Daytona International Speedway has no real “offseason”
Speedway will host IMSA, NASCAR season opening races with limited fans
Daytona 500 will be just the start of a busy few months for track, and its staff
The last time NASCAR raced was in November last year. When the checkered flag fell at Phoenix Raceway and Chase Elliott was crowned the 2020 NASCAR Cup champion, those in the industry breathed a big sigh of relief. Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic NASCAR had done would some thought was impossible, completing its original schedule of 83 races among its top 3 touring series after returning to the track on May 17.
While the rest of the sport was able to step back as NASCAR began its offseason, some in the industry were still moving ahead. For them, there is no down time. Chief among them is Daytona International Speedway. A track which had quite a busy 2020.
“There really isn’t an offseason for us,” Daytona president Chip Wile said this past week. “You know starting in January with the Roar before the Rolex 24 all the way through December you think what we did even after the Coke Zero Sugar 400 from August 28th through December31st. We had a ton of activity out here.”
“We had obviously Magic of Lights from the week before Thanksgiving all the way through the first of the year,” he added. “We have one of Americas biggest car shows the Turkey Rod Run down here over Thanksgiving. Almost every weekend we had track rentals so car clubs, NASCAR racing experience a number of different folks who come out and use the track, so we stay busy 320 days a year with something going on out at the racetrack.”
Daytona will host not just the IMSA Rolex 24 IMSAs season opener in a few short days, but NASCAR’s season opening Daytona 500 in just a few short weeks. With the pandemic still raging, many sports leagues are still not permitting fans. Florida is different however, allowing limited fans at sporting events meaning there will be butts in the seats at Daytona and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“To be able to host fans at so many different events over the course of the next 60 days. I think that does change the dynamic of the event, right?” Wile said. “So you’ve seen NHL Playoff games and Stanley Cup finals and NBA Finals all happening with no fans in the stands and for us to be able to welcome back fans safely to the Daytona International Speedway to Homestead Miami Speedway, not just for the Cup events, but for all the events, is a huge accomplishment and I think that’s something where we have the opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the other sports properties.
“Hey, listen not having a hundred one thousand people here for the Daytona 500 certainly hurts us all; we want that, that’s why we get up every day and do what we do, because we love putting on events for fans to come enjoy. But I know under the current environment, this is the best alternative and (we’re) just thankful that we’re having an opportunity to put on the Great American race in front of fans.”
Last year was a challenge for many, and Daytona and NASCAR were no different. Before the pandemic struck, International Speedway Corporation which ran many of the tracks, and NASCAR merged. That merger was completed late in 2019. In January operations were streamlined and many employees who worked at the once ISC owned tracks lost their jobs. According to Wile however, that story has a happy ending.
“If you look, we actually have more employees that are focused on the Daytona 500,” he said. “Before, we had 130 employees that were solely focused on the events that we hosted here at the World Center of Racing. And now we have an entire new company that is behind what we’re doing and have a hand in making sure that the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 goes off the way we all want and expect.
“The nice thing is we have a number of new teammates that have been at legacy NASCAR for a long time that are now part of the day-to-day operation and putting on the Daytona 500. So that’s encouraging and it actually has made it more fun. You know for us to be able to also have folks from Homestead-Miami Speedway supporting us folks from Talladega Superspeedway supporting us; we’ve actually had folks here from Darlington Raceway and Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway over the last three or four weeks helping us get the facility ready and make sure all the safer barriers are locked and loaded, doing some track maintenance work. So, it truly has taken everybody in the company to get us here. But I think that makes us stronger.”
Daytona showed its strength last season when it hosted the first NASCAR Cup race on its famed road course. That didn’t happen overnight and was something the track prepared for early on.
“We knew that there was a potential opportunity for us to host it early in the pandemic just based on the environment and these different states and what they were and were not allowed to do,” Wile said.
“So our team during the pandemic was spending a lot of time in the infield reinforcing the infield guardrail; figuring out what we needed to do with the NASCAR team, the competition team, to slow these cars down or speed them up and working with the different OEMs on how we would actually make this race work.”
Daytona got the call and made-up the road course race that originally was to be run at Watkins Glen in New York. Then ran a second race, one that had already been scheduled, not long after.
“The nice thing for us is when we did finally get the greenlight because New York, unfortunately just wasn’t available, didn’t have the opportunity to run, we were ready,” Wile said. “I think the team did a terrific job pivoting quickly and coming up with a unique angle that we could promote and selling tickets. Then two weeks later we had the Coke Zero sugar 400. I think it just shows the resilience of this team and the commitment to whatever we need to get whatever we need to do to make an event happened and to help this sport grow. That’s what we were committed to doing.”
With the pandemic still rampant. Daytona will now host the first major motorsports events in North America in the coming weeks, starting with this weekend’s IMSA Roar before the Rolex 24. So, what can fans expect?
“You will see some of our partners activating especially our OEM partners which are such a critical component to the experience at the Rolex 24,” Wile said. We will have a lot of our track partners that are actually activating with hospitality. Obviously, we’ve had to make some adjustments to the number of folks they can have in a suite based on CDC guidelines.”
Wile added that what fans may see, may not be too different then in years past.
“You know what we have tried to do is keep the experience as close as we can to what people have come to expect out of the Rolex 24, but doing it safely,” he said. “You know, there’s certain elements that we knew right off the bat just weren’t going to work. Some of those elements unfortunately affect the fans more than they affect our corporate partners like the autograph session and giving the fans access to the garage and what we’re calling the bubble, that was obviously a non-starter, but we wanted to keep those iconic elements that were really important to the success of the events intact if we could.
“So, the Ferris wheel it naturally is keeping people socially distant, right? That’s an important part of the event; the fireworks we knew that was an important part of the event and we can do it without any issues with having to socially distance people. The Taste of 24, you know, we’ve gotten really good at that hearing to the new guidelines around food and beverage and so we were able to implement the things we learned last year and be able to still have that fundraiser that helps benefit the NASCAR Foundation which is near and dear to our hearts.
“All of those things will look the same but again, I think people understand in these trying times that the opportunity to come enjoy an event of the racetrack is a privilege and understand that is not going to look the same but it’s still going to be a great opportunity for people to get out and enjoy a day at the World Center of Racing.”
As the first track to host motorsports in America you might think there is a great deal of stress to get it right. The track’s president chuckles at the thought.
“We feel pressure here every day,” he said with a smile. “It’s really more about all the events that we have to put on over the next, gosh, 8 weeks. You think about what this team is going to have to accomplish from today through March 14th. There’s an event if not multiple events every week from now until March 14th in this region. So the Roar before the Rolex 24 this weekend Rolex 24 next weekend. Then we’re going to have the only week off during the Super Bowl then we will roll right into Speedweeks presented by Advent Health, then we’ll roll right into the road course weekend. Well then as soon as the checkered flag flies on Sunday’s race at the road course, we’ll get in our vehicles and drive south to Homestead-Miami Speedway to support that team as they get ready and put on the Dixie Vodka 400 weekend. As soon as the checkered flag flies over the Dixie Vodka 400 we’re getting back in our cars were driving north here because we have Supercross six days later. And then we have amateur Supercross for the next four days after that and then we take one day off and then we have the Daytona 200 and then were into March.”
“There is a ton of pressure to ensure that all of those events happen, and they happen safely,” Wile added. “(But) I’m very confident our protocols, we learned a ton last year. And every time we had an event, we learned something and made small adjustments to our protocols to ensure that we continue to keep our fans safe and all of those lessons learned have certainly trickled into this year and I feel very confident.
“I think more than any other sport, we’ve had a number of opportunities to host fans at the racetrack and get better at it every week and we’ve been able to do it safely because we are very rigid in our protocols, very rigid. And we don’t waiver from them and that’s how we’ve been successful and that’s how it will continue to be successful.”
How about it? Would you go to an upcoming race at Daytona? Let us know by commenting below.