This Sunday, the world’s best NASCAR drivers will compete in the 54th annual “Great American Race,” better-known as the Daytona 500. (Great American, indeed: of the 43 drivers, 42 are from the States.) Certainly, the city of Daytona Beach, Fla., and its famous Daytona International Speedway have built an industry and legend around what is arguably North America’s most prestigious motorsports competition. Year-round, the city offers many and various genuine and completely cheesy NASCAR style experiences to please both the inner hick and speed freak. As I have a little of both in my personality, I was excited at the idea of tearing around the Speedway in an authentic NASCAR high-performance vehicle, as part of a Richard Petty Driving Experience, during a recent visit to Daytona.
The bottom line: “Experience” participants might get to do laps of the Speedway, just like Daytona 500 drivers. Emphasis on the conditional because, as with many things in life, actual access is directly tied to how much cash one is willing to drop: for the base $135 US, participants get to ride shotgun with a qualified driver; for $549, “rookies” get quick-but-intense driver training and are allowed to drive eight laps, with supervision; and for the maximum $2,199, “experience of a lifetime” participants are given rigorous driver training and allowed three eight-lap driving segments, solo. Clearly, the latter case is the closest that most people will ever come to a real NASCAR experience.
Assuming that two grand isn’t in everyone’s budget, the more straighforward tour of the Speedway is fascinating, really a must for any Daytona visitor who has even a passing interest in F1. Attendees are taken right behind the scenes, which includes posing on the winner’s podium and walking the track (seeing the tight curves firsthand proves that video cannot capture everything).
During the actual Daytona 500, the racetrack itself becomes Florida’s 10th-largest “city” — the attending audience, estimated around 200,000, sees tens of thousands of fans camp out on the grass at the centre of the track (which has its own bistro, hospital and security force during the race). No surprise, then, that there’s NASCAR stuff all around the city proper. If you want to eat and drink where the racers do, Chart House Restaurant is the destination: almost every racer ends up there at some point either during the 500 or in the Speed Weeks. Racing’s North Turn is a bar/diner that has sat on the edge of the original race track on the beach (before it migrated to the Speedway) since the race began in 1955; it boasts a ton of memorabilia, greasy food and cheap beer, and there’s usually a band playing. Visitors can aslo indulge their need for speed at Speed Sports Motorpark, which makes fairly accessible drag racers that pull at 3Gs on a mounted track, the Nitro Alley Drag Strip.
Image courtesy of The Richard Petty Fantasy Racing Camp.