Racing thrills with the Daytona 500 Experience

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Henry Ford gets the credit for one of the most famous — and oldest — quotes about competitiveness among automobile drivers: “Auto racing began 5 minutes after the second car was built.”

Ford, however, wasn’t the inventor who would prove his prowess behind the wheel. That credit goes to Ransom Olds, who — more than a century ago — brought an early souped-up Oldsmobile to a sleepy coastal town in Florida.

In a creation that looked more like a soapbox-derby entry than a motor vehicle, Olds squared off against Alexander Winton, a friend, on the hard-packed sand of Daytona Beach.


“In the early 1900s, it [the town] was viewed as a getaway for the rich and famous who had automobiles and who wanted to see whose was faster,” says Lenny Santiago of International Speedway Corp., which owns many racetracks used for NASCAR races.

Daytona 500 Experience, 1801 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach; (386) 681-6800, Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission: $24.99, ages 12 to 59; $19.99 for seniors and children ages 6 to 11. Children 5 and younger are admitted free. Additional fee for some attractions.


Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau,

Volusia County, Fla., regulates the driving of vehicles on the beach:

Both cars topped out at 57 mph in that first race in 1903. But sage observers later pointed out that the real winner wasn’t Olds or Winton. It was Daytona Beach. To this day, swimmers share the sand with motorists, though the latter are limited to a maximum of 10 mph. And the birthplace of American auto racing retains its pivotal role in the wildly popular sport.

“NASCAR was founded in Daytona back in 1947 to bring some rules, some regulation, some order to … these races that used to take place on the beach,” Santiago says.

“The popularity of NASCAR continued to grow. We were seeing larger crowds coming to attend. We were seeing more participants competing in these events.


“[William] ‘Big Bill’ France, who was the founder of NASCAR, had always had the vision of a large motorsports venue — a super speedway, if you will — to host national-level types of races.”

France’s vision began to take shape in 1957 with the groundbreaking for the Daytona International Speedway. Two years later, Lee Petty (Richard’s dad) won the first race on the oval, an annual event that brings tens of thousands of fans to Daytona each February for what locals call “speed week.” Now, visitors can enjoy the rush year-round at the Daytona 500 Experience, an attraction featuring simulators, museum displays, an IMAX movie theater and more.

Although the speedway was Big Bill’s idea, the much newer tourist attraction, Daytona 500 Experience, is the creation of his granddaughter Lesa France Kennedy, chief executive of ISC, which owns the speedway, and executive vice president of NASCAR.

“It was her idea to have guests … experience the track and learn more about the sport of NASCAR when there wasn’t an event here,” says Kim Isemann, the attraction’s general manager.

When there’s no action — either a race or automobile testing — going on, visitors can venture onto the famous track.

Even when the tram tours are idle, the air-conditioned, thunderstorm-proof indoor area provides plenty of excitement. A good introduction is to view the 3-D IMAX film that goes behind the scenes at Daytona, from the early days to the present. It’s so realistic that you may feel the need to duck as careening cars spin out into the audience.

Just outside the theater, spectators can become participants after watching expert pit-crew members change a race car’s tire during a 16-seconds-or-less challenge.

“They have to stay focused and move fast,” crew leader Scott Jamieson tells the crowd as colleagues Mauro Larubbio and Trevor Thompson race against the clock. Jamieson barely finishes his words before a new tire is securely in place.

Jamieson’s efforts to encourage visitors to try their hand at tire-changing is met with nervous chuckles and hesitation. (Apparently, those in the crowd would rather call a tow truck.)

During actual NASCAR races, such as Sunday’s Pepsi MAX 400 in Fontana, the pit crews are armed with laptop computers equipped with the latest diagnostic software. But as the Speedway’s Santiago notes, the basic technology dates to the days of Henry Ford and Ransom Olds.

“The low-tech carburetor, eight-cylinder engine is something that’s been around for decades,” he says.

In a corner called Victory Lane, fans can view — but not touch — the vehicle that was first to cross the finish line at this year’s Daytona 500: Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Bass Pro Chevy. It will be on display until another victorious vehicle gets the checkered flag in February.

Although NASCAR fans are legion, most of the visitors to the Daytona Beach attraction don’t classify themselves as rabid race enthusiasts. In fact, Isemann says only 40% of the guests are in the “core fan” category.

“The attraction gets more of a mix of your less avid to avid fans,” she explains. “If you go to Memphis, you’re going to go to Graceland. If you’re coming to Daytona, you do two things: You go to the beach and you come to Daytona International Speedway.”

Those visitors, however, often leave with an appreciation for the sport.

“There’s something to be said for the roar of a car running around a track,” she says.