Counting down the days to the new Major League Baseball season doesn’t have to be drag.
At Marlins Park in Florida, home to the Miami Marlins, the romantic sound of bat hitting ball is being replaced by the roar of engines.
The Race of Champions (ROC) — where some of motorsport’s best racing drivers go head-to-head in different cars — is motoring into Marlins Park this weekend.
It is the first time the prestigious event has run in North America and the first time a baseball diamond has been replaced by a racetrack.
“People have really struggled thinking that you can build a racetrack inside a baseball stadium,” Claude Delorme, the Miami Marlins executive vice president of operations and events, told CNN.
“Some of the players are excited to meet the world’s best drivers and it’s such a different setting to what they’re used to at Marlins Park.
“To see the field completely converted with asphalt is foreign to us, thinking we would ever put asphalt on the field!”
Delorme says he hasn’t had any sleepless nights planning Marlin Park’s transformation although he hasn’t had much shut-eye since the track build began on January 12.
“We removed the center field gates so the trucks could get through, then we had the initial marking out of the track,” he explains.
“A plastic material that protects the field was installed and then 50,000 square foot of metal plates to provide a solid surface for the track.
“All the asphalt was finished overnight Wednesday and so now it’s just the décor and boards to define the track before the full practice for the drivers on Friday.”
A whole new ball game
Since its inception in 1988, the Race of Champions has visited iconic sporting venues around the globe including Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, the Stade de France in Paris and London’s Olympic Stadium — but installing a track inside a baseball stadium is a whole new ball game.
“Having only one entrance to come in and out of the stadium is the biggest challenge,” ROC president Fredrik Johnsson explains to CNN. “To squeeze 120 trucks of gravel and 50 trucks of asphalt into a 48-hour period meant bringing in a truck every 20 minutes.
“The hollow pitcher’s mound had an effect on the design and the shape of the field also influenced the circuit layout.
“The track build will have taken approximately 100-120 hours and used roughly 3,000 tons of gravel and 1,000 tons of asphalt.”
The entire outfield of Marlins Park comes in at 130,000 square feet — comparable to most ballparks — and a single lap of the ROC racetrack is 613 meters (670 yards) long with seven-meter wide loops and a 14-meter wide start-finish straight.
The track may not be a “seventh innings” stretch but now ROC has settled into a new home in the heartlands of American sport, will it be embracing some other traditions of the great American ball game?
Home run to home straight
“We’re introducing the organizers to all the features that we have in terms of in-game entertainment,” promises Delorme. “The scoreboard and signage will be in full activation.
“We have a mechanical home run sculpture where a Marlin goes up and down the arch and falls in the water with a splash effect every time there’s a home run and we certainly hope to incorporate that.
“Marlins Park is a really beautiful stadium. It’s close to downtown with an outstanding skyline view of downtown Miami. The nice thing about the ball park is that when you’re watching the race people will be able to appreciate that picturesque view and they will see the entire race from every angle perfectly from their seats.”
The Miami Marlins are advertising ROC as the speediest action their fans will have ever witnessed inside the 37,000-capacity stadium.
The fastest car in the line-up is the Radical SR3 RSX, which has a top speed of 155 mph, but how does that compare with the speeds seen during an MLB game?
“The top pitchers in baseball can throw just over 100 mph,” explains Delorme. “105 mph is the extreme.
“The bat speed does goes up more than that. When Giancarlo Stanton hits the ball it goes out at a crazy speed.
“But in terms of seeing jam-packed action at high-speed the Race of Champions will be a very unique experience for our fans.”
The Miami Marlins agreed a three-year deal to host ROC and will assess the success of the event, so new and different for their fans, after the weekend.
There are plenty of familiar faces in the star-studded field of 20 drivers including four-time Formula One world champion, and defending ROC champion, Sebastian Vettel and 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button.
Felipe Massa, who recently came out of retirement to replace new Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas at Williams, and Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein complete the current F1 line-up.
NASCAR driving brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi and 2014 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay are among the US racing fraternity taking part.
“The Race of Champions reminds us why we all first started racing,” Ferrari racer Vettel told ROC. “It’s about pure competition.
“All the drivers are strong, and the top US drivers from NASCAR and IndyCar will be extra motivated in front of their home fans. The racing is always very intense, so it’s just one strategy; flat out from start to finish.”
Bigger than Beyoncé?
When the 2017 ROC winner is crowned and the engine noise fades away from Marlins Park on Sunday, it will be time to turn the racetrack back into a baseball stadium.
ROC president Johnsson predicts that will take “less than 48 hours” but for Delorme and his workforce it will take a little longer to re-lay the field with fresh turf.
“The majority, if not all, will be replaced,” he explains. “On Wednesday we’ll be able to assess the field then we’ll start removing the sod and we’ll need to laser grade the ground.
“We’ll probably install the sod in February to get ready for the World Baseball Classic in March and the regular season in April, and then we’ve got the MLB All-Star Game in July.
“We did the Beyoncé concert last year and replaced about a third of the sod but typically you’d replace it every seven years.”
The Race of Champions may be set to rip up Marlins Park at a greater rate than Beyoncé but with Guns N’ Roses on the bill this summer, the race is on for the stars in cars to create the fastest — and loudest — event Marlins Park has ever seen.
Gentleman, start your engines …