Daytona confident fan-friendly moves will pay off

As John Guthrie weaves his cream-colored Tahoe through the thousands of fans at Daytona International Speedway, his mind churns like the pistons in a race car. Suddenly, he thinks of a last-minute detail.

Tim McGraw
Country music star Tim McGraw performed the day of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14. Daytona International Speedway officials have been busy putting the focus on its customers, says John Guthrie, the speedway's vice president of business development and partnerships. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

As John Guthrie weaves his cream-colored Tahoe through the thousands of fans at Daytona International Speedway, his mind churns like the pistons in a race car. Suddenly, he thinks of a last-minute detail.

"Can you make it happen in 15 minutes?" Guthrie says at the end of a syrup-laced conversation on the cell.

For the past three years, Guthrie, the speedway's vice president of business development and partnerships, has handed out the "Outrageous Orange" award in the notoriously rowdy orange lot in Daytona's infield. Most of the fans there camp for several days and the spaces are almost always sold out.

This is the kind of award that won't be accompanied by a press release. It's just a way for the speedway to say thanks to some of the heartiest fans there on the Saturday before the Daytona 500.

It's those kinds of encounters that lead to business decisions made in International Speedway Corp.'s boardroom, Guthrie said.


"We've always focused on the customer," he said, "but I don't think we've been as reactive with our business decisions as we are now."

At no time has it been more important to mingle with the fans. ISC, Daytona's parent company, saw admissions revenue sink 17.2 percent last year, and advance ticket sales for ISC's 2010 events have been down 15 to 20 percent, although the Daytona 500 recovered nicely with a full house of 175,000 fans.

During its Hershey's Speedweeks and Daytona 500, the speedway introduced two new ways to entertain the fans, based on feedback Guthrie and his staff heard last year.

The Budweiser Party Porch featured a massive 20,000-square-foot platform sitting above Daytona's superstretch offering food, beverages and souvenirs. Access was free with any Daytona 500 ticket.

On the other side of the speedway is the 5th Turn, a high-end customer experience for fans willing to pay $1,950 for the all-inclusive pass, which is good for five days of racing. Several tents perched together cover the 60,000-square-foot 5th Turn footprint just outside the speedway facing the main road.

Inside, the structure was separated into different fan environments. At the center was an atrium room full of natural light, a Bud bar and a variety of food stations and flat-panel TVs. The atrium opened to the other areas of the 5th Turn, including a nightclub called In the Groove with bands; the Spark Pub, an Internet cafe; and the Pit Box for video games, poker and blackjack.

In the Groove stayed open at least two hours after the end of each race, including the night after the 500 when dueling pianos from the nightspot Howl at the Moon entertained. The pass also covered seats in the Sprint Tower near the start-finish line for the races.

As Guthrie briskly walks out of the dark nightclub into the well-lit atrium, he has another stream-of-consciousness moment born from countless conversations with the fans.


"People want light," he said, pointing to the portion of the clear tent covering the atrium that allows the sun to shine through.

All of those segmented areas offer different selections of food and drink throughout the day, all supplied by in-house concessionaire Americrown, the ISC-owned catering company. The game room has hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza, the Internet cafe has a healthier selection of foods and a salad bar, and the atrium features fancier dishes like scaloppini pork, portobello marsala and braised beef tips.

"You can't treat all of the fans the same way," Guthrie said. "They all want different things, different experiences, and what we've tried to do is deliver those different experiences under the same roof."

Daytona sold roughly 1,000 of those $1,950 tickets, down from last year when it sold 1,300 tickets at $2,000 each. Last year's fan hospitality tent delivered one atmosphere and one choice of food, but the economy continues to take a big bite of out of the speedway's ticket business, and the 23 percent drop is reflective of what many of ISC's speedways have confronted.

But Guthrie is confident that word will spread about the 5th Turn, which he conceived after last year's Daytona 500 and sketched on a legal pad.

Orlando-based Red Top Productions co-managed the 5th Turn with AEG Live.

"After last year, we knew that we had to make changes and make this more appealing to the younger crowd," said Red Top's Dana Brown, who added that the staff on the floor of the 5th Turn doubled from eight to 16 this year.

"At that price, you can't have people sitting at tables with dirty plates."


In Guthrie's world, when he's not selling seven-figure sponsorship deals and tending to track partners, he's talking to the diehards. He works the room, seeking feedback from customers and pointing out subtleties, like Garry Hill's racing-themed art collection that adds to the ambience.

Guthrie's willingness to roll up his sleeves and rub elbows with the hard-core fans comes from spending a decade in minor league baseball before joining the speedway in 2004. The minors are the perfect training ground for an up-and-comer, he says, because you do it all, from servicing fans and sponsors to covering the field during a rain delay.

On this day, the Saturday before the Daytona 500, Guthrie is supposed to meet track president Robin Braig to present the "Outrageous Orange" award, which comes in the form of a gaudy orange banner. Only 15 minutes prior, though, there's no banner. Hence, the syrup-laced rush order Guthrie placed earlier.

As he rolls up in his Tahoe at the orange lot, there's an orange banner waiting there, created by his crack staff on the fly.

"If you're in sports marketing, banners are a huge part of your life," Guthrie said with a laugh.

In the orange lot, where fans braved temperatures in the 40s and a soaked infield from Friday's rain, Guthrie and Braig present the "Outrageous Orange" banner to the lucky fans who managed to link four vans together with a cross walk over top and tarps to cover it all. Brad Brown, a senior director at Anheuser-Busch, tags along and presents 12 cases of Budweiser as part of the prize.

"These are the people that make this event what it is," Guthrie said. "They have built the sport into what it is. We've got to make sure we're doing everything we can to embrace them."

Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal.

What To Read Next
Get Local