Inside the challenges of running Daytona International Speedway
Daytona International Speedway has the most ambitious racing schedule of any track in the world, holding four major events on four different track configurations in a seven-week period from late January to mid-March.
The schedule is centered on the Daytona 500, NASCAR's premier race on Feb. 24, which is preceded by testing of the new 2013 Sprint Cup cars, the Daytona Shootout, Daytona 500 qualifying and the Budweiser Duel 150-mile qualifying races. But that's just for NASCAR -- DIS also hosts Grand-Am sports car races and supercross races, adding additional challenges.
Managing a schedule like this is no easy task, so SI.com sat down with DIS president Joie Chitwood III to get an insider's view of what it takes to run the iconic facility.
"There's no slow time if you're running Daytona," Chitwood explained. "If you're running Daytona, it pretty much runs you. The first three months [of the year] are pretty intense. I would put our three months up against anybody in terms of a hectic, crazy schedule. Just take our facility guys turning the property around. We start with a road course, do the oval, go onto a temporary dirt course and go back to a road course. We basically put our lives on hold for three months."
DIS has plenty to sell over those weeks and Chitwood expects the new cars to be an additional attraction. Not only is the Daytona 500 going to be the first race at which they're used, but Chitwood also thinks they're going to improve restrictor plate racing.
"From a competition element, it's really going to make restrictor plate racing better because they're going to have different front ends and different rear ends and they're not going to match up," Chitwood said.
But it's no secret that ticket sales are harder to come by, especially after last year's Daytona 500 rainout. Chitwood says selling tickets is more difficult for racing promoters across the board than it has been in the past.
"Some customers probably want to wait a little bit longer [to buy tickets] to make sure we have good weather this year," Chitwood said. "We've got some work to do, but I'll be honest, we've got a very aggressive promotional schedule.
"There's been a change in the industry regardless of the event," he continued. "I think there was a time when you didn't have to do much. I think you had your [sponsors and teams] who were activating great programs. We're challenged by the economy, and sports on TV is great and easy and a lot cheaper, so we've got to get out there and hustle [to bring in the fans]."
Daytona's first event in 2013 is the Rolex 24-Hour for Grand-Am sports cars. They test Jan. 4-6 and race Jan. 26-27. It has an international lineup of drivers and manufacturers, which attract a different crowd, so Chitwood has to approach the race differently than he would a NASCAR race.
"I don't think it's realistic that the fans will sit in the stands to watch [for the entire 24-hour race]," Chitwood explained. "You create an atmosphere in the field. It's as much a party as it is an experience as it is a race. We get a lot of manufacturer support from Ferrari, Porsche, Audi. The infield is rocking. I think we set a record for putting out burning couches in the infield last year."
Daytona changes to motorcycles in March. Supercross, the nation's most popular bike series, races on a temporary course in the infield on March 9. The AMA Pro Flat Track Series follows on March 14-15 and the AMA Pro Road Racing Series on March 16. Chitwood said there was an increase in supercross attendance last year, which allowed them to do some additional promotions.
DIS's January to March schedule has advantages, such as holding the focus of the racing world during the early weeks of the year. However promoting all three different events at essentially the same time can be problematic.
"For three months, we're almost on top of each other trying to get a different message out to a different type of customer, but there are only so many channels you can push out content," Chitwood said. "So, we have to be very particular when we push things out. You're promoting, you're planning and you're operating all at the same time."
When he's not trying to fill the seats, Chitwood is thinking ahead of how to modernize the 53-year-old raceway. With the venues becoming a greater part of a sporting experience (in both motorsports and stick-and-ball sports), Chitwood wants to make sure the raceway meets his fans expectations.
"We are the world center of racing home to the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest and best event, and we've got to make sure we're living up to the amenities side of it. We need more vertical transportation. There are a lot of stairs out there and we need escalators and elevators. We need concourses. I'm hoping that in early 2013 we might be able to unveil some creative ideas and sometime later go for senior management approval. We've got to work on a good business case and work on a design that makes sense."