. The greatest NASCAR fans in the world come out to Daytona to cheer on their favorite driver. You have to go for an entire weekend so you have time to see everything that the track offers. Get a pit pass and wander around the infield during qualifying for Sprint Cup or Nationwide, and then go out to the grandstands for the actual race that day. Even if you go on a non-race weekend, the Daytona USA museum is fantastic, and you can take a tour where they take you out onto the track. Pretty incredible experience.
It simply doesn't get any better than Daytona.
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