NASCAR is a staple of American culture, attracting legions of fans to the tracks for its speeding cars, thrilling turns, and celebrity drivers. While the participants and audience members alike may be soaked in suspense, that feeling runs rampant behind-the-scenes, as well.
“We get just one or two chances a year at each facility to see that fans get their money’s worth,” says Stephen Swift, vice president of operations and development, Speedway Motorsports Inc. “If we don’t get it right during that time, we have to wait another year to try again.”
Speedway Motorsports owns and operates eight tracks in eight states from New Hampshire to California. Swift’s job is to ensure that fans and race drivers have great experiences at these facilities, and that employees and vendors have what they need to provide them. “Steve was instrumental in helping raise the bar in sanitation by bringing in higher scale equipment to the track,” says Adam Black, general manager of Porta Kleen. “It’s Steve’s drive for continuous improvement that makes him a great partner to work with.”
Swift’s mission is similar to that of other entertainment and hospitality organizations, but with weekly racing from February through November, construction schedules and decision-making sometimes seem as fast-paced as the elite machines roaring around NASCAR’s tracks. Swift oversees it all, including making sure operations from parking to security to concessions and the races themselves go smoothly.
In 2018, North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway track ran its first “Roval” (a term that combines “road race” with “oval” track) race on a 17-turn, 2.28-mile course. The race uses part of the infield for a section of tight turns and parts of the traditional oval track where drivers can speed up in straight sections. The course combines the technical driving challenges of Formula 1 road racing with the higher speeds of NASCAR. The concept is a response to fans’ desire for more road racing events, Swift says.
Extensive preparation preceded construction of the course, with Swift receiving initial guidance and vision from Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith. From there, Swift worked with numerous NASCAR drivers, representing all of the sport’s stars, racing course design consultant Tony Harper, and even safety and design experts in the Formula 1 racing world. Drivers gave input on how to make the course competitive and safe. Swift also considered how to produce a great experience for fans—ensuring that sightlines and electronic screens were optimal for the 100,000-plus spectators in attendance. “During the build and all the way to the checkered flag, we had great guidance from the initial vision of Marcus,” says Swift. “The Smith family always keeps the fans first and with the Roval—that was the driving force.”
Great care went into grading the course and devising a construction plan. The Roval takes about two weeks to set up, Swift says. The key is to restripe the original oval to mark the Roval course and set up all the temporary rumble strips and safety structures required for the course. The rumble strips have to be removable and at the same time not destroy the integrity of the asphalt for oval events. They used a temporary paint that is pressure-washed off after the event and coordinated with driver Alex Wurz to refine the design and placement. The process itself was unique: design was completed in Europe, the layout was refined in Charlotte, and the finished product was constructed in a small town in Tennessee.
Much of Swift’s work concerns supporting the fan experience. Since the early 2000s, NASCAR fans’ demographic has gotten younger, and their desires for amenities have changed, with increased comfort, more upscale concessions, and improved electronic features among them. To meet this demand, Speedway Motorsports has extensively upgraded venues over the past 15 years. To increase fan comfort, improvements include larger seats (20 to 24 inches wide rather than the cramped 16 to 18 inches of the past) as well as more leg room, cup holders, and drink rails in most of its venues.
Fans also want to view replays of key race moments and to have different perspectives on the action. So, enormous TV screens have become a must-have. At the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, a four-sided giant screen video monitor, each screen measuring 30 feet by 63 feet, was installed in 2016. Supported by roughly 1,400 feet of steel cable, the “Colossus TV” hangs over the infield. When it was installed, it was the largest outdoor-hung display of its kind in the world.
Swift and his team of 11 design and construction professionals keep occupied with new enhancements to the fan experience. At the Sonoma Raceway in California, for example, the team is in the permitting process for an $8-10 million conference/hospitality center. The 26,000-square-foot structure will be constructed of native redwood beams and stone, yielding a regional, natural aesthetic. “It will have a modern look with a flat roof, redwood, stone, and black iron structure,” Swift says. Overlooking turn 11 of the road-race inspired course, the building will be available for rental for numerous events.
Another major project in the works at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth will extensively revamp the front stretch of the track. The concourse and the upper deck will be modernized, adding more space for food and beverage vendors and fan socialization.
In fact, the social aspect has always been part of the race experience, but in recent years it has grown in focus for the Speedway Motorsports team. This has led to more choices of food and beverage with local fare (barbecue in Texas, wine and cheese in Sonoma) to go along with traditional hot dogs and hamburgers. In addition, food trucks with a wide variety of culinary offerings are welcomed in for events.
Swift and his team constantly consider new projects to bolster social and entertainment options. For example, the thousands of fans that camp out in the infield area may have additional recreational venues—basketball and volleyball courts—in the next few years. “It’s all about making sure people are entertained and having fun,” Swift says.
Given the busy schedule and the weather restrictions on construction in the short winter off-season, Swift and his team have to work quickly and be flexible in their construction approach. That means sometimes embracing unconventional project sequencing to meet deadlines. “There’s a right way, a wrong way, and a Speedway,” Swift says with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Swift relishes these challenges. “I love working with a team to come up with solutions for very different problems,” he says. No doubt, the “fan first” approach will continue to fuel NASCAR’s growth.