As you watch NASCAR teams race on the concrete, you get a look at what we all wish NACAR would be. As one of the last independent tracks, it makes decisions based on the fans.
When you turn the television to FS1 this weekend to find your NASCAR action, there is no doubt where they are racing. Dover International Speedway having its concrete mile racetrack stands out is one of the most unique tracks on the schedule. As a track, with the pedestrian bridge and seating area and harness racing track in the infield, there is nothing else like it in NASCAR.
One of the reasons for Dover being so unique is that it is an entity unto itself. Dover Downs is a publicly traded company that owns and operates the racetrack. It’s sole purpose is to make sure the racing is great for the fans as more than 90% of the companies revenue comes from its NASCAR weekends. Unlike the France families International Speedway Corp or Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, they have just the one speedway to focus on.
The history of Dover actually mirrors the growth and fall of NASCAR since the 70’s. The fact that it only has itself to worry about, there has been no delay in making changes to improve the fan experience and adapt to a changing climate. Unlike ISC or SMI who, while they have been making improvements to facilities, has had to prioritize which tracks get done in what order. That has caused the fan experience to suffer at some of the tracks are farther down the list.
When the track first opened in 1969 the asphalt layout was perfect for the car of that time. With grandstands that sat just over 10,000 fans the experience was always fan friendly. How perfect was it that the first NASCAR race at Dover, the Mason-Dixon 300, was won by Richard Petty. The duel purpose facility concentrated its auto racing efforts on the then Winston Cup series dates ensuring the fan experience was second to none.
At the beginning of the 1980’s NASCAR started its growth spurt that would continue for the better part of two decades. Dover grew right along with NASCAR, adding seating capacity in 1986 and several times after until it reach a peak of 140,000 seats. Its air conditioned grandstands along the backstretch are the only one of its kind in NASCAR. They are primarily used for the harness racing season, but provide a unique ticketing option for the NASCAR weekends.
The spectator bridge is another feature that you can only experience at Dover International Speedway. It is not just a pedestrian bridge, you can buy tickets and sit directly over the track surface. Completed in 2004, the bridge is another stand out when watching the race on television. The expansion of the suite area in 2008 has made the number of fan options for seating second to none in NASCAR.
All the improvements Dover has made over the years were rewarded by having its second race date being in the Chase. As much larger tracks owned by SMI and ISC lost dates and have had dates shuffled, Dover has been able to maintain its standing. Its sole focus on racing has help this track weather the storm better than other facilities. The grandstands might not be filled for this weekends racing, but there is no doubt that come Monday there will be meetings on how to improve the experience to attract more fans. I wish I had the confidence that the same effort was being put towards the once great Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the 90’s as the speeds and downforce numbers produced by NASCAR racrecars dramatically increased. As a result Dover’s asphalt surface became insufficient and started to fail. In 1995 Dover became only the second track on the NASCAR schedule to be completely concrete. The seams and surface quality were totally new to a track of this length.
With the addition of the concrete monster, Miles, in front of the track in 2007, Dover laid its claim as the king of concrete racing. Its new tradition of placing the winning car in the hand of Miles is another fan attraction that makes Dover such a unique experience.
As NASCAR has struggled over the last decade, Dover was able to make the quick decision to reduce seating capacity and also widen the seats of remaining grandstands. All to help with the spectator experience. The widening of the reaming grandstand seats from 18 to 22 inches is one to keep up with the times and the fans desires for more comfort. Yes, seat reductions have happened at a majority of NASCAR tracks, but the widening of the grandstand seats so quickly is what makes Dover so great.
Dover really stands alone as the little guy in NASCAR. Its doing it on its own and making it work through the struggles the sport is currently going through. There is a part of me that wished NASCAR and the France family would divest itself from ISC and left the tracks return to being owned by single entities. That way they would compete with each other and help the develop the fan experience.
Very few tracks on the NASCAR circuit can offer the amenities with the options that Dover International Speedway can. That is a direct result of trying to survive in a competitive market dominated by two giant corporations. If only the other tracks had to compete in the same way, we might see more innovation in fan amenities. If ISC and SMI want to keep ticket prices at the same lever they are currently, they need to massively improve the fan experience to try and fill the seats again.
I will give credit to both SMI and ISC for current upgrades a specific tracks like Daytona and Bristol. Yet other major market tracks like Atlanta and Auto Club Speedway just keep eliminating seats as their popularity and attendance continue to decline. Both companies have large portfolios of tracks that require priorities be made when it come to improvements. The losers in all this, the fans in the regions that tracks are fading away.
For all the fans that have been bemoaning the actions of the France family and what has become of NASCAR, you can go to Dover and know that you are supporting one of the last little guys in NASCAR. Dover is the Tommy Baldwin Racing of of tracks, it should be cheered and used as an example of what NASCAR could be.