Year later, Daytona Rising rapidly becoming reality
July 04, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Joie Chitwood III stood atop one seating area of the Daytona Rising project and looked down -- yes, down -- at the light poles that illuminate his race track, and the entire scope of the massive renovation project hit home.
"We are looking down at the current light poles," the president of Daytona International Speedway said Friday. "For me, that's the perspective on how mammoth this project is. We're looking down at light poles that light the race track. That describes it in a nutshell for me."
Indeed, the true extent of this $400 million undertaking is beginning to take shape, as the framework of new seating, concourse and entrance areas gradually envelops the existing structure. Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the project's groundbreaking, and the endeavor has gone so well that 40,000 new seats will be available for the Daytona 500 in 2015.
And what seats they are -- wider, with armrests and cup holders, serviced by three flights of escalators and more expansive concourse areas, and towering above the current highest row of the existing grandstands. Taking reporters on a tour of the project Friday, Chitwood pointed out not only sweeping views of the 2.5-mile oval but also the infield road course.
Chitwood said he always hoped to have some new seats available for February of 2015, almost a full year before the full 101,000-seat project is due to be completed.
"It started evolving that way," he said. "We thought we would have some of the section open. We weren't sure if we would get it completely built, or if we would give it back (to construction). We're planning to get it and maintain it then for the duration. We were looking at a situation where it might have been just a temporary for that event, and a give-back to construction. But the schedule's gone so well … it's worked out."
The section to be open in 2015 will offer a glimpse of the project as a whole, one with easier access to grandstand seating areas, and a clear separation between spectators and service workers. Getting up and down the grandstands, Chitwood said, was the top concern among fans surveyed before the project. When workers attempted to install the first escalator early on a Sunday morning a few months ago, Chitwood said "it was like the moon shot."
And like any launch, there were hiccups. "Who knew escalator installation was so delicate?" Chitwood said. Strong winds forced the installation to be delayed for several days, one of the few speed bumps the project has encountered.
"A year ago, none of this existed -- none of the concrete, none of the steel, none of it," Chitwood said while standing in one of the new concourse areas. "All we had were the old grandstands."
Which, over the next year and a half, will gradually be phased out. The new, 40,000-seat Daytona Rising grandstand section will open for Speedweeks next year. In late 2015, the existing backstretch grandstand will be removed and relocated to another International Speedway Corp. property yet to be determined. By the completion of the project in January of 2016, all of the old seats will be gone -- fans will have the opportunity to purchase them -- and be replaced by 101,000 new seats, which will mark the renovated facility's capacity.
"It's fantastic. I think it's great," said Brian Vickers, a three-time race winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "We've seen so many sports complexes around the country as they either get built new or get rebuilt, refurbished and just kind of continually step up the quality for the fans, I guess you could say. The quality of entertainment or quality of seating -- like escalators, for instance -- something you don't really see at a lot of NASCAR tracks, but you see it everywhere else. I think it's fantastic what ISC is doing here at Daytona, and I can't wait to see it at more facilities."
And the rebuilt track won't be limited to racing -- Chitwood said entertainment companies have already looked at the property, and he anticipates a music festival at some point. There have been talks with the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, and conversations about potentially hosting college football, soccer and UFC. Other tracks have undertaken similar initiatives -- Bristol Motor Speedway is slated to host a 2016 college football game between Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee, and for the past three years Dover International Speedway has hosted the Firefly Music Festival.
Chitwood said the Daytona ball field -- the grass area inside the tri-oval -- will accommodate a football field and goalposts, and that Bethune-Cookman University played games there in the 1970s. But he cautioned that any other activities would have to be scheduled so they don't conflict with the track's busy and growing slate of annual racing events.
"We believe we will have more content here. I can't tell you which just yet," Chitwood said. "We want to make sure when we add an event, it's done right. We've got to make sure the time of the year fits. Racing is still our primary sport, and we've got to make sure whatever act we put in, it fits with the schedule. Meaning, it would be very difficult to do new content during Christmastime, because were prepping for January, February and March."
But when the renovated track does ultimately find those new events, Chitwood believes the setting will be a spectacular one.
"I've seen football at Yankee Stadium. I've seen soccer friendlies at Fenway Park. I can't imagine we won't do a bang-up job for one of those events at Daytona International Speedway," he said. "The picture alone would just be fantastic in terms of how unique that would be."