Grounds crew at Daytona International Speedway creates visual wow factor for race fans
Daytona International Speedway At-A-Glance
Year Opened: 1959
Grounds Supervisor: Sam Newpher
Turf: Gulf Annual Ryegrass, Trilogy Perennial Ryegrass, Tifway 419 Bermuda, St. Augustine, Bahiagrass
Equipment: Jacobsen SLF-1880 large area reel mower, Jacobsen R311T large area rotary mower, a Jacobsen Tri-King small area reel mower and a Cushman SprayTek DS-175 sprayer
Daytona International Speedway (DIS) is most well known as the host of NASCAR’s Daytona 500, regarded as the most important and prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar. The famous track also hosts races of ARCA, AMA Pro Racing, IMSA, SCCA, Supercross and various other events throughout the year.
The Daytona 500 is an historic event that kicks off the NASCAR season and is considered to be the sport’s Super Bowl. Fans travel from all over the world to watch drivers compete for the season’s biggest purse.
The Daytona 500 is also the year’s biggest event for DIS Grounds Supervisor Sam Newpher, who is charged with creating a visual centerpiece on the track’s infield grass. Known as the football field by DIS employees (Bethune-Cookman University once played home football games on the spot,) the infield grass is four acres of meticulously maintained grass that showcases a massive Daytona 500 logo in bold colors and ornate mowing patterns – the design changing considerably each year.
“Coming to the Daytona 500 is a very special event for NASCAR fans,” said Newpher. “We want to create a visual wow factor for fans when they walk into the speedway.”
Turf preparation actually begins four months prior to the Daytona 500, which is typically held in late February. In mid-November, a template of the race logo is laid onto the four-acre field of 419 Bermuda. The team then overseeds the template with two different varieties of ryegrass that are dramatically different in color.
“Using two different grasses is more dramatic than striping and it looks the same no matter what angle you view it,” said Newpher. “We use Gulf Annual Ryegrass, which is the lighter shade, and Trilogy Perennial Ryegrass for a striking contrast.”
This is the fourth year Newpher has planted the two-species field, which started by accident.
“One year we had a car rip up the field and the only seed I had left for repairs was Gulf Annual,” said Newpher. “I noticed how different that streak was and it got me thinking. The next year, we planted the two varieties side-by-side for a striping effect and it looked fantastic. We’ve been doing it ever since, pushing the design a little more every year.”
This year’s design, a series of five streaking stars, was inspired by the flight pattern of the Thunderbirds fighter jets that perform the Daytona 500′s pre-race flyover.
In the week leading up to the Daytona 500 and the races that precede it, Newpher and his crew put in extremely long hours, mostly at night because there’s too much going on inside the track during the day.
“We’ll work 12-13 hour shifts in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500,” said Newpher.
The field is mowed with a Jacobsen SLF-1880 large area reel mower, which is relatively new to Daytona Speedway.
“With the SLF-1880, we can get the whole football field mowed in about two hours and 15 minutes,” said Chris Hanson, Irrigation Supervisor and Newpher’s right-hand man. “It’s a pleasure to mow with, provides a very comfortable ride and is so light it does not leave any footprint behind. And the quality-of-cut is far superior to other machines we’ve had out here.”
As a twenty-year veteran of the Speedway, Newpher knows all his team’s hard work can be ruined with one wrong turn. On the last lap of the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at DIS, which falls on the eve of the Daytona 500, a twelve-car wreck decimated the infield in a matter of seconds.
“It was the toughest night of my career,” said Newpher. “Here we are, the night before the biggest race of the year and the infield was untouched until the very last lap. After the wreck and emergency vehicles left the infield, it looked like a war zone. We used colorant, green sand and even grass clippings to help fill in the ruts. Somehow, we got it looking decent for the big race the next day.”
Newpher’s crew, which includes Chris Hanson, Bobby Pearson, Randy Heishman, Perry Horton and Emory Renfroe, manages a total of 22 acres of Bermuda, 27 acres of St. Augustine and 150 acres of Bahiagrass. To handle the areas outside the football field, the DIS team uses a Jacobsen R311T large area rotary mower, a Jacobsen Tri-King small area reel mower and a Cushman SprayTek DS-175 sprayer.
“It’s the first year we’ve had a full fleet of new, high-quality equipment,” said Hanson. “It’s made a world of difference on the football field and the other surrounding areas.”
Probably the most challenging turf to maintain at Daytona International Speedway lies outside the track on grass banks that are as severe as 40-degrees in some areas. The grade is so steep that mowing with traditional methods is impossible. For those areas, Newpher uses a remote-control mower called the Dvorak Spider. An operator stands at the top of the bank and guides the four-blade Spider up and down the slopes. Even with the help of the state-of-the-art mower, it still takes four days to mow all the banks.
“Even after 20 years here, I still try to raise the bar each year,” said Newpher. “Whether it’s mixing two varieties of grass or trying new technology like the Spider, we’ll always try to improve the experience of the race fan.”
This year’s Daytona 500 revved up on February 23rd with Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the checkered flag.