Feature Story


Floridays



With a break in my work schedule due to a job change, there was little doubt as to what I would do in the interim. Speedweeks at Daytona was the obvious choice. I had never seen Daytona Beach, had never been to a race south of Delaware, and had never been to the track with the most prestige on the circuit. It was times to erase the "nevers."

I boarded the plane to Ft. Lauderdale on Monday morning. I couldn't help feel that I should be working. After all, the last time I had a Monday off was Labor Day. Deciding to leave my job was a tough decision and I was feeling pretty crappy since Friday. But a change in latitude did produce a change in attitude when the plane touched down in the mid-afternoon. I had gone from 35 degrees and cold to 78 degrees and sunny in the span of three hours. The first few days were spent in the malls and on the beaches of South Florida. I headed up to Daytona on Friday. As I got nearer to the Daytona exit, I was listening to the space shuttle launch on the radio. I glanced off to the sky at the right and saw a trail of smoke behind a bright orange light. I pulled off to the shoulder of the highway and snapped a few pictures.

After arriving in Daytona, I headed for the beach. Driving east on International Speedway Blvd. it was impossible to ignore the structure on my right side. The towering grandstand of Daytona International Speedway caught my attention first. But, that would be for later. I drove five miles east to the beach. The Adam's Mark Hotel and Resort in Daytona Beach was truly paradise. The view of the beach from the 12th floor balcony made the trip worthwhile. Of course, there were still days at the track that would be memorable. I toured the Daytona USA museum exhibit later in the afternoon and got a look at Jeff Gordon's 1999 Daytona 500 winning car. While it's easy to notice the "donut" on the left side that Dale Earnhardt put on the car after the race, of note was the sheet metal damage in the rear of the car. Drafting at 200 miles per hour is a contact sport. No, I didn't participate in the pit stop in the museum. Carrying a 35 pound tire while on vacation was not the kind of memory I wanted. After leaving the museum, darkness began to envelope the area. I headed back to the hotel and a night out in Daytona Beach.

First on the agenda was shopping. My credit card got a workout at the stores along Atlantic Blvd. A quick trip back to the room to drop off the bags was followed by dinner with Brian at Wendy's. He came down to Daytona after hearing that I'd be in town. Yeah, real high class dining with a good friend. Perfect. We made our way to the Cruisin' Cafe later in the night for a few hours.

Saturday started bright and early with a 7 am wake-up call. I walked onto the balcony and had to grab the camera. The sunrise over the Atlantic was a picture postcard view. I stopped for a fast food breakfast (hint: sponsor of a Ford) and arrived at the track just after 8 am. My first view of the track was breathtaking. Having been to Pocono, I wasn't as impressed with the size as I was with the track itself. From a perch atop the start-finish line, I looked down the short stretch after the tri-oval. I looked at the yellow line at the bottom and thought about Jeff's pass on Rusty Wallace in the 1999 Daytona 500. I looked at turn three and flashbacked to Derrike Cope speeding past Dale Eanhardt on the final lap in 1990. In the tri-oval, the image of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough racing door-to-door for the victory in the 1984 Firecracker 400 is indelible. The track is full of memories; that's what makes it Daytona.

Winston Cup practice and IROC practice were on the morning agenda before Winston Cup pole qualifying and the Goody's Dash series race in the afternoon. Brian headed "downstairs" and I stayed in the grandstand. "I want to experience the track from the grandstands," I explained.

I've maintained this web site for a few years now. I know how many people visit it, but it still surprises me when I find someone who knows about it. Chatting with a few JG fans before pole qualifying began, I asked if they used the Internet at all. When they said yes, I handed over a 'Jeff Gordon Online' business card. "I know this site!" Martha Lindsey replied. "I go to it everyday. This is your site? It's so great to meet you!" That floored me. I travel to Daytona where I only knew one other person and now suddenly people know who I am. Martha told a few of her friends that I "have that Gordon web site" and I was soon inundated with questions, not to mention requests. That's the ultimate in user feedback though. The Questions and Answers section idea came from that meeting. Thanks Martha.

Other race fans, even non-JG fans, knew about the web site. The whole time I'm just thinking how I ever considered not doing the site anymore. Bad idea.
By 4 pm, I had accomplished what I wanted to. I got to meet a bunch of great race fans, saw a few practice sessions, qualifying, the Goody's Dash race, and got a pretty good suntan. I met up with Brian along "Souvenir Row." After a stop at the DuPont trailer, it was back to the beach for dinner. At the restaurant I spotted a Winston Cup team owner at the bar. "How's it look for the 500?" I asked. It was an open-ended question. But it began a lengthy and enjoyable chat. And I'm happy to say that the car owner had a lot to smile about after the Daytona 500.

Walking into the hotel late on Saturday night, I saw the DuPont Chevrolet showcar in the lobby. "Wanna take a picture?" Brian asked. Well, actually he slurred. "Uh.. no," I said. Neither of us were 100% sober at the time.

First thing on Sunday morning I went downstairs to the lobby and took a few pictures of the car. Still hate those taillights on the back. Arriving at the track, it was obvious that there was anticipation in the air. The Bud Shootout was on tap for the afternoon. We sat among a small group of Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt fans. What do race fans chat about before a race begins? "Which movie do you like for best picture this year?" Just kidding. It was racing of course.

Dale Jarrett ran away from the field in the Shootout qualifier. In the "main event," things got interesting in the closing laps. There was a feeling of excitement that raced through the grandstand when Jeff Gordon went low on the backstretch to pass Sterling Marlin on the final lap. When Jarrett went high to pass Gordon in turn three, the crowd screamed. That's something you miss when you watch races from pit road. That's what makes it the grandstand. The skirmish involving Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader, and Marlin as they came to the line diverted some of the attention away from Jarrett's victory. But it was still a strong performance by the eventual Daytona 500 winner.

We hung around to watch the ARCA race after that. The ending was wild with four cars battling for the win. Three wide off of turn four would prove costly for Shawna Robinson. She was easily the crowd favorite to win and received a standing ovation as she pulled onto pit road after the race.

Rain was in the forecast for Monday and I wanted a full day to relax before heading home on Tuesday. I drove back to South Florida on Sunday night. On Monday, I spent the day in Miami's Coconut Grove. Cuban coffee at a sidewalk cafe in the mid-afternoon is the ultimate treat. The trip to Florida came at the right time. I needed some time away and it provided the necessary escape. It wasn't a vacation that focused on racing; but racing was a very memorable part of it.




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