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Official Review by Jim Folsom, Stadium Journey Guest Correspondent
Every February, in Daytona Beach, Florida NASCAR kicks off its season with the “Super Bowl” of its sport, the Daytona 500. But that is the culmination of what is known as “Speed Weeks” at the World Center of Racing. The action actually commences with the biggest sports car race the U.S. has in late January, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Sandwiched in between the 24 hour race and the 500 is the Sprint Unlimited, formerly known as the Bud Shootout and before that, the Busch Clash. The Clash began in 1979 as a race between the 1978 Pole Winners on the Winston Cup Circuit, which is now the Sprint Cup Series. The event has been tweaked many times since then with segmented races, inverted fields, fan votes, etc. But what was once a 20-lap “Dash for Cash” is now a 75-lap event with one completion caution at lap 25. The winner walks away a very rich man.
The Sprint Unlimited is the first look at the Sprint Cup drivers with their new teams and colors. But that is not all you get when you come to the race eight days before the 500. You also get the Lucas Oil 200, which is the biggest event for the ARCA Series. ARCA is a stock car series mostly run in the Midwest on short tracks. So when they come to Daytona, it is a big deal for them.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Daytona is unique in that they will allow you to bring in your own food and beverages. So you can pack an individual size soft cooler with drinks, and then bring in a clear backpack with snacks and never spend a dime at the concessions stands. Of course the smell of food cooking will make you change your mind. In the infield area known as the "Fan Zone" you have a wide assortment of food stands. Some have foot long hot dogs with all the fixings. Some have nachos piled high with cheese, jalapenos, and sour cream (I had a plate, it was good). Some have burgers that are restaurant quality for about $6. In the grandstands right now it is hit and miss as the place is under some huge renovations. If you are on the hunt for let's say a bratwurst, you can find a place that has them but you may have to walk for a while.
It's tough to beat a day at Daytona for atmosphere. It's like a carnival combined with a sporting event combined with a concert. They have a stage in the infield with bands playing while the competitors are getting ready for the race. If you don't want to listen to the band, you can visit the garage area and watch the teams work on the cars from windows outside the garages. Sometimes they line up the cars in an area where fans can walk right up to them and take photos, maybe even pose with a driver who is hanging out there. You can also walk right on to the racing surface and see just how steep the banking is or walk around in the grassy area of the tri-oval and watch the driver intros up close and personal. On the day of the ARCA/Sprint Unlimited it is also much less crowded than the Daytona 500. You can see a lot more when the traffic is not as thick.
The area surrounding the speedway is chock full of malls, restaurants, strip malls, fast food places, convenience stores, motels, and more all within walking distance. If you want to eat before the race there is a wide selection of sports themed places such as the Ale House, Hooters, Ruby Tuesday, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Wing House.
You want BBQ? There are several BBQ places on International Speedway Blvd to choose from as well. All your fast food chains are represented near the track as well. There is also some steakhouse type chain places close by such as Longhorn Steakhouse. Around the speedway, many of the teams have trailers full of their merchandise for sale. You need a Dale Jr shirt? Find his souvenir trailer parked outside the track. The police are all over the area, directing traffic or just keeping an eye out. So there is no feeling of discomfort whether you have small kids or a lot of cash.
It's a different crowd now than it was a few years ago. NASCAR used to be a collection of hard core racing fans, playing loud music, getting drunk and holding up signs. Now it is much more of a family type crowd, much like you'd see at a baseball game or Disney World. The speedway is now a vacation spot. People watch the races on TV now every week so going to Daytona is on their sports bucket lists, much like going to Fenway Park or Lambeau Field. They are there looking to watch the race, mingle with the other fans, maybe score an autograph or two and take a lot of photos. They come from literally all over the world, not just the Deep South.
Once it was extremely difficult getting to and from the speedway. This is no longer the case. Huge lots of free parking are available on either side of the track, one near the Daytona International Airport, and one on Mason Avenue, where you can park and catch a bus to the track. The bus will drop you off right in front of the pedestrian walkway where you can cross ISB safely. If you want your vehicle closer, you can find parking near the speedway for cash. The farther you are willing to walk, the cheaper it gets. There are lots for as low as $5 pretty close to the track. The track though is so huge, if you do not know exactly where your seats are, it could turn into a very long walk. The traffic after the race borders on ridiculous, but that is to be expected with 100,000 race fans all trying to get out of there at once.
For this doubleheader, you could purchase grandstand seats for a low as $50 with children under 12 getting in for free. That is hard to beat. A family of four can get in for $100. Think of it as $12.50 per race, per person and you can bring your own food. That is like paying minor league prices to watch the big leagues. If you pay a few extra bucks to go into the Sprint Fan Zone before the race, you can really make a day of it. Of course, with Sprint Cup practice going on in the morning and early afternoon, the ARCA race at 4:00pm and the Sprint Unlimited at 8:00pm you can stay in the grandstands all day long for your $100 too. I recommend spending the extra money to check out the garage area if you want to get some cool up close pictures of the cars. Souvenirs can be a bit pricey at the track, but that is to be expected. From the looks of the crowd, most people will gladly pay whatever the price. There is no shortage of very nice leather jackets for that year's Daytona 500 or ones with their favorite driver's new team sponsors and colors.
Because of the massive size of the Daytona International Speedway, the track tries to make things as convenient as possible for the fans to get around while enjoying the event. Since many bring their RVs and make it a week long (or even two weeks long) stay, they are going to at times want to move around the track and/or neighborhood. So the speedway provides tram service, which is free for all to use any time. You have grandstand seats but are parked in the infield? Not a problem. Take a tram back to infield after the race. The race is not for a few hours and you want to go out to a restaurant? Hop on the tram and they will take you out to ISB.
Another nice thing to enjoy, especially if you choose to watch the race on top of the garages in the Fan Zone, are the giant TV screens. You can watch the action on the track and if you lose sight for a few seconds, switch to the TVs. There's a wreck? You can see the replay on TV. You also never know who you might run in to watching the big screens. This particular race there was a Daytona Firecracker 400 winner standing there watching. That's pretty cool.
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