The van’s second camping voyage came along when my friend asked if I wanted to take a boys-only one night trip to a rather unusual campsite: the infield of the Daytona International Speedway. When he suggested it, images of sunburned rednecks (redundant?), beer can pyramids, and trucks with stickers of Calvin peeing on a Chevy emblem came to mind. Alas, we were not attending an iconic stock car race.
I hesitate to share this for fear that the infield will be overrun with my readers next year: For the price of your ticket to the Daytona 200 (a motorcycle race that I didn’t know existed), you can also camp for the low low price of FREE. Your heard that right. For a mere $50 per adult, we were granted overnight privileges on one of racing’s most hallowed grounds.
I’m not a die-hard racing fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve probably attended more car races than the average American. In my early twenties I lived a few blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and out of sheer proximity I developed a soft spot for “open-wheel” racing (think Mario Andretti, not Dale Earnhardt, perhaps a little more Heineken than Budweiser). Now I live in St. Pete, Florida, where IndyCar’s second biggest race is a street race that the drivers compare to Monaco and my son asks about for 51 weeks of the year until the event happens. I have attended exactly one NASCAR race in my life (Ricky, Jimmy, Dale, Bobby, Kenny) and I would compare it to a Civil War reenactment, complete with American and Confederate flags, and fallen soldiers (fans passed out in the grass).
So, I agreed to go before I realized that is was during “Bike Week” in Daytona. The only thing I knew about Bike Week in Daytona is that a billion bikers descend upon the town, and you basically avoid that section of the state because of traffic. This seemed akin to trying go sightseeing in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I pictured a disturbing combination of Hells Angels brandishing knives while wet t-shirt contestants with names like Nancy and Marge show off their vintage lower-back tattoos. Basically, I’m Pee Wee Herman in the biker bar scene. I took comfort knowing that my friend had attended before and he is a more nervous… I mean… conscientious, parent than I am, and he would never bring his son to a questionable environment.
We loaded up the van and headed across the state on I-4, passing through Orlando, a city best known for having the longest enduring traffic jam, which began in 1983 and continues today. (How many times have I mentioned traffic in this blog? Why am I doing this?)
We pulled up to the race track and were greeted by a smiling young woman who said:
“Welcome to Daytona International Speedway, have you had any alcohol to drink today?”
I couldn’t tell if it was a question or an offer. Um, no, I answered.
“And what would you like to do?”
We’d like to watch a motorcycle race and camp overnight.
At this point, a middle-aged man, who seemed to be in charge, gestured at my vehicle and drawled, “You can’t bring that in here!”
I explained that the website said that they allowed vehicles up to 8 feet high and 20 feet long, to which he replied, “Well, they’re gonna kick you out in the morning.” And I told him that was our plan. He walked away and got on his cell phone complaining aloud that just because it’s on the website doesn’t make it true.
Thirty seconds later he returned and declared, “I guess I need to read our website.” Without getting out of the van we bought our tickets, were issued our infield parking pass, and directed to a pipe-shaped tunnel that, well, let’s just say I understand why the guy didn’t think we’d fit. We followed a golf cart into a path declaring the height limit to be 7’6″. My friend hesitated, “We can’t go through there.” I so badly wanted to take a picture, but needed to focus all of my attention on staying in the middle of the road, lest I clip the van’s roof on the sloping ceiling.
I knew on paper that we’d fit, and with false confidence, eased us down and then up the steep incline where we were greeted with a blue sky and open fields. The grandstand towered to our west, almost completely empty. If hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts come to Daytona for Bike Week, only a few thousand of them are there to see a race. In fairness, even a huge crowd could be lost inside the massive 2.5 mile oval that can handle close to 200,000 people.
The camping area is a large grassy parking lot with paved access and restrooms to accommodate huge crowds. Loudspeakers give the play-by-play of what is happening on the track. But the most exciting feature is the steeply banked final turn, where riders defy gravity, passing at over 150 mph on what looks like a vertical wall. It’s an 8 year-old’s Shangri La. My son’s eyes were the size of pie plates as he took it all in. The scene gave me goosebumps.
With acres of land to choose from, we decided to do some exploring and found a wide open space with enough grass for a regulation football game. The only sign of the legendary “Bike Week” revelry was the roar of engines coming from the beyond the confines of the track, on the main road lined with Hooters, IHOP, Chilis, and their brethren brands.
It was the perfect combination of great weather, racing bikes, and smell of meat cooking over open flames. We took a walk around while the kids rode their scooters. We stopped and watched the race from a grandstand strategically positioned where riders were in danger of losing traction in a hairpin turn. We witnessed one wipeout, satisfying the kids’ appetite for carnage. We wore out the boys throwing a football and watched a parade of interesting motorcycles come and go from the camping area. We met one guy traveling in a $120,000 Mercedes camper (that definitely entered through a larger tunnel than the one we used). Someone else had a Mini Cooper powered by a jet engine, because sometimes you really need to get there fast and loud.
The sun set behind the grandstands in spectacular fashion and the warm day gave way to a slight chill. The kids eventually passed out while my friend and I discussed the various possible meanings of life, while classic rock played on my emergency hurricane radio. There’s something about a conversion van in a race track that demands a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. The light of the sun was replaced by the glow of the track lights, which gave just enough light to function, without being too bright. With no threat of rain, we didn’t bother to put on the tent fly.
Sunday featured a series of short races, so the track woke up early with riders beginning their practice runs at 8 am. My wife sent us with a batch of muffins she made from scratch, instructing me to dip them in melted butter followed by a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. A seemingly easy task. Using a tiny cup to melt the butter, I dropped the butter on the ground because the cup’s handle was too hot to hold. I dusted the butter off, found a larger pan, and used a napkin as a potholder. The napkin caught fire; something I didn’t notice until my hand was engulfed – and I dropped the butter – again.
Our trip ended too soon and I vow to be back. We left the pleasant pastures of the speedway and entered the gauntlet of the drive home. Do you want to hear about how I-4 was completely closed in Lake Mary and we had to take the toll road around the city only to sit in stop-and-go tourist traffic past the Orlando theme parks all the way through Tampa? Of course you don’t. I don’t sweat the small stuff. A little traffic is a small price to pay for a totally unique family-friendly experience.
If you go:
1. There are no electric or water hookups, so bring everything you need. There are nearby restrooms (fairly clean by stadium standards).
2. Don’t drink alcohol before entering, as you will be asked before given permission to drive your vehicle into the facility. You can bring in all the food, beers, juice boxes and cooking gear you would normally camp with.
3. They have a larger entrance for RVs but they park in a different area at a different price. Their website is more up to date than at least one of the gatekeepers.
4. Park away from the poles with the loudspeakers. It gets a little annoying right beneath the sound system.
5. There is no shade. Plan accordingly.
6. We saw a small fraction of the things happening at the track, choosing relaxation over “Fan Zones” and finish lines. I’d like to go for 2 nights next time.
7. We made it a boys trip, but the lovely ladies in my family might have enjoyed it.
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“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Check out Jon’s periodic column, “So How’s That New Book Coming?” at Creative Loafing – Tampa. His 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Monica is a freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and connoisseur of 70s rock lyrics.