How would you like to sit and watch a 500-mile race from a seat narrower than those found in airplanes? Where you climb flights of stairs to get to the good seats and endure long lines at concessions and bathrooms? What if you had to do all that and have, gasp, no Wi-Fi?
Well, race fans, that’s what Daytona International Speedway used to be like. But now the track crosses the finish line into the 21st century with a $400 million renovation.
Actually, not of the track. The famous 31-degree banked left-hand turns and long rear straight are just the same as they always were. But now fans in Daytona Beach, Florida have the world’s first motorsports stadium to go with it.
Now with escalators, triple the number of concession stands, double the number of bathrooms, 1,400 TV monitors, free Wi-Fi and a new sound system that uses speakers instead of 1950s-era bullhorns, the Daytona International Speedway is the place to watch NASCAR.
Fans as fuel
You enter the stadium through one of four “injectors,” so named as they pipe fans into the world of NASCAR. Each of these injectors form a kind of neighborhood along the nearly mile-long grandstand.
Those wanting to see the production version of the cars racing out on the track can check out the Chevrolet and Toyota injectors. The Sunoco injector celebrates NASCAR victories, and the injector for Florida Hospital is all about how you can lead a healthier life.
Of all the injector sites, Toyota’s was my favorite. Not only does it have a permanent ride and drive course, where I scared both the Toyota representative and my producer by taking a 2016 4Runner over a 31-degree ascent on a dirt hill without lifting at the top, the neighborhood is full of interactive experiences. There’s a Toyota Camry that banks to 31 degrees while you sit in it, giving you an idea of what the drivers feel on the track, a photobooth that turns your headshot into a bobble-head NASCAR racer on a big screen, and a large interactive touchscreen telling the story of the Toyota brand across the US.
Sunoco also has a few cool ways to pass the time. You can make a sign for your favorite driver, watch a 360-degree video of iconic victory celebrations, and even film your own winning moment, complete with checkered flag. You’ll have to bring your own champagne.
Florida Hospital takes fans through the healthy ways drivers and crew prepare for the physical demands of being on a NASCAR team and has a pretty swank LCD ceiling that displays the skyline of different seasons. It’s a neat way to relax amid the roar of the engines.
These three injector sites are so interactive and fan-friendly, it’s a wonder Chevrolet didn’t want to join in the fun. Its site consists merely of some aftermarket part displays and cars from its 2016 lineup. It’s always great to get up close and personal with the new Corvette, but compared with the tech and social-media heavy neighborhoods of the other sponsors, Chevy comes off as lackluster.
How suite it is
For those wanting a premium experience, the new Daytona stadium offers a myriad number of box suites. These will mostly likely be rented out to corporate bigwigs, but Daytona will have over 300 individual tickets for sale that include access to outdoor seats, a patio and the very swanky Rolex lounge. Food and drink is included, naturally.
And for all you infielders, never fear. As much as Daytona has modernized the fan experience, it didn’t want to marginalize what is probably its most die-hard group of fans. You can still bring your RV and watch the race while cracking open a cold one with your buddies.
But what is a new motorsports stadium without a new app? Perhaps the coolest feature of the app is turn-by-turn navigation within the stadium and the entire complex. So if you’re jonesing for Pappa John’s pizza but can’t remember which level it’s on, just turn on the app. You can also mark your parking, grab the race schedule and be notified of any happenings at that day’s event in real time. There’s even a fun little postcard, which will frame your selfie or picture of the track in one of three photo frames, perfect for posting to Facebook. Alas, they’re not Instagram-friendly.
While the app has potential, I downloaded it during my tour and it seems to be a little buggy. It crashed my iPhone 5S upon download and then froze up on me entirely. There’s also no option on the app to order food and drink to be delivered to your seat, technology that is available at other sports venues.
The Wi-Fi was pretty solid while I was there, but the stadium was far below its capacity of 101,500. What may happen when all those phones start trying to Instagram their experience is yet to be seen.
Just as fans are getting an upgraded experience, so are the drivers. While racing technology usually trickles down to us mere mortals in production vehicles, here it seems NASCAR is following on the heels of Audi’s virtual cockpit with its own digital dashboard.
Previously, drivers relied on analog gauges for temperatures, pressures, engine speed and the like. Now they have 16 customizable screens. Information can be large or small, to the left or to the right, and displayed as a graph, a number, or a digital version of an analog gauge. Drivers can keep track of their lap times and their engine diagnostics as well.
The ability to relay information from the control tower about penalties, track position and flag status will come in 2017, as well as technology to incorporate all this information into the fan experience.
The Daytona 500 goes down on Sunday, February 21. You can watch it on Fox starting at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, or follow along live at nascar.com.