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Great American Race: A Guide To The Daytona 500

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Daytona means two things: spring break and speed. The Florida town’s lengthy stretches of white sand and warm waters once beckoned to college students looking to get wild for MTV cameras. But while many of those youthful revellers have migrated to trendier pastures, Daytona remains a hotspot for the acceleration-obsessed.

Today Daytona Beach is the spiritual home of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – better known as NASCAR – and the biggest party of the year is the Daytona 500.

As the highlight of the stock car series, the Daytona 500 attracts hundreds of thousands of fans to Florida. The race is the inaugural event of the Sprint Cup season, the final event of Daytona International Speedway’s Speedweeks, the most prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar and one of the most-watched auto events of the year.

In other words, the Daytona 500 has more than earned its lofty nicknames: the “Great American Race” and the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.” If your heart beats for speed and your blood is composed mostly of motor oil, a trip to the Daytona 500 is a must on your bucket list.

A Petrol-Heavy History

Daytona Beach’s automotive history began long before the NASCAR empire took over. Earlier events featured 200-mile (320 km) races on the Daytona Beach Road Course, the famed track where 15 world land speed records were set. After 20 years of racing without an official organization, a man named William France, Sr. established NASCAR on February 21, 1948.

The Daytona Beach Road Course hosted the premiere event of the fledgling NASCAR racing series until South Carolina’s Darlington Speedway was completed in 1950. In 1959, a new track brought a 500-mile (805 km) stock car race back to Daytona Beach. That track was Daytona International Speedway, the legendary course that has been home to the Daytona 500 ever since.

All 57 runnings of the Daytona 500 have been held in February, these days on the last Sunday of the month. The winner is presented with the Harley J. Earl Trophy in Victory Lane. Richard Petty’s seven victories make him the most successful Daytona 500 driver ever, earning him an impressive royal moniker: “The King” of NASCAR.

The Story Of Stock Cars

Stock car racing in the United States got its start during Prohibition. Bootleggers who needed to distribute their illegally made alcohol favoured small, fast cars that could outmaneuver the police. Many of the drivers modified their rides to increase speed and handling, and some fell in love with fast-paced driving.

Prohibition was lifted in 1933, but the drivers stayed in business by running moonshine and evading the “revenuers” who were attempting to tax their operations. The need for speed remained strong and, as a consequence, the cars continued to improve. By the late 1940s, races featuring these modified vehicles became a popular spectator sport, particurlarly in the rural Southern United States.

Modern stock cars are built specifically for the race track, but strict regulations set by NASCAR apply. Unlike a “race car,” which is custom-built specifically for racing purposes, a stock car is a production-based automobile used in racing. Expert teams of engineers, crew chiefs, and pit crew members can tweak the cars, but only to a limited degree.

Why race cars that look different on the surface, but pack nearly identical specifications underneath? When you level the playing field where mechanics are concerned, races are won or lost by the drivers. Earning the checkered flag requires a high level of skill behind the wheel, not just the biggest bank account. For some race fans, that’s the purest form of competition there is.

Daytona Rising

Stock car racing may sound restrictive, but it’s no snoozefest. Top level stock cars can reach speeds in excess of 200 mph (322 km/h) on superspeedway tracks, the most famous of which is – you guessed it – Daytona International Speedway.

The Daytona Rising initiative, a US$400 million reimagining of the iconic track, broke ground in early July of 2013. 2016 will see the project reach its conclusion. The revamped DIS will have 101,500 wider and more comfortable seats, twice as many restrooms, three times as many concession stands, and over 60 luxury suites with track side views.

But at its heart, Daytona International Speedway remains the same place that made NASCAR famous. The track’s multiple layouts include the primary 2.5-mile (4.0 km) high speed tri-oval and a 180-acre (73 ha) infield, complete with Lake Lloyd. DIS is also home to a motorcycle course, a sports car course, and a karting and motorcycle flat-track.

For the Daytona 500, it’s all about the tri-oval. The track features 31° banking in the turns and 18° banking at the start/finish line. The front straight is 3,800 feet (1,200 m) long and the back straight, or “superstretch”, is 3,000 feet (910 m) long. What those numbers mean is that DIS is one of only two tracks in the Sprint Cup Series that requires restrictor plates to slow the cars down, otherwise they risk attaining dangerously high speeds.

Getting Your Speed Fix

So you’re ready to take the petrol plunge and see the Daytona 500 in person. Before diving into the automotive madness, there are a few things you have to know.

Tickets

Reserved stadium tickets sell out, so book them in advance. If you miss out, you may still be able to score premium hospitality packages, standing room only infield admissions tickets, or Sprint FANZONE/Pre-Race access. Four-day and two-day ticket options are available for fans who want to maximise their time at Daytona.

Accommodations

The only experience more immersive than attending the Daytona 500 is staying there. The race’s hardcore veterans know there’s only one way to do it: in an RV, surrounded by your closest friends, in the centre of the infield. Every year, devoted race fans camp out right in the middle of the action, creating a rich communal atmosphere from campsite-to-campsite. Prepare for a party – the infield is notoriously wild. Camping space must be booked ahead of time through the Daytona International Speedway website.

Hospitality

Prepare to have your perceptions of NASCAR shattered. No, it’s not just minimally-toothed rednecks swilling beer and rocking mullets. The Daytona 500 goes all out and upscale when it comes to fan hospitality. The packages include perks like access to the exclusive Trioval Club, premium box seating, climate-controlled environments and souvenir gifts. The most luxurious is the Rolex 24 Lounge Package, which comes with a US$4500 price tag per person.

Entertainment

If you need a break from revving engines and squealing tyres, the Daytona 500 offers a plethora of other entertainments. Visit the Midway for all of your merchandising needs, sponsor activations, food and beverages, the FPL Solar Pavilion, and plenty of seating areas to relax. Then check out the Sprint FANZONE for musical performances, driver appearances, historic displays, and the much-anticipated United States Air Force Thunderbirds flyover.

One final note: don’t forget to bring a Sharpie. You won’t want to miss out on the tradition of signing the start-finish line before the race begins. Drivers, start your engines.

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