Daytona International Speedway grounds crew creates wow factor for race fans

The 2013 Daytona 500 infield design featured a checkerboard pattern, which was ruined the day before the big race on the last lap of the NASCAR Nationwide race.
Photos courtesy of Jacobsen.

The Daytona 500, held at the Daytona International Speedway (DIS) in Daytona Beach, Fla., kicks off the NASCAR season and is considered the sport’s Super Bowl. Fans travel from all over the world to watch drivers compete for the season’s biggest purse.

Sam Newpher (left), grounds supervisor, and Chris Hanson, irrigation supervisor at Daytona International Speedway.

The Daytona 500 is also the year’s biggest event for DIS Ground 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 – 4 meticulously maintained acres of grass – showcases a massive Daytona 500 logo in bold colors and ornate mowing patterns. The design changes 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 the fans when they walk into the speedway.”

Turf preparation 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 field of 419 bermuda. The team overseeds the template with two 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 [from]. We use Gulf annual ryegrass, which is the lighter shade, and Trilogy perennial ryegrass for a striking contrast,” Newpher explained.

This is the fourth year Newpher has planted the two-species field, which started by accident.

Chris Hanson, irrigation supervisor, mows the DIS “football field” with a Jacobsen SLF-1880 large-area reel mower.

“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.”

Daytona International Speedway At A Glance

Capacity: 150,000

Year Opened: 1959

Grounds Supervisor: Sam Newpher

Turf: Gulf annual ryegrass, Trilogy perennial ryegrass, Tifway 419 bermuda, St. Augustine, bahia grass

Equipment: Jacobsen SLF-1880, Jacobsen R311T, a Jacobsen Tri-King, Cushman SprayTek DS-175, and the Dvorak Spider

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 prerace flyover.

In the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500 and the races that precede it, Newpher and his crew put in long hours, mostly at night because there’s too much going on inside the track during the day.

“We’ll work 12 to 13-hour shifts in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500,” noted Newpher.

The field is mowed with a Jacobsen SLF-1880 large-area reel mower, which is relatively new to the DIS.

“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 and 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 20-year veteran of the Speedway, Newpher knows 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 12-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.”

The Daytona International Speedway grounds crew plants a template for the Daytona 500 logo using two varieties of ryegrass for a dramatic contrast. The design for the 2014 Daytona 500 was inspired by the Thunderbirds fighter jets. The logo will be painted on the grass several days before the February 23 race.

Newpher’s crew – 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 bahia grass. To handle the areas outside the football field, the DIS team uses a Jacobsen R311T large-area rotary mower, a Jacobsen Tri-King trim 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 DIS lies outside the track on grass banks with up to 40-degree slopes in some areas. The grade is so steep that mowing with traditional mowers is impossible. For those areas, Newpher uses a remote-controlled 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.

Daytona International Speedway uses a Dvorak Spider, a remote-controlled mower, on grass banks that are as severe as 40 degrees in some areas. The grade is so steep that mowing with traditional mowers is impossible.

“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.

Adam Slick is the public relations and communications manager for Jacobsen.