The excitement is palpable. Racing fans of all ages, sporting their favourite driver’s colours, line up outside the gate. And it’s only 6:50 a.m.!
There’s no other sport quite like NASCAR and the DAYTONA 500 is the grandaddy of them all. Every February, the scene repeats itself at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach and organizers always promise this hive of relentless movement and energy will be a great experience.
Within sight and easy access of the track, the GEICO infield and Park West campgrounds are filled with tents and RVs. Never wanting to miss a moment of the action, some have camped here for a month, waiting for this day. Many have watched it all come together from the deck they’ve assembled on the roof of their RV. These are die-hard fans.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF SPEED
What makes NASCAR so special? Why does it strike a chord in Americans’ hearts?
Perhaps it’s its long history of family traditions and the interaction between NASCAR drivers and fans. This is one of the few sports where avid fans bearing appropriate passes can meet their heroes at question-and-answer sessions, participate in driver fan forums on the main stage, look inside the garages through observation windows, watch each car go through technical inspection before taking to the track, access the trioval grass along pit road as well as the track surface before the race, gain up-close access for driver introductions and autograph the start/finish line prior to the race. For a real treat, some book a speedway tour, which takes them for two laps around the racetrack. And, anyone scoring a hauler tour has rightfully earned boasting rights.
Long before the DAYTONA 500 racetrack was built, 37 kilometres of hard-packed sand at Daytona Beach proved to be ideal for car racing—especially in the winter when people didn’t go to the beach. And so car racing began in 1903 and the tradition has persisted ever since.
This is where superstars turn into legends. In 1904, the first world land speed record was set. In 1906, a driver was the first to reach 160 kph on the beach. In 1935, Campbell set the last land speed record at Daytona at 444 kph on the beach. By then, cars were just too fast for the beach. Today, for a fee, cars are still allowed access to the beach, however the speed limit is 16 kph.
1936 saw the start of stock car races, the first of which was sanctioned by AAA. Only four to five thousand spectators were expected, however organizers knew they were onto something big when 20,000 showed up. Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, moved to Daytona and changed history in 1958 when construction on the Daytona International Speedway began.
An intentionally nondescript building, located off-site, serves as the archives centre, which holds an inventory of more than 50 years of stocker racing. As VIP ticket holders, we were invited to tour this facility where fans, writers, historians and racers come to research the sport. The library contains 3.5 million photos plus six million more in digital format, videos, clippings and press kits, official entry forms and licence applications, record books, programs, track files, sponsor files, replicas of race cars and a secret temperature- and humidity-controlled vault.
REIMAGINING AN AMERICAN ICON
The International Speedway Corporation owns 13 tracks and collectively promotes more than 100 motorsports events every year. DAYTONA 500 is the first and biggest race of the season.
The DAYTONA 500 is, as its name suggests, 500 miles (805 kilometres) long and the racetrack covers 194 hectares. It takes 200 laps around the track for a driver behind the wheel in an 800HP car to reach the finish line.
In January 2016, DAYTONA Rising, a US$400-million renovation project, was a “reimagining” of what a race experience could be. Blending modern amenities demanded by sports fans with the heritage they expect from Daytona, everything from seating to concessions and conveniences was overhauled. The intention was to broaden the Speedway’s appeal and fan base by creating a world-class motorsports entertainment complex that enhances the fan experience.
Five expanded and redesigned entrances, called “injectors,” lead fans to a series of escalators and elevators, transporting them to three different concourse levels, each featuring spacious and strategically placed social “neighbourhoods” along a nearly mile-long frontstretch. Eleven neighbourhoods, each the size of a football field, enable fans to meet and socialize without ever missing any on-track action, thanks to an open sightline design throughout each concourse and dozens of video screens. A central neighbourhood, dubbed the “World Center of Racing,” celebrates the history of Daytona International Speedway and its many unforgettable moments throughout more than 55 years of racing.
Today, the Daytona International Speedway has approximately 101,000 permanent, wider, more comfortable seats, twice as many restrooms and three times as many concession stands than it had prior to the reconstruction. In addition, the Speedway features more than 60 luxury suites with trackside views and a completely revamped hospitality experience for corporate guests.
BEYOND THE RACETRACK
One Daytona is a massive US$300-million development on approximately 77 hectares located across from the legendary Speedway. It puts racing fans within easy access to all the action and offers attractions away from the track during Speedweeks. Here, patrons have a chance to take in a movie, check out Bass Pro Shops and other stores and restaurants as well as stay in one of two hotels on-site.
A new Daytona has risen and NASCAR enthusiasts are embracing it all.