With the NASCAR’s top series coming to Darlington Raceway for Saturday night's Sprint Cup Dodge Challenger 500 and the Nationwide Diamond Hill Plywood 300 on Friday, The Columbia State's Jim McLaurin visited with Darlington Raceway president Chris Browning to talk about the state of the track.
Recently, Darlington's surface was repaved, and an infield access tunnel, large enough to accommodate race-car haulers and motorcoaches, was constructed at the west end of the track.
Question: You've spent $16 million in a short time at Darlington. That's a lot of change. Bring us up to speed.
Answer: It was over $10 million for the paving and the tunnel, and before that it was right at $6 million for the Brasington Grandstands, in the last three years.
Question: That's a tidy sum out of the home office (parent company International Speedway Corp.) in Daytona.
Answer: We have been very fortunate. They have seen the opportunities we've got here. The fact that we have sold out for the last three years has been huge for us. They realize that this place is a gem and that it needed just a little sprucing up.
Question: What are the long-term plans, say five years from now?
Answer: In five years, I hope we will have the infield done the way we want it. I hope the west side of the property will be developed.
In five or six years, I hope we will have suites across the top of the frontstretch, a new race control, TV booths and a new pressbox. ... That would be my vision for the place, but we've got to do it in a tasteful way that will still feel like Darlington. We don't ever want to lose that feel.
Question: What would you like to do with the infield?
Answer: There are some things we want to try to make it more fan-friendly, and among them is a plan to put an elevated walkway over the garage to allow the fans to watch the crews at work through a glass window.
Question: You mentioned the west (Hartsville) side of the property. What are your plans there?
Answer: First, we’ve got a 25-year lease on 125 acres next to our property that will allow us to almost double our parking.
(That property is owned by the Ramsey family, which also owns the “minnow pond” that caused track builder Harold Brasington to narrow the west end of the track, giving it its unique shape.)
We want to move all of our camping into one location over by the pond, and that will allow us to basically double our camping capacity.
We want to move our hospitality village down by the pond. It will make it more picturesque and more convenient, because we'll have a VIP gate right out of the village into the facility.
And we're going to run a tram between the campground and infield, and we're going to move all our handicapped parking to one place down there, and that will be more efficient as far as shuttling those folks in and out.
Question: How will you package the luxury suites? For corporations' private use, or will there be a way for ordinary fans to use them?
Answer: Both. We would have corporate suites, because there is a huge demand for them, believe it or not. We could probably sell 15 right now.
And there is a new trend in sports - not just in racing, but in all sports - to go to a club setting where you could buy one, two or six seats individually, and you have all the amenities of a corporate suite, the TV, the food and drink, but in a club setting. It will be a combination of both of those things.
Question: Do you plan any more grandstand expansions in the near future?
Answer: Right now, we're focusing on these other projects, because we're trying to elevate the place. I think those are more high priority right now over new seats, especially in light of the economic times we're in.
With the garage and infield project we've got, there's opportunities to create some experience there for fans there that we could generate some revenue off of that we don't have now, and still enhance the experience for everybody else, too.
Question: What about the guy who can't afford the suites? Is anything being done for him?
Answer: We still have the $45 ticket here, and we don't plan on going up on those, and we actually went down on our prices two years ago.
On this infield design, in the turns 3-4 end of the track, we purposely left that alone for folks who want to bring their tents and camp in the infield. We don't want to cut those folks out who want that kind of experience.
Question: What was the key factor in getting ISC to spend $16 million?
Answer: I think it goes back to the fact that we've been successful for the last three years. I think they realize how great a place this can be if we put a little money back into it.
Whenever I ever have a presentation to make to ISC, I always start it off by saying that we have what everybody else wants: tradition.
Our brand is well-known. The place is supported by our stars. They talk positively about it. They kind of revere it. We've got 50-plus years of comments, quotes and moments to back up the fact that we are one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, and one of the most unique.
And we need to make sure everybody understands that.