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Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage

One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.

Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.

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The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.

Empathy and Sport Heritage

One of the aspects which, I believe, separates sport heritage from other forms and types of heritage is that it is often corporal in nature.  That is to say, sport heritage requires us to continue to play and to watch sport in order to both compare with the past and to create more sport heritage for the future.  It must continually be made and remade through play, performance, and spectacle. No heritage building is more “dead” than an empty, abandoned stadium.

Perhaps because of the sensual and emotional nature of sport, we can understand and empathize with the sportsperson.  Even though most of us have never played at elite levels, or maybe not have played at all, we can still understand something of what it is like to taste victory and defeat.  In Sweet Summers, the collection of JM Kilburn’s cricket writing, the excerpt below perhaps best describes the empathetic connections between all those who have played:

Every boy who has defended a lamp-post wicket is in blood brotherhood with Bradman, and knows Hobbs or or Sutcliffe as himself…every man who has by reflex action or conscious effort flicked a boundary past point knows a thrill of intense physical delight when he sees Woolley bat.

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(“The Don” – Don Bradman. Do all who’ve played share a connection to him?)

In many ways, this goes beyond simple childhood imagination and flights of fancy, and rather an understanding of what it’s like to be a sportsperson. When I was an ice hockey goaltender in my youth, for example, it wasn’t that I was prentending to be Grant Fuhr or John Vanbiesbrouck or Ron Hextall when I played, but rather that I knew – like them – what it was like to make a fantastic save or let in a bad goal. We shared an emotional connection that only we, as goaltenders, could understand.

Perhaps our ability for empathy – or, perhaps, our desire to feel empathy for the sportsperson – makes certain sport heritage experiences both desirable and memorable.  One of my earliest memories of being at a sports museum was at the ski jump simulator at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Canada.  Using a point-of view immersive film screen, hydraulics, and several industrial-sized fans, the simulator gave me a taste of what it might be like to ski-jump, and provided me a level of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t have been possible by simply looking at the ski jump tower.  Of course, it was also a mediated form of authenticity – I could “ski jump” without actually ski jumping.  However, I never forgot that experience, nor could I ever forget the sensations and emotions it created.  It is also top of mind every time I watch ski jumping at the Olympics, knowing something of what each skier must be feeling.

Naturally, the ability to experience something of the athlete, particularly in a unique and historic place, is also one of the features that sets sport heritage apart. It can also be a way for visitors to create connections – such as fandom and support – with particular athletes, teams, and sports. Of course, all heritage sites – to some degree – use empathy by, for example, comparing our lives to those of our ancestors.  However, these are more cerebral connections; they are not immediate and current in the same ways that sport is, and perhaps not as sensually felt.  We often don’t think about empathy as a topic in heritage, and it seems that sport heritage might be a good vehicle for exploring it.

Site Review – Daytona International Speedway

I have heard that there are few more passionate and dedicated fans than those of auto racing and, in particular, NASCAR.  And, though there are many different locations that are important to telling the NASCAR story, or that could lay claim to some important aspects of the sport’s heritage, in reality the sport’s home is in Daytona Beach, Florida and, in particular, at the Daytona International Speedway – home of the “Great American Race”: the Daytona 500, held each February.

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(Main entrance to the Speedway and the tour centre)

Tours of the Speedway are, as you might expect, a mixture of NASCAR heritage, a bit of the mythology of the track itself and it’s creator, Bill France Sr., many of the technical and engineering specs of the track, access to areas of the speedway normally inaccessible to the general public, and a non-too-subtle sales pitch, both for additional track experiences and for upcoming events.

The Speedway offers many different tour options – from the quick-and-dirty 30 minute tour (seemingly the most popular, and the one I took) to longer, more involved tours.  As you might imagine, a 30 minute tour does not offer much time to provide a thorough narrative, and the tour is basically taking a large people mover to the infield and to pit row and back to the tour centre. Along the way, tour patrons are given a quick history to the track, some of the people involved in its creation, the technical aspects of the track (number of seats, angles of the turns, etc.), as well as an extensive overview of the track’s expansion and renovation – a project called Daytona RisingThe 30 minute tour’s lone stop was along pit row, where tour patrons were encouraged to sign up for an additional track experience – a $150 three-lap loop around the speedway in a modified stock car.

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(Tour patrons can purchase a three-lap stock car experience in one of these modified cars)

The tour ends with guides encouraging tour patrons to purchase tickets to upcoming events, as well as a viewing of the winning car from the previous Daytona 500, which the track gets to keep for a year.  Of course, there is also an opportunity to purchase another souvenir – a professional photo next to the car.

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(Winning car from the 2015 Daytona 500, driven by Joey Logano)

Perhaps most strikingly is that there was little information about famous races, drivers, or incidents.  I’ll admit to knowing next-to-nothing about NASCAR or many of the races at the Speedway, and perhaps the tour narrative is designed both for the complete NASCAR novice who may not know nor care about this information, as well as dedicated NASCAR fans who already know all of this information anyways.  Indeed, perhaps the most famous incident at Daytona – the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 in 2001 – was not mentioned at all.  Certainly this is by design, as the tour is mainly about seeing a venue famous for being famous, as well as a hagiographical treatment of the Speedway and sport’s founders, though it was interesting that the tour narrative didn’t point out any important locations or spaces on the track.

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(Memorial statue to Dale Earnhardt outside of the tour centre)

I will admit, though the charms of stock car racing have thus far escaped me and the up-selling on the tour did get a bit grating, it is a very efficient and, actually, interesting behind-the-scenes tour.  Although there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the tour content – and mirrors much of what has been written before about sports venue tours by Gammon & Fear (2005), Ramshaw (2010), and Wright (2012) – I was actually taken back by just how popular the Speedway tours are, and how built-up the tour infrastructure is.  And, unlike many venue tours that feel like either a rushed add-on or an inconvenience to the venue managers, the Speedway tours actually felt like an important and integral part of the Speedway’s public face.  In fact, I can’t remember a tour where – as a paying member of the public – I felt so valued.  Everyone – from the ticket sellers on up – were friendly, outgoing, and more than willing to answer questions.  I think in many ways, the tours of the Daytona International Speedway mirrored why NASCAR appeals to so many people, namely that they respect and welcome their fans.  Perhaps more than anything, this is what other sites could learn from the Daytona International Speedway.