Daytona Rising: NASCAR Works To Fix Its Venue Problem
The Daytona 500 is the traditional opening day for NASCAR’s annual season. This year, it was also the first look at what could be called the NFL-ization of NASCAR’s historically dowdy track venues.
The race on Sunday found the Daytona International Speedway about halfway through a $400 million renovation that is architecturally reconfiguring the venue’s physical layout while propelling its technology complement past the level of the pushbutton transmission of a 1958 Chrysler New Yorker. The track — NASCAR’s oldest and its flagship venue — aims to become motorsports’ first true stadium.
At a press conference two days before the race, Brandon McNulty, CTO of International Speedway Corp., which owns 13 NASCAR tracks laid out the nuts and bolts of Daytona’s new infrastructure: 4,268 miles of fiber-optic cabling and 150 miles of speaker cable; more than 9,200 network data points; 1 PB of storage, enough to accommodate 1,200 hours of HD video; 700 HD video displays throughout the interior of the grandstand; and more than 3,000 speakers for both distributed and PA sound systems.
“We’re bringing to Daytona the foundational technology to create the first motorsports stadium,” McNulty said. “With these technology platforms, we can create the kind of experience that motorsports fans have never had at a motor speedway before.”
Daytona Gets Wings
The center part of the track’s main grandstand has been expanded with two wings of seating and back-of-house, which will bring total seating to more than 101,000. The west wing was opened for Sunday’s Daytona 500; the opposite-side wing is scheduled to be ready for the Coke Zero 400 race on July 2. The entire project, which may include large-screen video in its final iteration, will be completed in time for an official opening for the 2016 Rolex 24 and Daytona 500 races.
The track partnered with a number of vendors that have experience in creating higher expectations in modern sports venues. Architectural-design and planning firm Rossetti headed the design for Ford Field NFL Stadium, University of Notre Dame Compton Family Ice Arena, and five MLS stadiums. Barton Malow, designer/builder for the project, has renovated the University of Michigan “Big House” and the Rose Bowl.
On a tour of the Daytona venue, lead architect Matt Taylor told SVG that the renovation project, known as Daytona Rising, is specifically aimed at matching the experience that sports fans have come to expect from NFL, MLB, and NBA facilities. “Stick-and-ball–sports venues are what we are comparing ourselves with now,” he said. “That’s who we are competing with. We did a review of what’s out there and what the expectations are. We’ve raised the bar on the amenities we include. This is something that NASCAR fans have really missed out on ’till now.
The biggest challenge on this project, he added, is the unique nature of the sport itself. “It’s really the sightlines,” he explained. “In stick-and-ball sports, you want to be close to the action, to sit further down in the stands. In NASCAR, the best seats are at the top of the grandstands [where the entire track is visible]. But the higher you go, the more steel you need to put under it. There’s a tremendous amount of physical infrastructure involved. But that’s the uniqueness of the sport.”
He noted that zones — known as neighborhoods — within the 40,000 sq. ft. of back-of-house infrastructure offer not only higher-end concessions but also quiet areas that provide some reprieve from the relentless roar of NASCAR engines; doing the same will be the 60 luxury suites with trackside views still under construction. HD video displays are located throughout the concourses, intended to keep the experience continuous and consistent when fans go for food and drinks. The distributed sound system, using JBL surface-mount and pendant speakers, lets fans follow the announcer narrative seamlessly.
In the stands, Community speakers are mounted atop poles, 194 ft. up and facing downward. They compete (not always successfully) with the din on the track but do bring substantially increased intelligibility to the venue.
On the IT Side
All of the distributed video in the facility is already running on an IP network. According to McNulty, the network is 4K-ready, and digital signage is under consideration for the final phase. The most difficult component will be adding WiFi coverage, given the venue’s lateral scale: end to end, Daytona Rising is nearly a mile in length. (Carlos Gonzales, VP, design and engineering with The Integration Factory, the venue’s AV-integration vendor, said his crew walked an average of 6 miles a day during installation.)
But, McNulty said, it’s imperative to find a way to provide WiFi coverage. “We’re not only competing with NFL and NBA venues; we’re also competing with the living room experience. WiFi is going to be critical for that in the future.”
NASCAR faces the same challenges as other major-league sports: the high cost of attending live events and the quality of the at-home broadcast experience have conspired to depress ticket sales. Family-owned NASCAR does not report revenues, but several media outlets confirm that onsite attendance and television ratings have declined in recent years, despite the fact that Fox and NBC will pay a combined $8.2 billion to broadcast Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races for the next 10 years. Through Daytona Rising, NASCAR is acknowledging at least that the bar has been raised for in-venue fan engagement and that technology is key to getting fans back in the stands.
“Fans don’t just go to sporting events anymore,” said Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III. “They go to social events that involve sports, and technology plays a major role in enabling that ideal fan experience.”