Roar­ing en­gines fill the air with daze of thun­der

Get your mo­tor run­ning and get out on the speedway, writes Sarah Ni­chol­son

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - USA DAYTONA -

WHAT Amer­i­can sport has 75 mil­lion fans – 40 per cent of them fe­male – who spend more than $ 3 bil­lion on of­fi­cial mer­chan­dise ev­ery year?

It also sits sec­ond on the lad­der of tele­vi­sion’s most-watched sports, be­hind only Amer­i­can foot­ball.

It’s not base­ball, bas­ket­ball or even ice hockey.

It’s NASCAR – the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Stock Car Rac­ing – a motorsport com­pe­ti­tion that started in Amer­ica’s South in the 1940s, when driv­ers ran ve­hi­cles they bought ‘‘ off the shelf’’ at their lo­cal deal­er­ship.

It now in­cludes more than 30 events on tracks around the US.

There are 40 driv­ers in the 2010 NASCAR field, with each pi­lot­ing a car that’s been hand­made by teams spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars on each ve­hi­cle’s frame, body and mas­sive 750-horse­power V8 en­gine.

These driv­ers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralian Mar­cos Am­brose and con­tem­po­rary idols like Dale Earn­hardt Jr and Jeff Gor­don, reach speeds of al­most 320km/ h in races that take place from Fe­bru­ary to Novem­ber and cover 480km-965km in an af­ter­noon.

The spir­i­tual home of NASCAR rac­ing – and the track where the com­pe­ti­tion’s biggest race, the Day­tona 500, is held ev­ery Fe­bru­ary – is the Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speedway, an hour’s drive north of Or­lando’s theme parks in the sunny US state of Florida.

For a NASCAR fan, vis­it­ing Day­tona is like a ten­nis tragic tour­ing Wim­ble­don and, emerg­ing from the tun­nel that cuts un­der the track to the cir­cuit’s vast in­field, I’m sit­ting on the edge of my bus seat try­ing to get a bet­ter look at the arena.

A few min­utes later, stand­ing in pit lane right where the crews would wait for a car to come in for a tyre change, I have to shield my eyes from the bright Florida sun as I scan the track for the stock cars I can hear do­ing laps.

The arena is big­ger than I thought it would be, the stands taller, the pit lane longer, and the sound of the cars roar­ing around the cir­cuit sweeter than I imag­ined, es­pe­cially when the driv­ers ap­ply the power com­ing out of the corner on to the long front straight and the en­gines start to re­ally growl.

It was in­evitable Day­tona Beach would be­come a mecca for motorsport in the US be­cause driv­ers have been putting them­selves and their cars to the test in this ocean-side set­tle­ment since the first au­to­mo­biles re­placed the horse and cart.

Just a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres along In­ter­na­tional Speedway Drive from Day­tona’s front gate there’s a wide stretch of hard-packed sand be­side the At­lantic Ocean where those early rac­ers would test their skill in im­promptu con­tests as far back as 1902.

The Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speedway – a 4km high-speed tri-oval track with banked sides that slope to a steep 31 de­grees on the bends – was com­pleted in 1959.

The first Day­tona 500 was run that same year and was won by NASCAR pa­tri­arch Lee Petty, who took the 804km race by just a few cen­time­tres.

Ev­ery year around Pres­i­dent’s Day, the NASCAR cir­cus de­scends on Day­tona Beach for the ‘‘ great Amer­i­can race’’. And what an awe­some event it is, with 250,000 fans crowded into the stands.

The 40 shin­ing stock cars, each one pro­pelled by a mon­ster en­gine that sounds like a mil­i­tary jet, roar around the track jostling for po­si­tion and run­ning nose to tail with only a few cen­time­tres be­tween bumpers.

While only the best driv­ers can ne­go­ti­ate the track on race day, any­one can do a few laps on Day­tona’s hal­lowed as­phalt when the cir­cuit isn’t be­ing used for test­ing.

I was lucky enough to do two ‘‘ hot laps’’ in one of Day­tona’s pace cars – the of­fi­cial ve­hi­cles that con­trol rac­ing

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