Report: On eve of Daytona renovation, other NASCAR tracks may also shrink seating capacity

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On the eve of the start of a massive three-year renovation, revitalization and 31 percent reduction in seating capacity of NASCAR’s biggest gem, Daytona International Speedway, comes a report that other tracks may also be in line for a cut in their capacity as well.

The Los Angeles Times reported that International Speedway Corp. – which owns 12 of the tracks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on (accounting for 19 of the 36 races on the season schedule) – may also be looking at cutting seating at other tracks under its corporate umbrella.

“We just simply have too many seats in the inventory and it’s time to do something about that,” John R. Saunders, president of International Speedway Corp., reportedly said on a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts, The Times reported.

“At the end of the day, to get out of this quagmire, we’ve got to get our [seating] capacity down,” Saunders added.

It was less than a decade ago that NASCAR would routinely sell out many, if not most of its Sprint Cup races. But since the economic downturn in the U.S. began in 2007, NASCAR has seen a significant downturn in ticket sales and at-track attendance.

Rather than continue to have empty seats, particularly when they are readily seen around the country on Fox, ESPN/ABC and TNT TV broadcasts, ISC is reportedly mulling following a similar plan put in place at Daytona, according to The Times.

On Friday, ground will be broken on the first major facelift of Daytona since it opened in 1959. As part of that facelift, 31 percent of the current 146,000 seats will be permanently removed, leaving capacity around the 2.5-mile, high-banked oval at just over 101,000 seats.

In addition to replacing the remaining seats with wider and more comfortable seats, ISC also plans on adding suites and 11 common meeting areas (called “neighborhoods”) where fans can get together to watch the racing action while also socializing.

ISC owns tracks that host Sprint Cup events in Daytona, Talladega (Ala.), Fontana (Calif.), Joliet (Ill.), Richmond (Va.), Watkins Glen (N.Y.), Homestead (Fla.), Kansas City (Kan.), Darlington (S.C.), Martinsville (Va.), Avondale (Ariz.) and Brooklyn (Mich.).

NASCAR and ISC both expanded at a significant rate from 1996 to 2006, but with the drop in the economy, the sport and its facilities have suffered. The situation is the same for Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns nine tracks where Cup races are contested upon, as well as the independently owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway.

Which ISC tracks will ultimately lose seating capacity? Such a decision is “still in the exploratory process” and it would be “premature to speculate” ISC spokesman told The Times in an email.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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