Big motorbikes pound the streets of the city of Daytona Beach, filling the air with deep revs. Pubs are decorated with car bumpers and chequered black-and-white flags. The East Coast city has been a revered spot for American motorsports ever since 1902, when the first car races took place on its beach. When I go there for a jog early one morning during my stay, I see that the sand is nicely packed; my feet don’t sink in. The beach is wide, long, and straight. Though it’s early, people are out strolling, running, or doing yoga. Several early land speed records were set here in the 1920s and ’30s. It was also here that NASCAR, America’s premier racing organisation, was started.
In 1959, the action shifted from the beach to a new, faster racetrack, the Daytona International Speedway. This is where Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious annual race occurs. Visitors can sign up for tours of the facility where a little tram car takes us to the race track. The growl of a speeding race car fills my ears. Even though I’m not a motor racing nut, the sight of a car gaining speed and turning steeply banked corners is familiar from races I’ve seen on television. Moments later, the car draws to a halt and a tourist steps out, weak and wobbly in the knees, but grinning hugely. He’s been riding shotgun in the NASCAR stock car, experiencing the surge of speed as the car reached 250 kmph.
Still shaking, he strikes a pose next to a cardboard cut-out of Richard Petty, seven-time winner of the Daytona 500, after whom the ride-along experience is named. Speed seekers can even sign up to drive the car themselves. Back at the Visitor Center, trophies and photographs of exciting moments from the history of Daytona 500 are on display. The highlight is the winning car from the most recent Daytona 500 race, displayed for one year, until the next win. Watching people pose for selfies and chatter about climactic final laps, it’s easy for even anon-motor sport fan to get caught up in the excitement of being in a space that’s a landmark for the sport.