Racing around the World – Florida; The Winter Nationals, The 500 and more.
Every February Florida has a host of winter racing, and over a two week period you can watch NASCAR, Sprint Cars (Both Wing and Non-Wing), Late Models, Big-Block Modifieds, Dirt-Mods, Drag Races and probably a School Bus Figure of 8 if you so wish.
In short no shortage of V8 powered oval racing.
The first thing you are going need for your racing holiday is car hire: Daytona, Volusia, New Symrna are up on the East coast with Ocala (Bubba Raceway) more inland and to the North-west of Orlando. East Bay and Desoto are down on the West coast, south of Tampa.
Driving in Florida is a breeze – It’s a tourist resort built on a swamp!! The roads are big and well signposted and aimed at out-of-town tourists.
So you land in Orlando Int. airport get through immigration (which has been vastly improved in recent years – gone are the free for all queues, which in typical post office custom: which ever one you join becomes the slow lane. And in comes the ‘one queue’ with an official directing you to the next free immigration officer, it’s so much faster) you collect your bag (pack light, you’ll buy twice, sorry three times as much as you planned!!) then you go through customs, up the stairs, onto the tram to the main terminal. Next you’ll need to go down a level – if you’ve not already checked in your car hire online (saves a lot of time and another queue – You can get to the races tonight if you hurry!) you’ll find the car hire desks there. Otherwise cross the road into the car hire parking lot and away you go.
Daytona International Speedway.
Probably towards the top of your list is Daytona. I would totally recommend you visit Daytona International Speedway before actual raceday. In the week build up to the 500 there are plenty of other races you can take in, as well as the NASCAR Flea Market which is situated behind turn one. Go under the underpass south on 92 at the next set of lights take a left onto Thames Road, the flea market entrance is about 500 meters down on the left. More NASCAR bargains than will fit in your suitcase!!!
The first race or should I say event I go to at Daytona is the 500 Qualifying, this usually takes place on the Sunday afternoon before the 500. And you can have yourself a pretty neat day – Cruse the beach in your hired Mustang or Charger during the morning. There is a daily ticket for this, but you simply can not go to Daytona with out paying the $5 or so to cruise the beach (all day ticket) in the morning.
Then you head over to the Speedway for the Qualifying. I have always just brought my Qualifying ticket on the day, and in 2010 & 2011 for $15 I’ve bagged a seat high up in the Sprint Tower (best seats in the house).
Depending on what you planned following Qualifying you can head to Volusia Speedway or Bubba (Ocala) Speedway for some dirt racing, or New Smyrna for some more asphalt all three tracks are very reachable following the Qualifying session.
For me the BEST race at Daytona is the Friday Night Truck Race – The trucks produce a lot more action as the reduced traction and often wild rookie Vs old vet can often lead to a wild nights racin’. And to see Daytona under lights for me is simply a MUST DO.
The 500 is an event like no other! Prepare for a long, long, long day. We have had good years and bad years getting in and out of Daytona on the 500. We have sat in a 4 hour que to park and a 5 hour que to get out, but then we’ve done the same in only 2 hours another year.
The 500 is quite simply a mad day, a memory your either love or hate. And depending on what you want or like will really determine your day. If you’re a last min there, quick away person you’ll probably hate it. But if you’re a take in the event type person with a packed lunch in the car, who doesn’t mind leaving the event for a good 5 hours following the chequered flag as your there living it, loving the big race buzz you’re going to have a ball.
Speed-Square down by the exit of turn four is your current merchandise and sponsors paradise. Pick up the latest Tee from the teams own merchandise trailer, have a free snack, sit in the latest Chevy, Ford, Toyota, Dodge you can even chew some free tobacco (if you’re over 18 and want to put that crap in your mouth). It’s a great pre-race hang out and a great place to build that ‘race build up buzz’. As you can imagine on 500 day this place will be packed beyond your belief, Do it on another race day the Nationwide, Trucks, Shoot-out, or Duel.
Hire a scanner (or if your going to or plan to do more future NASCAR racing, buy one online a week or so before you go, get it delivered to your hotel; remember to email the hotel informing them that a package for you ‘might’ arrive before you do.) This will greatly enhance your race day experience. You can listen to the TV commentary, The Track commentary, you Favourite drivers team radio, NASCAR officals heck you can even tune into the speedways cleaners and be first to hear that toilet #231 is blocked!
The first of the dirt tracks. Volusia is half mile semi banked clay oval and home of the Dirt Car Winter Nationals. If travelling from the south I find the easiest route North On I-4, North on I-95 west on US 40 Approx 10 miles on the right is the track. The opening two nights is usually the All Star (wing) Sprints and the Dirt Modifieds. The remaining schedule varies between World of Outlaw (wing) Sprints, Late Models with Dirt Modifieds with the last nights being Big Block Modifieds and Late Models.
Volusia offers both reserved seating (top 5 or 6 rows) as well as general admission. A recent addition is the fan-pit-pass, once you pay your admission, go through the main entrance and turn right, before the pit entrance you’ll see a gazebo – this is where you’ll pick up your free pit pass. This I believe needs to be collected before 7pm.
The pits are an alcohol / glass free zoned that is enforced so don’t embarrass yourself with a telling off from the sheriff. Once in the pits you’ll be able to walk around, a second pit area is located over towards the right behind turn two and down a slight incline it has a small lake in the middle. (No doubt you’ll get told the Tony Stewart fishing story at some point on your visit) These lower pits normally house the Dirt Modifieds and this is where you’ll usually find Clint Bowyer or Austin Dillon if they are racing they’re Dirt Mod’s – no passes needed, no PR guys, no ifs or buts just a Racer working on his car.
Another cool thing is the ability to go onto the infield. The infield area is also another pit area for the Dirt Modifieds. You have to watch at least one set of hot-laps while standing close to the wall in the middle, personally I like to stand up by turn three, try it.
Entry to the infield is via the end of the main pits area, over by the pit bleachers on turn two. A traffic light crossing system has been in place on my visits. Cross on the green light, easy.
Behind the main grandstand on the home straight are the merchandise and food outlets. There are also two sets of wooden bleachers in the pits – turn two and a large one mid-turns of one and two. There is also a wooden bleacher beside the main grandstand coming out of turn four. Excellent viewing can be had from any of the above, just try to get as high as you can.
Bubba (Ocala Speedway) Raceway.
To the West of Volusia / Daytona is the Newly taken over and renamed Bubba Raceway, previously Ocala Speedway. If travelling from Daytona / Volusia head west on US-40 though the national park, North (right) on 301, west (left) on 326 then North (right) on 25A, track is on left. Travelling from Kissimmee area take the Florida Turnpike North to I-75 North to exit 358 head East on 326 turn left (north) on 25A.
This half mile egg shaped clay oval is a real treat, and something different from the traditional oval ‘oval’. Turns one and two are your traditional dirt oval sweeping slightly banked turns while Three and four I would compare to Sheffield (UK) turn one & two – tight and sharp. These totally different turns have produced some edge of your seat anything can happen racing, as the drivers battle with track racing lines, car set-up and changing track conditions. I’ve seen a Late Model ride the wall exiting four and a USAC Sprint flip and spin you got it exiting turn four.
Ocala as it was named when I last visited (Feb 2011) had a real good dirt track feel to it. When the USAC Non-Wing Sprints where racing the pits where open and free to enter during the daytime. Once the meeting started these became locked and pit-passes where required for entry.
Viewing can be taken from three bleachers. There is a ‘pits’ wooden bleacher just behind turn four. A modern grandstand bleacher stretching the home straight and a third public wooden bleacher towards turn four. The turn four bleacher appeared the more rowdier of the two public bleachers.
I would make a visit to this Florida track a must do. The USAC Sprints where awesome around this tricky, fast egg oval.
Ocala Micro Oval; The Bullring
Not part of the same complex as Bubba’s Raceway but just down the road the other side of the cross roads – If you come out of Bubba’s Raceway turn right, down to the traffic light controlled Cross Roads for the 326, go straight over and just a short way down Gainesville Road on the left you’ll find The Bullring. A ¼ mile clay oval.
We hung out there in the afternoon in February 2011 before heading over to Bubba’s for the USAC show in the evening. Enjoying a sunny afternoon with the Micro Sprints. On their 1st Winter Nationals Event. I believe the 2nd Winter Nationals will be held again during Florida Speedweeks, so if your over Ocala way check it out. Hard to say how we would class them probably between Ministox & BriSCA Foemula Two. But a good place to hang out, grab some food and a little Micro Racing.
This VIDEO will give you a better idea of The Bullring.
East Bay Raceway
Just south of Tampa is East Bay Raceway, a semi-banked dark clay oval. East Bay is towards the southern industrial area of Tampa and not far from I-75 exit for Gibsonton, keep in right lane, take (west) to the bottom of the road which is a T-Junction with both traffic signals and a railway crossing. Turn right (north) onto the Old US 41, East Bay is a mile or so on your right (there is a brown sign) Burts Road, take this small road, over a drainage small bridge take the next right to the track.
However if travelling from Kissimee / Orlando area’s, going we take the I-4 west to 39 South then west on 60 so that we can stop off at Brandon Farms for Winter Strawberrys – once you stop you’ll know why we go this way and return via the I-75 & I-4.
Back to the track, there is a nice track restaurant / bar at the main entrance. Merchandise trailers are to the right of the main entrance as well as other delights Elephant ears, Funnel cakes and if your really brave boiled peanuts and the usual hot-dogs and beer sales.
The main Grandstand runs along the home straight and some events have reserved seating (top 5 or 6 rows). I would advise the Saturday night climax of the Lucas Oil Late Model series as a must do event. You’ll need to get there early as previously its been a full and I mean full house.
Those with pit passes can also opt to sit in the pit bleachers these are towards turn one.
Over the years I’ve seen 360 Winged Sprints, Late Models, USAC 410 Non-Wing Sprints and Dirt Modifieds. The track is subject to change depending on the tides – on high tide the water table keeps the track more tacky while during low tide the track will dry slightly. All makes for an interesting night of racing.
Desoto / Brandon Drag Strip.
Further south is Desoto ‘Super Speedway’ a semi-banked asphalt oval. Which very nicely is next door to Brandon Drag Strip. If as it did in 2008 runs together you can bag yourself a full day of racing Drag racing during the day and as the sun sets over to the oval.
Take I-75 south to exit 220 take the 64 east. Tracks will be on your right. First Brandon Drag Strip, then Desoto Speedway. You enter the raceway behind the main grandstand along the home straight, almost directly in front is the track shop and to the left you’ll find the under-grandstand bar (it used to have a real easy Southern States feel to it).
The pit area is over behind the back straight as is the pits bleachers. We never ventured over there so can not comment.
The racing at Desoto is fast, If you’re a fan of Skegness (UK) you’ll enjoy Desoto under lights.
Keeping to asphalt, the half mile high banked New Smyrna Speedway for me is a real marmite track, and a difficult place to recommend. In 2008 we went to a blinding Winged Sprint meeting, went back two nights later and it just never happened……
Anyhow New Smyrna Speedway is on State Road 44 between I-4 (exit 118) to the west and I-95 (exit 249) to the east
But one of the attractions of going to New Smryna is the opportunity to watch a current NASCAR driver going back to where it all started. We’ve been fortunate enough to watch Kyle Bush, Ryan Newman and a Scotsman by the name of Gordon Moodie all race there.
New Smyrna boasts a huge main grandstand along the home straight with older wooden bleachers towards turn one. One of the features of this track is the kink in the wall along the home straight. Get as close to the wall as you can, but get it wrong and a spectacular wreck is sure to follow.
There are pits within the infield (like Volusia) and entry to these is gained via the main pit area behind the back straight. If I remember correctly entry to these is only possible by exiting the stadium and walking around the outside of turns one and two (though the parking lot)
The Sunshine State.
Florida is known as the Sunshine state but don’t let that fool you. Yes Florida has a wonderful winter climate. The day time temp can range from the 60s to 80s, very comfortable indeed. But at 6pm when the sun sets so does the temp. It’s really not unusual for the temp to flirt around freezing during ‘race night’. Quite often before the racing starts I’ll head back to the car. Out of my Shorts and Tee. On go the long johns, vest, jumper, jacket, hat, gloves and scarf !!!
This is winter after all and with winter comes rain. Unlike the regular summer racing months, if you have heavy rain during the day it’s probably likely that the race will called that night if it’s Dirt (clay). But you might be able to get in an asphalt show. So keep an eye on the weather and an ear to the weather broadcasts.
If the rain does come at least you have other options as Florida is home to a whole host of theme parks. I have never actually been to any of the parks but I understand that they are less crowded during the winter months with virtually no queuing needed. I don’t know if they operate all the rides or limited rides during rain.
I have attended the FREE filming of TNA Wrestling on a few rain out nights (two years running) at Universal Studios City Walk. If you up for a bit of over-the-top audience participation then it’s well worth a laugh, a shout and a Booooo. As it’s normally all done by around 9pm it leaves plenty of time to grab something to eat or a few beers after – or if your lucky a rain delayed start to Racing.
Florida is a great winter racing holiday just remember to pack your woolly hat, Gloves, Scarf, Winter Jacket, Thermal Underwear and nothing else as you will buy at lot more than you thought.
Have a safe trip.
*Please Note I have only written about tracks that I have personally visited. Florida has quite a few other race tracks (and Drag strips) that may run events during the 500 / Winter Nationals month of February. I recommend a visit to the excellent National Speedway Directory website for further reading before you travel, and pick up a copy of the book while you’re over there from Allan E Brown. It is worth it’s weight in gold as it lists all the tracks, their websites and directions on how to get to them.
Other Racing Around The Word Articles on F1 Stockcars.com:
Racing Around The World – Indiana Sprint Week