Saturday, January 2, 2010

Florida Part 2: Day of Thunder

Go to the southern states of America and few things are holier than NASCAR. It's up there with republicanism, country music and God. So, not something to be taken lightly. Or is it? Stepping onto the bus to Daytona International Speedway our guide decides to introduce us naïve Europeans to the world of stock car racing with a DVD. To my amazement, it's Talladega Nights; a gloriously silly and borderline-slanderous send up of NASCAR, complete with all the usual redneck cliches and side helping of homoeroticism.

While you might expect someone condoning such heresy to be dragged from the bus and ritually disembowled by an angry crowd of hillbillies, you can't help feeling our guide is actually pretty safe. Not least, because she's Alana France; part of the clan that owns Daytona, along with no less than eight other US circuits and indeed NASCAR itself. In fact it was Bill France (grandfather of her ex-husband) who started the whole thing off, when he began racing on the beach at Daytona in 1936.
Alana shows us through the speedway's museum, which is packed with stock cars of virtually every era, along with some less predictable exhibits. This year's Daytona 500 winner, still streaked with engine oil and victory champagne takes pride of place in one hall, while Malcolm Campbell's 1935 Bluebird V record breaker dominates the view in the next. Perhaps the most surprising addition is Richard 'The King' Petty's personal transport that the NASCAR legend used to drive around the paddock. Think you can guess what it is? Go on – take a shot – a big blue Plymouth Superbird perhaps? Maybe a Corvette of some description? Nope, America's greatest racing icon used to cruise round in a Mini Cooper Van little bigger than he is. It's even right hand drive.

After the museum tour a tram ride takes us through to the infield. While the commentary unfolds, there's some real life drama on the banking as sports cars and prototypes flash past in testing for the famous 24 hour race held in January. What we're really waiting for, however, is the point they go for lunch, because as the racers leave the track it's our turn. A pair of Chevrolet Impala SS road cars whisk the waiting journos onto the banking. As we reach turn one, our driver, Mike, slows the Chevy right down. “How slow do you reckon we can go before it rolls over?” he asks, only half joking. While I've been on enough banked tracks to know we're quite safe, there's banked and there's banked. At 31 degrees Daytona is seriously steep and, as we come to a complete rest, clinging to the banking, it's not hard to see how Mike takes in less suspecting visitors with the routine. It feels like we're perched on a mountain side.

We build speed again, with the SS' V8 purring away in auto mode and the air conditioning on. It's quite a sedate experience in most respects, but attacking the corners with a little more speed takes some degree of mental recalibration. The lateral force generated isn't massively high, but the sensation of being forced into base of your seat as well as the side, while the horizon tilts at an unnatural angle and the barriers blur past is an alien one. Our ride tops out at a little over the ton, which is exciting enough – it must be a brutal experience in a Sprint Cup car reaching nearly twice that.

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