As Dover International Speedway celebrates 50 years, it looks toward the future./Photo by Justin Heyes/Moonloop Photography
It was July 6, 1969, but to Terry Young it still feels like yesterday.
“I was a Hot Wheels kid,” he says, referring to the toy die-cast metal cars popular when he was 8 years old. His grandfather picked him up to take him to the first auto race at the brand-new track that had sprouted on what had been farmland on the east side of the DuPont Highway in Dover. They parked nearby, walked around a large stand of trees and climbed halfway up the new bleachers.
“I was expecting to see two cars racing each other, but it was more like 30,” he recalls. “For a child, it was pretty intense.”
Young and his grandfather were among the 10,509 fans who watched Richard Petty roar around the one-mile banked asphalt track to claim a six-lap victory in the Mason–Dixon 300. The bleachers were only about half-full that day, but it was still a promising inaugural day for Dover Downs, now the Dover International Speedway and, more popularly, “the Monster Mile.”
It was also the day that made the kid from Dover a NASCAR fan for life. Young now lives in Chesapeake, Virginia, but he’ll be back in Dover from October 4–6 for the fall racing tripleheader as the speedway caps its 50th anniversary celebration by hosting its 100th NASCAR cup series race.
“It’s my home track, and it’s the best track there is,” says Young, who expects to be sitting about midway up turn four, where he can easily see the start and finish line, “and I don’t have to crane my neck on every lap.”
Fans like Young lift the spirits of Denis McGlynn, the Dover Motorsports Inc. president and CEO, who arrived in 1972, guided the track to its peak in 2001 and 2002 and has managed to remain buoyant as attendance has sputtered since the 2008 recession.
Back then, horse racing was dominant, and both thoroughbreds and trotters ran on the 5/8-mile track inside the asphalt oval, sometimes even attracting busloads of fans from as far away as New York during snowy Februarys, when Dover was the closest track to offer Sunday racing.
Besides, stock car racing was still primarily a southern sport, and McGlynn, who had been hired out of the Air Force to handle publicity for the track, faced the challenge of trying to sell NASCAR to a northern audience. “We had 22,000 seats, and we struggled to fill them,” he says.
Seeing those seats filled was the dream of three strong-willed men who made risking it all their way of life.
First, there was David P. Buckson, a Townsend native, Kent County politician and harness racing enthusiast (who sometimes drove his own horses at the track). He found the 200 acres of farmland and negotiated its purchase.
Then there was Melvin Joseph, a Sussex County contractor and stock car fan who later became known for financing an expedition that discovered a sunken Spanish treasure ship off the Florida Keys. He built the track. Joseph was more than a fan; he was also a friend to many of the drivers.
“Mel wanted to make it something special,” says NASCAR icon Bobby Allison, a seven-time winner at Dover. “When I raced at Dover, I flew in with my airplane. Mel had his own landing strip in his back yard in Georgetown, so I had a place to park my plane.”
Bobby Allison’s 1983 championship NASCAR car. Allison, a seven-time winner at Dover, fondly remembers the race track’s founders./Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Darren
As well as Buckson and Joseph knew their sports, they needed someone whose prime role would be taking care of business. That became the responsibility of John Rollins, the Georgia-born serial entrepreneur who sold Joseph the first dump trucks for his construction company from his Ford dealership in Lewes in 1949.
While the Rollins–Joseph link started as a business deal that became an enduring friendship, Rollins and Buckson were joined through Republican politics, though they weren’t always in agreement. Rollins was elected Delaware’s lieutenant governor in 1952, and Buckson in 1956, with both serving under Gov. J. Caleb Boggs. With Boggs barred from seeking a third term, Rollins and Buckson squared off in the 1960 Republican primary for governor. Rollins won that contest, but Buckson may have had the last laugh. He actually served as governor for 18 days when Boggs resigned early to begin the first of his two terms in the U.S. Senate.
Buckson kept a high profile at the track during harness racing season (thoroughbred racing ended in 1974) and Joseph did the same during NASCAR weekends, but Rollins was the constant presence, right up to his death 19 years ago. “John was the everyday guy,” says McGlynn. “He’d call me three times a day during the week and twice on weekends.”
Jeff Rollins, John’s son and now a member of the Dover Motorsports board of directors, remembers the close relationships forged by the three cofounders, especially between his father and Melvin Joseph. “Dad and Melvin were old friends. For as long as I can remember, the Josephs were just like family to us,” he says.
In his teenage years, Rollins says, “I’d hang out in the garage [in the track’s infield] with Melvin. I’d sit on top of his camper and watch the race.”
John Rollins and Buckson weren’t quite as close, but Jeff remembers tagging along with his father on visits to Buckson’s stables. And, he recalls, Buckson named one of his horses Jefferic, after Rollins and his own son Eric.
The real turning point for Dover—and for McGlynn—came in 1979.
In February of that year, a massive storm blanketed the northeast, prompting thousands—perhaps millions—of snowed-in sports fans to tune their televisions to the Daytona 500. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed into each other and they raced for the lead on the final lap, enabling Petty to slip by for the win. Moments later, Yarborough and Allison got into a fistfight in the infield. The race had it all—blinding speed, a surprise ending and a hockey-style brawl.
“For us, it was the perfect storm,” McGlynn says. A couple of months later, his boss, John Riddle, was hired as general manager at Daytona, and McGlynn was named to succeed him.
Replica cars of Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison during the 1979 Daytona 500 in the NASCAR Hall of Fame./Photo by Wikimedia Commonss/Nascar1996
Through the 1980s at Dover, NASCAR kept its pedal to the metal while the horses kept throwing their shoes. The rise of off-track betting and simulcasting, not to mention construction of larger horse racing tracks in much bigger metropolitan areas—like the Meadowlands outside New York City—weakened the local horse racing industry, which eventually needed to be propped up by the opening of casinos at Dover, Harrington and Delaware Park in Stanton. Meanwhile, NASCAR expanded, with Dover adding seats to its grandstands for 16 consecutive years, and filling them just about every time. Soaring national interest in the sport fueled another high-octane boost, this time in the form lucrative cable television contracts.
As the track grew, NASCAR fans embraced Dover with the fervor of an evangelical camp meeting, arriving in their RVs and trailers on Tuesday or Wednesday before race weekends and transforming the parking lots—whether paved or not—into a massive tailgate. Those who couldn’t fit, or who couldn’t arrive early, would fill hotels and motels from Wilmington to Rehoboth.
Legendary drivers took the checkered flag at Dover—Jimmie Johnson 11 times, Petty and Allison seven each and Dale Earnhardt three—and Delaware’s big businesses took note of the sport’s growing popularity. The DuPont Co. became a major sponsor of driver Jeff Gordon, a five-time winner at Dover. MBNA became the prime sponsor for many Dover races, a role later assumed by its successor, Bank of America.
Patriotism has always played a big part in NASCAR./
NASCAR fans have long been a patriotic, flag-waving sort (albeit with the Confederate stars and bars frequently appearing) and that spirit reached its peak in 2001, a week and a half after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The terrorism attack essentially shut down the sporting world for a week or so, and by the fate of scheduling, Dover would be hosting the nation’s largest sporting event during the weekend of Sept. 21 to 23.
Security preparations were intense, McGlynn recalls, with constant communications throughout the week with the FBI, the Secret Service, and state and local law-enforcement agencies. By then, seating capacity had expanded to 135,000, and the grandstand was packed for the Sunday race, labeled the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400. Days before, Dover and MBNA purchased small American flags and passed them out to every spectator when they arrived.
“They were chanting, ‘USA, USA.’ They were doing the wave, pounding the grandstand. It was electrifying,” McGlynn says. “To be able to pull it off, it was a great thing.”
Adding to the thrill of the day was the victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr., an emotionally satisfying conclusion after Earnhardt’s father had been killed in a collision at the Daytona 500 in February.
But the glory days would not last forever.
The sport survived a series of speed bumps in the ensuing years—a mini-recession in 2003 coupled with high-profile racers like Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip coasting into retirement and younger faces trying to build their own fan bases.
Then came the recession of 2008, delivering a double whammy and an impact that’s still being felt. “Our customer base had traditionally been either a blue-collar working guy or a corporate man bringing guests or employees,” McGlynn says.
So, on the high end, the big corporations cut their marketing budgets—reducing sponsorships and the number of “guests” they would bring to the races. “That faucet got cut off really quick,” McGlynn says, taking about 20,000 fans out of the seats. On top of that, the blue-collar folks who had been NASCAR’s bread and butter since the sport’s early days were now out of work. “That was the perfect storm in the negative direction,” he says.
Since the recession, Dover has steadily cut back, reducing capacity to 85,000 seats primarily because wide swaths of empty bleachers don’t look good on television, McGlynn says.
But it’s also part of a trend that’s sweeping the broader sports and entertainment world, says Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway. Whether it’s “right-sizing” or a desire to provide fans with more intimacy, that’s the direction the industry is taking.
McGlynn and Tatoian acknowledge that the recession has forced Dover to face a demographic challenge.
“Those guys who were out of work stopped coming, they stopped bringing their kids and their grandkids, and it created a gap in the flow of new fans into the sport,” McGlynn says.
One of Dover Raceway’s biggest challenges today is recruiting young fans./Photo by Justin Heyes/Moonloop Photography
NASCAR’s base is “55 percent male, primarily in the 45- to 50-year-old range. In order to survive, you’ve got to attract their kids, or their kids’ kids,” Tatoian says.
“Attention spans are changing; the ways to find content are changing. All sports are trying to change with it and nobody has found the secret sauce, chasing the millennials, and the next generation of fans,” he says.
Shrinking the seating capacity gave the track fresh opportunities to cultivate a broader audience. They created a kid-friendly “Fan Zone” filled with interactive displays, games, music and exhibits by race sponsors.
“If you don’t hook them at a young age, it gets tougher and tougher,”McGlynn says. “We want the fan who returns two, three, four, five times, so it becomes a tradition.”
The spring race weekend featured a concert by the Charlie Daniels Band; a Saturday night screening of “Jurassic Park” followed by a fireworks show; question-and-answer sessions, along with autographs with NASCAR drivers; and performances by the Harlem Globetrotters and the Micro Wrestling Federation. Fans can expect more of the same this month—though not necessarily the same lineup.
Another plus derived from removing seats: more space for food concessions, which in turn translates to dining options that go well beyond a burger and a brew.
Even with these changes, the track is nowhere close to filling those 85,000 seats. Attendance at the May races, hurt somewhat by a storm that forced a one-day postponement of Sunday’s main event, fell short of the “mid-40s” that McGlynn was hoping to see, another Dover spokesman acknowledged.
Indeed, an irony of Dover’s new reality is that Firefly, the three-day music festival launched in 2012 to bolster revenue and make better use of the track-owned wooded and grassy areas on the east side of Route 1, now draws 90,000 or more visitors each June—as many as or more than two race weekends combined.
Management is always looking for new revenue-generating opportunities, but the scheduling window is tight, Tatoian says. It takes a month to a month and a half to do the heavy lifting associated with Firefly or a race weekend, he says. Couple that with the unpredictability of spring and late-fall weather and it becomes difficult to schedule an event of similar magnitude.
While tumbling attendance might prompt uncertainty over the speedway’s future, McGlynn believes that off-track developments can help NASCAR endure.
For now, NASCAR’s network television contracts provide a revenue stream that makes the tracks less dependent on race day turnout.
TV broadcast and cable contracts keep the track in the black even as in-person race attendance has decreased./Photo by Justin Heyes/Moonloop Photography
Just beyond the horizon looms the world of virtual reality and augmented reality, McGlynn says, and all NASCAR must do is figure out how to make the connection between the speedway and the teenager sitting in front of their laptop.
“They’ve got to create a pipeline that’s big enough to carry the data from where the broadcast originates to the home screen and to the computer,” he says.
As he speaks, McGlynn, sitting in his office overlooking the track’s parking lots, seems to inhabit the childhood of a new generation, describing the 21st-century version of Terry Young playing with his Hot Wheels five decades ago.
“When they figure it out, you and me and your 17-year-old will be able to have a car in the race that you’re driving. I’ll have my car and 20 million people will all be driving while the race is going on. The guys on the track who are physically driving won’t know that you’re there but you’re paying 5 dollars to be part of the race,” he says. “That’s probably where it’s going to end up.”
If his vision proves accurate, McGlynn says, the size of the race day crowds will matter even less, as long as the speedways continue to get their cut from the television contracts and virtual reality programming.
Tatoian shares McGlynn’s belief that the development of virtual reality holds the key to building a new generation of fans, but he believes a computer screen can’t fully capture the experience of cars roaring around a high-banked oval at 140 miles per hour with a dangerous crash threatened at nearly every turn.
“Nothing can replace seeing the event live and in person,” he says. “You can have your chair in front of the television and easy access to the fridge, but that doesn’t have the emotion of being with your friends inside the stadium.”