By: Jim Lighthall

After a lengthy delay of Sunday’s Daytona 500, give the fans credit for sticking around for the conclusion of what turned out to be a 10-hour race. I know I couldn’t have done it. I barely made it to the end on television.

And give credit to Daytona International Speedway for being able to keep the fans around long enough to see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. take the checkered flag. Because even getting people to a NASCAR race has been hard enough in recent years.

NASCAR has lost roughly 1.2 million fans a year through their turnstiles over the last seven years. The old tracks are getting older and the new tracks are losing their novelty.

That’s why I love what Speedway President Joie Chitwood is doing to his racetrack. He knows he’s competing for your entertainment dollar. And he’s willing to take a $400-million gamble that you’ll want to show up in person in 2016 instead of just watch on TV.

Chitwood is Tampa guy. He was a grade school classmate of my wife at St. John’s Episcopal Day School. He has degrees from USF and Florida and comes from a good old-fashioned southern racing family. He knows what makes race fans tick. But he also knows what makes Floridians and tourists and sports fans happy … being entertained.

He’s taking a speedway that was built in 1959 and adding football field-sized social areas. New escalators, 14 new elevators, doubled the restrooms, 60 luxury suites, wider and more comfortable seats and cutting-edge technology for the fans to enjoy the race. It’s everything diehard race fans have opposed. But it’s everything today’s fans demand.

With new stadiums and arenas going up annually and owners putting in the latest and greatest amenities that include giant jumbotrons, the fridge sports are struggling to compete. It’s why PGA events have suites around finishing holes and tennis is putting retractable roofs over their courts.

I think the blueprint at Daytona looks like it’s not only going to be a destination for race fans, but for sports fans in general. And don’t be surprised if this venue ends up hosting football/basketball/hockey games at some point down the line too. Chitwood is thinking outside the box – or the tri-oval for that matter – and I hope his gamble pays off.


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