As you step into the stadium at Daytona International Speedway and gather your first view of what is arguably the most famous racetrack in the world, your eye is drawn to the lush, green grass and logo that make up the inside of the frontstretch.
That design, selected by fans, is grown into reality by Aroostook County native Jason Griffeth and his dedicated team of groundskeepers.
Since 2000, groundskeepers at the track have produced turf designs for the Daytona 500 and Speedweeks. The idea came about when then-head of grounds Sam Newpher noticed a difference in turf shades after he performed repairs where race cars tore it up the night before the 500.
All he had available was Gulf, a lighter shade of annual ryegrass. That triggered an idea that maybe they could use contrasting shades of grass to develop turf designs for future Speedweeks.
Griffeth is Daytona’s grounds superintendent. In November, he and his crew learn which fan-selected design will be used for the turf. In a relatively short time span, they precisely overseed the dormant Bermudagrass with annual ryegrass and darker perennial ryegrass to yield the two-tone effect.
The newly planted turf is irrigated, fertilized, aerated and mowed with copious amounts of tender loving care. Just prior to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, a company paints “Daytona” on the grass.
Griffeth, the son of Robert and Lona Griffeth of Cross Lake, is a 2000 Caribou High School graduate and former Caribou FFA member. He grew up on the family farm doing what was needed.
After the family moved on from active farming, Griffeth began working at Caribou Country Club as a volunteer to meet his community service hours requirement for high school graduation. He was hired as a part-time groundskeeper.
He continued his education at the University of Massachusetts’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture where he graduated in 2002 with a Turfgrass Management degree. Griffeth earned a B.S. in Plant and Soil Sciences at UMass Amherst in 2004.
During the winter of 2000, he enlisted the help of UMass Extension Turfgrass Specialist Mary Owen to contact Dave Mellor, the new Director of Grounds at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. Griffeth didn’t hear back but, not one to give up easily, he continued to call Mellor until he got an interview for internship.
Griffeth began working at Fenway in the summer of 2001. He said he and Mellor were kindred spirits and that his boss was like a father figure.
After serving as an intern from 2001-2004, Griffeth became a full-time second assistant in 2005.
Griffeth likes to tell the story about his baseball career back home in Woodland. He played Little League and was an all-star for three of his four years. The next year he tried out for Babe Ruth baseball and was cut.
Little did he know that less than eight years later he would be taking care of some of the most famous turf in the world at Fenway Park.
The field underwent numerous improvements during Griffeth’s tenure and played host to hundreds of events, including three World Series and multiple playoff games, National Hockey League and college hockey contests, concerts, weddings, college football and softball games.
Dreaming of Daytona
Griffeth enjoys motorsports and on his rare days off would venture to local racetracks — Seekonk, Stafford Springs and Thompson — to watch races.
After Roush merged to form Roush Fenway Group, he met some key figures in the Roush Fenway Racing family and attended a few NASCAR events. Prior to that, he and friends attended races at Daytona.
“A group of us rented an RV the first year somewhere in Connecticut and drove to Daytona,” Griffeth said. “We smartened up and flew into Jacksonville the next year where we rented an RV.
“In those years, 2006 and 2007, we went to be part of the party scene in the infield at Daytona. We parked the RV on Tuesday and left the track on Monday. My favorite event was the two Gatorade 125’s on Thursday,” he said.
Griffeth fell in love with Daytona. Little did he know at the time how well he would come to know it.
Daytona Grounds Supervisor Sam Newpher decided to retire after 21 1/2 years at the track. Griffeth applied for the job, a decision that was difficult since he loved working with Mellor.
With Mellor’s blessing, he applied for and got the job at Daytona. Griffeth’s crew of up to 10 people is responsible for 480 acres of turf.
Transforming the track
Immediately after the Feb. 21 road course race at Daytona, the task of converting the 4.3-acre infield to the Ricky Carmichael-designed Supercross track begins in earnest. That race will take place March 6.
Griffeth and crew will not get any rest, since the American Motorcycle Association Daytona 200 will take place the following weekend. Once the motorcycles leave town, the infield will be converted to a soccer pitch for the Daytona Soccer Fest on July 4th weekend.
More than 120 loads of sand will be used to create the world-class pitch needed for international soccer matches. No other NASCAR track has hosted professional soccer games.
Daytona’s most famous turf, located at the tri-oval start/finish line is known by the crew as the “football field.” At one time, Bethune-Cookman University used the area as its home field.
NASCAR returns to Daytona on Aug. 28 for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, the last race before the playoff season begins.
Throughout the year, Griffeth will make sure the track’s turf is ready for the next challenge.