DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If you wander the famous grounds of Daytona International Speedway, you can be awed by the sheer size and grandeur of the 500-acre site that opened in 1959. Fans fish in the 29-acre lake in the infield, and the front-stretch grandstand can seat more than 100,000 people, all there to watch cars strain against the 31-degree banks on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
But those stands don't look much different than your average high school football grandstand. And with the track's few fan-centric amenities located at ground level and fans forced to hike as many as 70 feet up stairs to the best seats, race day experiences at Daytona don't compare to modern stick-and-ball stadiums.
But $400 million will change all that by 2016, with Daytona officials building a completely new way to watch racing. Dayton will have a true stadium. A racing first.
"We need to level-set the fan expectation," Joie Chitwood, president of the speedway, tells SI.com. "We can only Band-Aid so many things."
The Daytona Rising project is no Band-Aid. The nearly three-year construction project includes an entirely new front-stretch stadium, still reaching 9/10ths of a mile long. The entire stadium will rise 146-feet high and include over 40 million pounds of steel, equal to 1 percent of the nation's annual steel output. The new tower at the start line will hold 60 suites, among other amenities.
Currently Daytona has incredibly limited vertical transportation. The new stadium will have 14 elevators and 40 escalators, bringing fans no farther than 20 rows from their seats. No more hiking. Fans can enter the seating area from behind, as is typical in stadiums, moving either up or down to reach their seat.
Moreover, fans will enter the stadium through either of five "injectors." Each will act as a mini destination, says project architect Jim Renne of Detroit-based Rossetti. With the ability to handle at least 20,000 fans each, each injector -- which has technology to light up and look differently than each other -- serves to start moving fans through an experience, either along the first-level concourse or up higher to any of the three levels.
With ample space at each injector, officials have the ability to tie in Daytona's sponsors to give each space a distinct personality. "Where you come in and where you enter should be an experience," Renne says. "The facility creates an experience and injectors are a huge symbolic example. The last thing you want is someone to think the facility is the same end to end. That is deadly."
Toyota announced on Feb. 6 that it will sponsor the middle injector, turning that space into Toyota Gate.
"We need to live up to the amenity side of what fans expect," Chitwood says. "This is the world center of racing and NASCAR's biggest event. The way fans are consuming events is changing. It is a social event and we need to provide social space so they can enjoy that like everything else."
In that vein, the new stadium will feature 11 "social neighborhoods" throughout the concourses, loaded with video screens for connectivity. Each site can get "activated" differently, from differing colors to differing sponsorship experiences to help fans engage with activities and products.
Also, just to ease the burden, expect more than double the number of restrooms and triple the concessions from the current set-up, upping the point-of-sale experiences. All the amenity planning is similar to a large-scale football stadium, even if the layout differs since racing fans clamor to the highest seats in the house.
Renne has also designed in "gaps" in the concourses, offering the chance to tuck club seats into new places along the track. These gaps also allow the average ticket holder a chance to stay connected with glimpses of the track, both through monitors and peeks toward the asphalt.
While we'll see ongoing construction at the 2014 race, new seats won't be in use until the 2015 race. But it is 2016 when the entire project gets fully revealed, including the demolition of the backstretch grandstand to reduce capacity and focus all amenities on the 101,000 front-stretch fans.
"The backstretch reduced fan experience and we don't want a first-timer to experience that," says Brandon McNulty, chief technology officer with Daytona's parent company, International Speedway Corporation. "We will compress inventory and put demand back into the market."
Currently, when you look at the backside of the grandstands you're looking at, well, the backside of a grandstand. That will change too, with a metal skin that includes opaque and perforated metals, glass and translucent polycarbonate panels, says Renne. A new quarter-mile-long sign will also adorn the space.
By lifting the fans off the ground, Renne hoped to create a sense that they were entering their own racing machine, using Daytona's history of cars setting speed records on the beach as his inspiration for design. Fans can enter the center injector, move through open space and then see the track revealed in front of them. "It is layered and they can see the race in another way," Renne says. And this new way won't feel anything like a high school grandstand.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.