In 1959, the Daytona International Speedway opened. It was a 2.5 mile monstrosity with 31 degree banks in the turns. It was unlike anything the drivers had ever seen. At the time, nobody knew about "drafting" because nobody had ever driven so fast that the air coming off the cars was actually a factor. In fact, in that first 500, some of the cars ran as convertibles. Of course, those cars did not do so well. Old timers who were there that year tell the stories about how they were in awe and maybe a little scared the first time they drove through the tunnel and saw the track. In the 50+ years since, Daytona has become one of the premiere venues in sports. Think about it: the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, BCS title game, and Final Four all bounce around to different venues. But every February, racing’s biggest event is held right here at the Daytona International Speedway.
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The food and beverage situation at Daytona varies depending on where you will be for the race. Many folks bring their RVs and park in the infield and watch the festivities from there. Typically those people have barbeque grills and will cook out. Much like your typical football tailgate party, we’re talking burgers, dogs, brats, steak, ribs, and chicken with all your sides. And of course alcoholic beverages are all around.
If you are sitting in the grandstands at DIS, there are your typical concession stand fare. You can find pizza, burgers, hot dogs, turkey legs, popcorn, nachos, beer, and soda. The prices are your typical outrageous concession prices. This is for rookies. People who have been to the races before know that it is okay to bring your own food inside provided you bring a "track legal" cooler. Those are the soft coolers you can put under your legs where you sit. Perfect for a few can beers and a sandwich. You can also bring a clear plastic back pack in with you where you can pack your chips and cookies.
Now, if you happen to be in the Daytona 500 Club, which is where I watched the truck race from, you’re talking food. Ribs (no bones), chicken (with some fancy French name), flounder, pork tenderloin (which is what I liked the best), veggie meals, salads, and an assortment of desserts and drinks (from water, soda, beer to the hard stuff) — all free of charge. All you have to do is tip the staff. Of course, you end up watching the race on TV unless you have access to the private suites on the third or fourth floors of the building. On the lower two levels, you can only see the tri-oval area of the track.
Outside of the speedway, you have whatever food you can ask for, most within walking distance of the track. You have fast food, (Burger King, Checkers, Subway,Taco Bell, Fazolis, KFC), you have sports bars (Wing House, Ale House, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday’s), and you have restaurants like Carraba’s, Cracker Barrel, Red Lobster, etc.
So finding something good to eat for the races? Not a problem.
At Daytona, the atmosphere is great. The fans are friendly. It’s not like an NFL crowd where everyone is pulling for the home team, so if you show up rooting for the visitors, you take your life in your hands. In racing, there is no home team. You have fans rooting for every different team. So there is no fighting. In all my years of going to Daytona, I have yet to see a fight break out in the stands. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an NFL game when a fight DIDN'T break out.
The pre-race activities in racing are like no other. At Daytona, fans can actually walk out on to the track before the race. Usually for the 500 there is a pre-race concert by a big time act like Brad Paisley or Tim McGraw. All the drivers are introduced to the crowd by riding around the track in the back of a pick up truck, where they wave to the crowd. Name another sport where that happens.
There is always a pre-race prayer and then another music superstar will sing the national anthem, during which fighter jets will fly over the speedway. If that doesn’t give you chills, you’re dead inside.
Then, someone will give the command to start the race by uttering the most famous words in motorsports "Gentlemen, start your engines!" and then 43 cars roar on pit road. They will then take a couple of slow laps around the track, giving fans a photo op and then the pace car will duck down pit road and all 43 cars hit the throttle, creating a roar that can hardly be described. All I can say is it will make 150,000 people get up out of their seats. The cars get up to full speed when they hit the back stretch, and when they come by the front stretch grandstands to complete Lap 1, they roar by you at 200 MPH inches apart from one another, sounding like one huge car. It is the best part of the race. At this point, you can pick the people out in the crowd who have never been before, because they are about to wet themselves.
The Speedway IS the neighborhood during Speed Weeks. That whole area around the track is dedicated to the race fans. The Volusia Mall across the street will have race-related activities there and even temporary shops selling racing souvenirs. And of course, the permanent stores stock up on the racing stuff, as well. The area around the track is all commercial. There are restaurants and stores and bars everywhere.
The Atlantic Ocean is about a ten-minute drive due east, and if you are there for a week or more, there will surely be some days in there warm enough to work on your tan. Also if you get the itch to drive fast yourself, there is a go kart track across the street. Next year, the Speedway is building a .4-mile track in the infield for fans who need something to do on Tuesday and Wednesday, waiting for the big weekend to start on Thursday.
The fans of NASCAR are some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. If you go to a race, it’s like you went with 150,000 friends. People will offer you a beer many times and talk with you about your favorite driver. If you find someone wearing a t-shirt with the same driver as yours, well you’ve just made a best buddy. It may seem like a long day if you’re watching on TV, but at the track it goes by pretty quickly. And that’s even taking into account that you probably arrived at the track four or five hours before the race started. Many people have lifelong friends that they met at the track.
The Speedway is easy to get to. It is right off of Interstates 95 and 4. But when you have 200,000 folks trying to get to one place, there will be traffic. And there is no traffic quite like race traffic. The only thing worse is hurricane evacuation traffic. But Daytona is experienced with this traffic thing. The cops know the drill, and they will get you on your way fairly quickly, considering. Residents like me know where to park and what side streets to take. I’m usually home within an hour of the checkered flag flying. But I have, on occasion, been stuck in race traffic. And it can be brutal.
The way to go nowadays is if you have tickets on the back stretch, there is a parking lot, (actually a huge open field) on the back side of the airport. You park in there for free. From there you take a school bus to the track. From the bus stop, you take a tram to the stands. After the race you do this in reverse. If you have tickets on the front stretch, you do the same, except the lot is on Mason Avenue. From there, the tram lets you off right in front of the elevated walkway that goes across International Speedway Boulevard.
I won’t lie to you: race tickets are not cheap. The cheapest tickets are probably the ones on the back stretch; those typically go from $55-$75 apiece. Front stretch tickets are upwards of $200 for good seats. In racing, those are the seats higher up. But considering the Daytona 500 is the "Super Bowl" of this sport, those prices are miniscule compared to the actual Super Bowl, where you’ll never get a ticket for under $1,000, or the World Series, NBA Finals or the NCAA Final Four, or BCS Championship Game. When compared to those events, Daytona tickets go for a song. It is probably the best ROI in all of sports.
Sometimes, you will get to see a historic day at Daytona. I was there the day Darrell Waltrip won his 500. It was the most memorable Victory Lane Celebration ever. That is up until the day Dale Earnhardt won his. Every crew member from every team lined up to shake his hand. There was not a dry eye in the house. I was at that one too.
I was there the day Dale Jarrett beat him back to the stripe. I heard later about his father rooting him on from the broadcast booth. I saw Richard Petty win there many times (including his last win which also had President Reagan roll up to the track with his motorcade. Awesome moment). I saw Bobby Allison win there. I saw Michael Waltrip, Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Tony Stewart win there. And I’ve seen guys like Derrick Cope, John Andretti, Trevor Bayne and Greg Sacks win there. That’s the thing about Daytona, it is literally anyone’s race.
If you’re a sports fan, the Daytona International Speedway should be on your "bucket list".
This is a truly remarkable place. There is so much racing history, all in one place. The action on the track is always exciting with the restrictor plate racing. The greatest NASCAR fans in the world come out to Daytona to cheer on their favorite driver. You have to go for an entire weekend so you have time to see everything that the track offers. Get a pit pass and wander around the infield during qualifying for Sprint Cup or Nationwide, and then go out to the grandstands for the actual race that day. Even if you go on a non-race weekend, the Daytona USA museum is fantastic, and you can take a tour where they take you out onto the track. Pretty incredible experience.
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