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NASCAR Season Kicks Off At Renovated Daytona Speedway


The NASCAR season kicks off this weekend at one of the most famous racetracks in the country. And this year, there's something very different about the Daytona International Speedway. It has undergone a complete renovation. Catherine Welch of member station WMFE begins her report with a look back.

CATHERINE WELCH, BYLINE: It's the 1971 Daytona 500. As the Motor Racing Network delivered the action to radio listeners across the country...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Richard Petty, the rebel from North Carolina rockets, showing the way down the back straightaway. Richard's within a car-length of A. J. Foyt.

WELCH: Fans at the speedway watched legend Richard Petty take the checkered flag. They cheered from pretty much the same grandstands that stood until a few years ago, when the speedway started getting dismantled down to the beams. The $400 million renovation includes a multi-level concourse, concession stands, more than a thousand TV screens, luxury suites and Wi-Fi. The speedway's been open since 1959. This is its first major renovation, which also opens it up for rock concerts and sporting events like soccer and football. Lesa France Kennedy sits at the helm of the family business that runs Daytona and 12 other speedways. Her grandfather started NASCAR, but her dad built it into a sporting empire. So what part of this massive redesign would impress a dad like that? Well, the escalators.

LESA FRANCE KENNEDY: He would love the escalators. I can tell you that much. He would love the escalators.

JOIE CHITWOOD: These weren't thought of to be at a racetrack ever. I mean, nobody even thought they'd put them in. Just - racetracks were different.

WELCH: The stands have never been easy to navigate, much less while lugging around a cooler full of beer or soda. Last-minute construction grinds away as speedway president Joie Chitwood rides one of the 40 new escalators. He thinks fans will love them, too.

CHITWOOD: You bet. Instead of hauling that cooler up the stairs, you can jump on that escalator and we'll get you there a lot quicker, a lot easier. And you'll be sitting in your seat, feeling pretty good.

WELCH: All 101,000 seats are new. The original ones from 1959 have been replaced with brightly colored plastic seats that were widened from 15 inches to 20. Fans have been asking for wider seats for years. Chitwood tries one out.

CHITWOOD: Probably the thing that I'm most impressed with is the sightline now. You can literally see every inch of the track.

WELCH: This is a great seat.

CHITWOOD: It is a good seat, and we're only halfway up the stadium.

WELCH: Father up is where the Daytona Speedway gets swanky. Luxury suites are nothing new at sports arenas, but a first for the speedway. These have panoramic views. The suites, the escalators, the free Wi-Fi - they will all be new to race fans for now. Some of the changes at Daytona are expected to migrate to other racetracks, all part of an effort to make attending NASCAR races more enjoyable. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Daytona Beach, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Catherine Welch is news director at Rhode Island Public Radio. Before her move to Rhode Island in 2010, Catherine was news director at WHQR in Wilmington, NC. She was also news director at KBIA in Columbia, MO where she was a faculty member at the University Of Missouri School Of Journalism. Catherine has won several regional Edward R. Murrow awards and awards from the Public Radio News Directors Inc., New England AP, North Carolina Press Association, Missouri Press Association, and Missouri Broadcasters Association.