Daytona: Cars and Sun in the Summer Fun

by Susan Kraus (2010)

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Daytona Beach, Florida

When you think of Daytona Beach, what comes to mind?
Speedway? Spring Break? Biker Week? Pier?
Culture? Arts? Symphony? Museums? Spas? Sailing? Golf? Fine dining?
Miles and miles of hard-packed sand and endless waves? Nature?
Endangered sea turtles? Marine life rehabilitation centers? Freshwater springs?
I’m making a point here.
I went to Daytona with more than a few assumptions about what I’d find. After all, I’d flown in and out of Daytona Beach every year for over 17 years when visiting my retired parents up the road in Palm Coast. And, in all that time, I never got past my preconceived ideas long enough to explore the “real” Daytona Beach. I just drove on through, heading up  A1A to Snack Jacks, my favorite beach-front-hole-in-the-wall restaurant-bar. I never knew what I was missing.
Mea culpa, Daytona Beach. My apologies.

So, the next few columns are about Daytona Beach, the ‘real’ Daytona.

Speed and the Speedway
First, let’s talk racing.
Daytona Beach is intrinsically tied to racing, from the turn-of-the-century time tests on the beach to the present-day racetrack that bears its name.
And racing is not just for the boys… not anymore. I won’t make that sexist mistake.
Girls have gotten into speed. It’s not my cup-of-tea, but I know some. Boomer-girls who get all worked up with the whine, the spin, the disaster-around-every-curve possibilities. They have their favorite drivers (making fan clubs of the 70’s look so tame) and they are loyal. They dream of driving themselves. They look at car magazines. They crave zoom-zoom.
For these girls, Daytona Beach could be heaven. Endless white-sand beaches, spas, great food, a little culture…. and zoom-zoom.

Want a little history? (Read it anyway… history is good for your brain.)
The Daytona Speedway is central to Daytona, and the Daytona 500 is perhaps the most famous race in the world. (An FYI: The Daytona 500 is usually run in February on the day before President’s Day.)  But few tourists realize that racing in Daytona got started back in 1903 when Ransom E. Olds (that would be the “Olds” of Oldsmobile) beat Alexander Winton in a time trial.  What Daytona offered racing was miles and miles of flat, hard-packed beach, a near perfect environment for seeing just how fast a car could go.  In 1935, a Brit named Sir Malcolm Campbell broke records by going over 276 miles per hour in a massive car with a supercharged Rolls Royce engine (which was very, very fast back then, especially if you consider the lack of any safety features.) But it wasn’t until “Big Bill” Henry Getty France started promoting Daytona races that things heated up. It was France and 18 other members of the racing industry who met in 1947 in a hotel in Daytona Beach to form the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR.) A year later, France opened a 4.1 mile track along the beach near Ponce Inlet. Eleven years later, racing and Daytona became forever connected… with the opening of the original Daytona International Speedway, and then the first Daytona 500 run in ’59. Today there is not just the Speedway but Daytona USA, a museum dedicated to racing history and experiences. There is also the Petty Driving Experience (yes, you suit up, go fast, do the zoom-zoom) which is a dream-come-true for a fan.

Visiting the interactive exhibits at the museum and getting a tour of the Speedway is a glimpse into a slice-of-life for many Americans, whether racing fans or not. And, if you are a fan, Daytona is like the Vatican of racing.

Spring Break
On to Spring Break.
Sure, Daytona Beach was known for Spring Break, an anything-goes college student month-long party. Back in the 70’s and 80s… maybe. Not now.
Now Daytona is known for Family Spring Break, called Family Beach Break, with packages and activities designed for kids and parents to share. No wild parties, no all-night beach extravaganzas. It’s more laid-back, relaxing, casual fun rather than frenetic. They have worked to create an environment that offers something for kids of all ages… and parents of all interests. The Family Spring Break season is March-to-May, with special packages, discounts, etc., at hotels, restaurants, shops. Since the prices are pretty reasonable to start with (I found great deals in their Superior Small Lodging Guide, with beachfront rooms sometimes at or under $100… and multi-bedroom suites not much more), it’s really worth checking out. For more info go to www.familybeachbreak.com.
Quick note: the Daytona Beach airport is right in town. No long drive. It’s the most convenient and easy-to-access airport ever, which is a helpful factor with kids. And flights from K.C. are easy…. you’re there by lunch, ten minutes to the hotel, in time for an afternoon on the beach.

Biker Week
Biker Week, Feb. 29th to March 9th in 2008, endures. Over 500,000 bikers descend on the shores. Plus, they now have a Biketoberfest (Oct. 18-21, www.biketoberfest.org) that attracted 150,000 last year. Motorcycle shows (new, vintage, custom) demo rides on the hottest from manufacturers, cycle races on the Speedway…
Turn up the volume…. the bikers are coming!.
But the composition has changed. The fastest growing audience in biking is women, and they’re not just on the back seat. Many of the bikers now are middle-aged professionals (average Harley rider age is 47) who bike as a weekend hobby rather than hard-core transportation. The nickname is “RUBS” (rich, urban bikers.) A little black leather, maybe, but no tattoos.  The joke is that the bikers used to refer to their partners as “my old lady”… but now they mean it … literally. These are bikers who enjoy the experience, but hit the sack by 11 p.m.. The party-til-you-drop-bikers are now boomers who need their sleep.
Still, if you’re not a biker, or a boomer-girl who has always wanted a chance to be surrounded by bikers and look at lots and lots and lots of bikers, then it might be better to come at a different time. For more info, www.daytonabeachchamber.com.

Next column, next week…
The Daytona Beach you haven’t heard of… cultural Dayton, classy dining Daytona, spa Daytona… and who knew it’s the summer home of the London Symphony?

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"I think we often know things in our gut way before the synapses connect in the head."