Dover speedway removing more seats

 

Workers take apart Dover International Speedway’s turn three bleachers. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Section by section, row by row and seat by seat, large chunks of the grandstands that once nearly circled the entirety of Dover International Speedway are disappearing.

More than likely, they will never return.

Due to an extended sputtering economy and a declining interest in NASCAR over recent years, officials at Dover are downsizing the track’s seating capacity for a third time in order to get rid of some of the large pockets of empty seats that have glaringly stood out at its races the past several years.

This time around, virtually all of the seats that are perched outside of the third turn of the high-banked, one-mile oval race track are being taken down and recycled by E&D Specialty Stands out of North Collins, New York.

Dover International Speedway, which saw its seating capacity reach a peak of approximately 135,000 seats in 2001, will now seat around 85,000 when the AAA 400 Drive for Autism race returns to the race track on June 4, 2017.

Michael Tatoian, president of Dover International Speedway, said the elimination of the third-turn seats is consistent with the track’s overall plan of “right-sizing” the facility that it developed three years ago.

“A couple of years ago we made the decision to remove some of the grandstands and we decided to leave the part of it in turn three with the mezzanine and the upper level seats because we hadn’t yet come to the conclusion about what we wanted to do there,” Mr. Tatoian said.

“It was with that structure that we really did a lot of brainstorming to see if we could repurpose the concourse or the structure and perhaps make it a place for more hospitality, suites or groups.”

Mr. Tatoian then added, “We concluded this summer that we just couldn’t create or develop or justify keeping that structure up. So the removal of those grandstands is actually the final phase of what we decided to do a couple of years ago.”

He added that there is still an opportunity for the speedway to make use of what will soon become a vacant space off the track’s third turn — possibly as a spot for “camping and parking” down the road.

“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.”

Unprecedented growth spurt

The exponential growth that Dover International Speedway experienced from 1986 until 2001 was unprecedented by any other race 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 race track and hosted more than 135,000 fans by 2001.

The race track, 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 be dwindled 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.

The latest round of seat cuts will put Dover’s capacity just around 85,000.

Mr. Tatoian believes there are some positives to the track’s downsizing.

“One is the general time and energy of the maintenance of the facility,” he said. “Safety is a key element when it comes to taking care of the fans and making sure that those grandstands were safe. We just don’t have the time and money available when it comes to the expense of maintaining that structure (third turn grandstand).”

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.

However, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said that he remains pleased about the sport’s direction.

“I’m happy with the health of the sport,” he said. “Would I obviously like to have everything perfect? Of course, I would. But that’s sports. That’s a competitive business.

“We’re pleased with the health of the sport. The facilities are getting improved and are working and are good.”

Mr. France said the sport’s sanctioning body and the tracks just have to work together to overcome their challenges.

“We’re working with our track operators, the ones that have more challenges than others, and we’ll just have to work through it and try to get a good outcome,” he said.

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, 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.

A new hope?

Monster Energy drink recently signed a multi-year contract to sponsor what has been known as the Sprint Cup Series — NASCAR’s premier touring division.

It seems like a natural fit for Dover International Speedway, a track that bills itself as the “Monster Mile.”

“We’re still kind of digging into that a little bit,” said Gary Camp, director of communications for Dover International Speedway. “We are glad to have a premier partner like Monster Energy.

“But there is still a lot of work to be done with how they are going to integrate into the sport and how they are going to activate their series sponsorship when it comes to the race tracks and the fan base.”

Mr. France is hoping that NASCAR’s newest corporate partner can help infuse more interest in the sport, particularly among the younger demographic.

“Motorsports is (in) their (Monster Energy’s) DNA, and when you walk through their lobby in California, you see that,” said Mr. France. “You see the motorcycles and NASCAR memorabilia and all kinds of things, and that’s who they are, so they understand motorsports. They understand NASCAR.

“They understand how to reach across and excite our core audience and help us deliver on a new audience, and that was very exciting for us.”

A light(er) note

Martinsville (Va.) Speedway announced that it is adding lights and plans on having night racing in 2017.

As for Dover, Mr. Tatoian said it has no such plans.

“We’ve been racing at Dover for almost 49 years and haven’t had any ideas about (adding lights) and having night races,” he said. “That’s not a consideration for us right now.”

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

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