Addition by subtraction: Dover International Speedway reduces seats, stresses ‘fan experience’

Workers have started to take out seats in turn 3 stands at Dover International Speedway in Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The sights and sounds of construction are reverberating through the grandstands at Dover International Speedway once again.

This marks the fourth time track officials have made the decision to try to find the “right size” of the grandstand capacity by removing seats to address the changing demands of the sports and entertainment industry, according to Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway.

Dover International Speedway, which saw its seating capacity reach a peak of approximately 135,000 seats in 2001, will have its capacity reduced from 83,000 seats to 54,000 outdoor seats when the NASCAR Cup Series returns to the “Monster Mile” on May 3, 2020 — a reduction of 29,000 seats.

The work has started in the lower level between the third and fourth turn grandstand seating at Dover. Grandstands are being taken down and recycled by E&D Specialty Stands out of North Collins, New York.

“We are adjusting seating capacity with a focus on improving the fan experience in 2020 and beyond,” Mr. Tatoian said. “We are limiting seating options that may result in an inferior fan experience, while maintaining seats with easy access to elevators, concessions and merchandise outlets. We are exploring other improvements to the facility, as we have done every year for the past 50 years.

“If you look around all sports venues in general, even outside of NASCAR facilities, the trend in building or renovating existing facilities is creating a more intimate, fan-friendly environment by removing unused, less-than-desirable seats.”

Mr. Tatoian noted that Dover International Speedway is fresh off celebrating its 50th anniversary season. It is studying all options to remain an attractive stop on the NASCAR circuit for many years to come.

After all, the contracts with all the tracks currently on the Cup schedule expire after the 2020 season. That has created uncertainty for several of the venues that have normally hosted one or two visits a year — such as Dover International Speedway — from the nation’s premier auto racing series.

“There certainly is lots of speculation as to what the future of NASCAR schedules will be past 2020, but at this point it is merely speculation,” said Mr. Tatoian. “I am a firm believer of not worrying about things that are out of our control which subsequently doesn’t have me worried about the future.

“We were very pleased with our fall race weekend, remain optimistic about where we are as a company and the progress NASCAR is making for our collective future.”

That future includes taking another look at a declining interest in NASCAR over recent years — particularly among the younger crowd — that has left swaths of empty seats at Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval that have glaringly stood out at its races the past several years.

With Dover’s second date, the Drydene 400, moving to the heat of August next year, many race fans are hoping the “Monster Mile” will light the track up for a night race.

Mr. Tatoian said to hold those horses.

“There are so many stakeholders that have to weigh in on this kind of decision,” he said. “Installing lights is not a ‘track-only’ decision. Our network partners, NASCAR, teams, public safety, etc. … have influence on whether or not we would ever feel the need to install lights. At this point there is no indication from any of the stakeholders, including us, that we will be installing lights anytime soon.”

Unprecedented growth spurt

The exponential growth that Dover International Speedway experienced from 1986 until 2001 was unprecedented by any other track on the NASCAR circuit.

A 3,200-seat addition in 1986 led to 16 consecutive years of expansion.

Over time, Dover International Speedway eventually morphed from a modest facility that held around 25,000 race fans into a behemoth aluminum-tinged “Monster Mile” with seats that nearly circled the entire racetrack and hosted more than 135,000 fans by 2001.

The racetrack, which opened in 1969, hosts two NASCAR Cup Series races annually, with one in the spring and the other in the fall.

Track officials estimated that Dover drew 133,000 fans to each of the 2008 Cup races. However, in 2012, the track’s crowds were believed to have been around 85,000 and have appeared to dwindle further since then.

In 2011, the track cut its capacity from 135,000 to 113,000 by widening seats from 18 to 22 inches in an effort to give fans more elbow room. It was a two-year process.

Entire sections of grandstands began to disappear in 2014, when thousands of seats were removed from the speedway in the second and third turns. The seat removal dropped the facility’s capacity to 95,500.

Reducing seating capacities and concentrating more on fan experiences is just a reality of the sports and entertainment business these days.

“A facility of 85,000 — that’s the right size of the current landscape,” Mr. Tatoian said. “That’s just what’s taking place in the world of sports these days. Facilities are being built to be more intimate experiences for fans.

“I believe the days of sports buildings being these colossal stadiums are gone.”

Dover’s not alone

Dover International Speedway isn’t alone in downsizing its facility. Tracks in NASCAR hotbed areas such as Daytona, Charlotte and Talladega (Ala.) have eliminated entire sections of grandstands over the past couple of years.

Even Bristol Motor Speedway, which once had a streak of 55 consecutive sellouts, appeared to be only half-full at its spring race last year.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing NASCAR is that it must first identify its problem.

It has seemingly battled an identity crisis ever since its brightest star — Dale Earnhardt Sr. — died in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February 2001.

Sprinkle in the troubled economy of the past decade or so, high-definition TVs, the failed “Car of Tomorrow,” bland drivers, constant rules changes and a gimmicky system to determine its champion and NASCAR has found itself facing sudden attendance and TV ratings issues that don’t appear to be going away.

There are signs of recovery, as up-and-coming drivers such as Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson have been bringing personality back to the sport. Many race fans have said the racing this season has been the most competitive they have seen in recent years.

Mr. Tatoian is certainly hoping for a recovery for NASCAR on the national landscape. He said Dover is prepared to do its part towards that challenge.

“We serve as the NASCAR destination for race fans from the mid-Atlantic and believe we will continue to host events here for a long time,” said Mr. Tatoian.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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