Saturday, June 13, 2009

Daytona 500 Experience

Every time we've gone to the Kennedy Space Center (and I will review it, Linda, promise!) we passed Daytona Beach. And I kept hearing ads on the radio and seeing billboards for the Daytona 500 Experience, so I decided we should check it out. Growing up in Indianapolis, racing had kind of a presence I took for granted, but since the Brickyard 400 didn't make its appearance until I was a teenager, I never learned much about NASCAR, and the Indy 500 held more appeal for me as a weekend to rake in major babysitting cash.

My kids' entire experience with racing comes from the originally titled Disney flick "Cars," so I decided it was time to educate them. Plus we needed something to do. I wound up with quite a bit more respect for the sport than I anticipated.

Admission runs $24 per adult and $19 per child aged 6-12, 5 and under are free. There are discounts for seniors, military, and AAA members. This gets you a trolley tour of the race track, which you need to keep hold of your tickets for. There's also an Imax movie included and they will give you a certificate for a few tokens in their arcade, which is naturally full of racing games. For those over 48" tall there's a hydraulic ride of sorts, and for an extra $5 and 6 inches you can ride in an interactive racing game (one extra passenger is free). The twins did the first and gave it a big thumbs up, but did not do the second- I think you have to understand how to drive for that one.
Otherwise it's essentially a museum with displays on the history of stockcar racing and how the cars are designed.

Nicholas said, "Mom! the cars are frozen on the racetrack!"

For extra cash, you can get a few laps on the track with Richard Petty. There also VIP tours with some behind the scenes opportunities. If that's your thing, make sure you check the calendar ahead of time.
One particular stage has an hourly pit crew demo, then allows you to try your hand at changing a tire for time. They'll give you two tries, but they make it look deceptively easy. The demo guys can do it with 2 guys in about 8 seconds- the best time we saw challengers make was 16 seconds with a team of 3.

These guys took 27 seconds the first time, and 19 the second.
The tram tour was neato, if a bit hot. I think anyone who would spend July 4th out here watching the Daytona 500 is probably insane, or would be from the heat by the time it was over. The mere scope of the place is staggering.

The curves of the track are slanted at 31 deg, which means from the top white dashed line to the bottom yellow is 30 feet. According to our guide, this fits 3 racing cars side by side, and while occasionally 4 try to fit, it usually doesn't work out too well.

In order to not be pulled to the bottom here, cars have to travel a minimum of 90 mph.

Where it all begins and ends.
The last stop on the tour is the Victory Alley, where you can take your picture in the famous winner's spot. They will take your photo and give you a claim ticket, but you aren't required to buy it. You are also welcome to take your own shots.

I thought the Imax was the high point. The 45 minute show delves into the history of NASCAR and how the cars are developed, built, and regulated. It's done in 3D, but I don't think it did much for most of the film. Of course I could be wrong about that, since we missed the last 20 minutes, which I suspect contained a climactic race scene. However, Natalie and then Nicholas began to complain, and I know the people around us were as ready to strangle them as I was. So we picked up and left, much to Patrick and Sam's (and my) disappointment. I did learn a lot up until that point- for instance, in an effort to level the playing field, all cars use the same tires, which are provided, for a modest $400 each, by NASCAR. Once used, many are placed around the track as barriers.

One the way out, you go through the gift shop (of course) and next to a small eatery, but I found things here much more reasonably priced than at, say, a pro basketball shop. Since the boys had birthday money and had behaved so well, I went halvsies on a couple ballcaps for them. Patrick's favorite design corresponded to Jeff Gordon, who he was thrilled to learn has a number of championships under his belt. Sam chose a flame-laced Daytona cap with no loyalty.
All in all, NASCAR (which stands for National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) is a team and family sport. Comedians make fun of tramp stamps and left turns and hoochie mamas and beer and The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, etc, but the fact is there is really more to it than all that. The races themselves are thrilling, and the drivers are only the most visible part of huge team of developers, mechanics, directors, and families that support each other in an incredibly stressful schedule. Fans develop a real bond with the teams for good reason, and once you experience it at some level, I think it's easy to see why it's the most popular sport in the nation. Over 250,000 fans will attend the Daytona 500 next month, and millions more will watch. How about it?

If you don't know who this statue is, you're wrong.

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