A road without end

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The Daytona 24 Hours is one of motor racing’s great spectacles – and also the perfect starting point for wider exploration of American racing culture

The landscape around Miami Airport is a touch bleak, blending the urban with the industrial, but it’s absolutely dripping with car culture. As our shuttle bus weaved around endless budget motels, it passed several independent marque specialists, a European sales centre and countless scrapyards brimming with the battered husks of what had once been 1980s automotive Americana. It seemed as good a launch pad as any for a motor sport-themed road trip.

The brief was loose: collect an Audi R8 locally, drive it to the Rolex 24 at Daytona and take it wherever I fancied during spare moments in between. Daytona being a popular destination for itinerant enthusiasts – you can pick up a return flight from the UK to Orlando for about £380, fair value in terms of minutes aloft per penny – it seemed prudent to use the opportunity to explore other nearby motor sport attractions, past and present, and to see what else might lurk in the undergrowth. There are currently more than 40 active circuits, short ovals and drag strips in Florida, plus a fair sprinkling of kart tracks and who knows how many other venues buried invisibly beyond condominiums or else awaiting redevelopment. Despite its size, Miami – which has a permanent circuit at Homestead and was very recently home to the Race of Champions – has not had a conveniently located short oval, long one of urban America’s sporting staples, since Hialeah Speedway closed in 2005 to make way for yet another shopping mall. 

The Audi was parked in a warehouse that doubled as an echo chamber. Leave an R8 V10 in ‘Drive’ and it is naturally boisterous; slip it into ‘Sport’ mode and it becomes yet louder, holding onto gears for longer and providing a delicious – and definitely ostentatious – electronic throttle blip to accompany each downchange; fire it up from cold in a Miami warehouse and the aftershocks can be felt in Boston (quite possibly both of them – Massachusetts and Lincs).

America has a reputation for low speed limits, but Florida takes a fairly European approach. Adhere to the posted 70mph and you’ll swiftly be zapped by SUV V8s travelling at 90-odd. Initially, sticky traffic on the northbound I-95 made it difficult to achieve double-figure speeds of any kind, but congestion eventually eased, 260 miles became 200, three-figure distances shrank to two and in due course I peeled right to be greeted by the Daytona International Speedway’s familiar silhouette. No matter how many times you see it, you cannot fail to be struck by its scale: even at times of silence, there are few more impressive sights in the sport.

After 10 hours in the air and more than four at the wheel, bed couldn’t come quickly enough, but it was already clear that this wouldn’t be a quiet weekend – and not just because of the V10. At my first fuel stop, the cashier came out to take a look at the car – and was perplexed by “All that metal stuff at the back. The engine must be at the front, right?”

Wrong.

As I returned from the till, a young homeless lad was standing by the pump, wondering whether I could spare him 10 dollars for a bite to eat. Ordinarily I’d have sympathised, but my ‘internationally approved’ credit card had just been declined – and blocked, a problem I couldn’t resolve until Europe reawakened – and I’d used my only paper dollars to fuel the car. I apologised and tried to explain, but it’s hard to sound credible about such things when you’re driving a $162,000, 201mph missile. He wandered away muttering something about “bullshitter”, which might ordinarily be true but wasn’t in this instance. It was a foretaste of a weekend spent answering questions almost every time I opened the door. 

* * *

Despite the travel, I awoke at 5am on Wednesday – which always seems to happen in the States. Scrambled eggs, coffee and yoghurt apart, the first priority was to collect Daytona credentials – they still use charming but impractical flappy cardboard, the kind of thing that went out of fashion elsewhere in the 1990s – and then cut loose.

Heading back to the I-95 north, then bearing west along the SR40, it took only half an hour to locate Volusia Speedway Park (to the south, New Smyrna Speedway is closer still). Volusia opened in 1968, but an immediate cessation of operations was announced last autumn… before promptly being repealed. It had the feel of many bygone UK short ovals, except that its relative remoteness was unlikely to trouble any neighbours. There is also a kart track on the site. As I arrived banners were being erected for the World of Outlaws season-opener in February 2017. The half-mile dirt oval looked in good order and one of the groundsmen – the only sounds I could hear were a lawnmower and a hosepipe, so not quite on a par with a 410 cubic-inch V8 and a shale ricochet – seemed sure the future was secure. Or, to be accurate, “This place ain’t gonna close.”

That’s settled, then.

America is always best explored away from the Interstates – and the next few miles underlined why. Shortly before the SR40 intersects with the US17, I came across a Plymouth Bonneville parked by the roadside. Dreadfully rusty, it was optimistically advertised for $3500 and the sales pitch – whitewashed on the screen – claimed it to be a runner. Possibly true, but the engine will need almost a complete new car before ever it
returns to the road.

Bearing north on the US17, in Seville I passed a derelict truck tyre service depot complete with equally forlorn pick-up on an elevated service ramp. Presumably it has been there since the day the business ceased trading, left behind as an afterthought. In the UK the site would long since have been smothered by identikit Barratt Homes, but here nature is correctly allowed to take its course.

The US17 leads on through the grandly named Crescent City, which sounds as though it came straight from a John Wayne script but looks absolutely nothing like a city, and on to Satsuma. Just beyond, set back from the main road in a wooded clearing, is Putnam County Speedway Park, a small dirt oval with few obvious facilities and a single, padlocked entrance. This is the home of ‘legendary racing’, according to the billboard acknowledging the venue’s existence, but there was no sign of life other than a loud dog on the one adjacent property.

Time, then, to move on and reconnect with the northbound I-95 for an 82-mile run to Jacksonville. According to Google Maps, the dusty silhouette of the disused JAX Raceways exists still. Until 2005 this was a twin facility at 186 Pecan Park Road, with a dirt oval nestling close to a drag strip. Sat-nav guided me straight to what seems to have been the main entrance, but a barricade had been erected to prevent access. It would have been possible to enter on foot, but a fuel station across the road had similarly been abandoned and I wasn’t keen to leave the R8 unattended in a derelict area.

The next planned stop was Daytona Beach, 90 miles south and not far from where I’d started. En route, though, I peeled off the I-95 to pick up a sandwich in St Augustine. It was only later that I discovered the existence of another disused track 10 miles north-west of my lunch stop. St Augustine Raceway closed abruptly in November 2001 (there is proof of its former existence on YouTube), shortly after hosting an event so specialised that I never knew this form of the sport existed. Anybody out there ever watched drag racing on mud?

Daytona Beach’s competitive history has been mentioned here in the relatively recent past, but is sufficiently significant to bear repetition. There is a $10 charge to take your car on the sand – passing first beneath an arch that declares this to be the world’s most famous beach, a claim as yet uncontested by Blackpool – but a 10mph limit applies where Campbell once plied his trade at a breezy 270-plus. Overhead, the pelicans glide more briskly.

The beach side of the adjacent road is all smart hotels and high-rose condos, while the other is awash with tattoo parlours, nail bars, dollar shops and vacant premises – contrasting worlds separated by a strip of asphalt yet linked by the celebrity of their location.

Five miles south of the main entrance is the North Turn restaurant, named after one end of the beach course that staged the area’s annual racing showpiece prior to the International Speedway’s opening in 1959. It is absolutely rammed with NASCAR memorabilia and would on its own merit a trip to Florida.

The coffee’s not bad, either.

* * *

Lots of things in America have V8s or V10s, but many are about four times the height of an R8 and come as standard with a double cab, or else four berths and a kitchen. They don’t catch the eye quite like the Audi. At 7.30 on Thursday morning, three lanes of traffic were just beginning to back up gently at the entrance to DIS when a booming voice yelled, “Hey, that’s how to arrive in style.”

Once again, no place to hide.

The morning was spent watching opening practice for the Rolex 24, after which I decamped once again to the west via the SR40 – this time for the 75-mile run to Ocala. Most of the route is single carriageway, with 55 or 60mph limits, and progress was swift. Disappointingly, despite frequent warnings of their presence, there was no sign of any bears.

Formerly known as Ocala Speedway, the local racetrack – a clay oval measuring three-eighths of a mile – now goes by the name of Bubba Raceway Park, following its acquisition a few years ago by radio talk show host Bubba Clem. Continuously operational since first it opened in 1952, it claims to be Florida’s oldest active motor sport venue.

When I’d mentioned to Johnny Mowlem that I was going to Bubba, the supposedly retired but back-to-do-Daytona-one-last-time racer’s eyes lit up. “Tony Stewart took me there a few years ago,” he said. “It was amazing. At one point two drivers were fighting in the middle of the track, with the crowd throwing beer bottles at them. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Chances of a repeat looked slim on a soggy Thursday, but when I walked unchecked into the paddock there was a fierce row going on between one driver and the scrutineer, the upshot of which was the car taking no part.

At one point it wasn’t certain anybody would get to race, with persistent rain turning much of the track surface to mud. The main (well, only) attraction was the NeSmith Dirt Late Model Series, in which the cars have no windshields and drivers would run out of visor tear-offs long before the end of a 12-lap heat, never mind the 40-lap final.

To disperse the mud, a fleet of old trucks and cars was sent out to slither around as much possible for more than an hour. The meeting was delayed considerably, but with no noise restrictions the locals usually persist until the surface is raceable. I later learned that one of the drivers assisting with preparations was the track owner, who was slithering sideways with his dog perched in the passenger seat.

It was a very pleasant evening spent in the company of people who love racing for its own sake. Several complete strangers wandered across to introduce themselves, for no reason other than natural good manners when encountering a complete stranger, and you can’t help but feel affection for anywhere surrounded by rickety grandstands assembled from wooden planks and steel poles – a slice of 1974 that has been missing awhile in Europe. In the paddock you could hear ZZ Top being played at maximum distortion and there was also a stall selling cheesecake on a stick. Obviously.

The chief flag marshal told me about a Brit that used to race regularly at Bubba – and successfully so. When I asked his name, he replied, “No idea. Always just called him Bulldog…” (Further enquiries identified him as Stephen Frankland.)

At one point I was collared in the pit area and advised that shooting with professional cameras was not permitted without a credential. My informant was Trace Crisp, the venue’s official photographer, who granted me permission to continue once he’d established my purpose. He also later allowed me to join him on the infield, so I had my first view of a Late Model racer in full flight from a mound of earth about a metre from the apex, as drivers maintained a perfectly balanced drift over the lap’s full course. Trace pointed out that the
spot I’d chosen was quite popular with photographers whenever the World of Outlaws paid a visit. “See that wall,” he said. “They tend to go over it rather than into it…”

The Late Model racers were a little calmer, Illinois driver Brandon Sheppard clinching victory shortly after I’d set off into the night.
I learned, too, that the supposedly retired Tony Stewart was due to return to competitive action at Bubba in the near future.

* * *

Until other things got in the way, the plan for Friday had been to get away from Daytona in time to visit a low-key drag racing event in Orlando, stopping en route at Casselberry – former home to Seminole Speedway, venue for one of the first oval tracks to become operational after WW2 (and promoted by NASCAR’s founding father Bill France). Typing the coordinates into a digital map told me that Seminole was now Truffle Avenue, Casselberry, a residential development with absolutely no trace of its racing heritage. There was also a test and tuning day at the Gainsville drag strip, about 40 miles beyond Bubba, but that clashed with the start of the Rolex 24 – and I didn’t really want to miss that bit.

There are lots of other sites worthy of potential investigation – and many have (or had) fantastic names. Thunder Cross in Okeechobee, for instance, which closed in 2004 and was converted to housing. One former track near Youngstown had several identities over the years, including Boss Hogg Speedway, and the finest of all was perhaps Dead Lake Speedway, Wewahitchka.

It is beyond question that the land occupied by these US institutions will always be worth far more as a development plot than it is as a racetrack, but the news isn’t uniformly bleak. Sand Mountain Speedway, Fort Meade, was built about 10 years ago, but stumbled over planning consent and presently lies unused (although there have been attempts to kick-start the project). And in Pinellas Park, Sunshine Speedway closed its doors in 2004 but reopened five years ago as Showtime Speedway.

On the opposite side of the state, the refurbished Grand Dame – the Daytona International Speedway – has long styled itself as the World Center (sic) of Racing.

You can debate that point, but it has been – and remains – within striking distance of a very great deal.