The Daytona 500 is an event of mythical proportions, especially with all the new “Daytona Rising” changes at the International Speedway. Even if you are not a racing fan, you most likely know something about this annual meetup of NASCAR competitors. Although racing will permeate almost every corner of Daytona Beach on Feb. 21, the city has a lot more for visitors than just the “Great American Race.”
Let’s just get this out of the way first: A trip to Daytona Beach isn’t complete without a tour of the International Speedway—especially this year as the world’s first “motorsports stadium” has just been unveiled. The location is the same (after all, you can’t miss it when you are headed to the beach), but a $400 million reimagining of the iconic Speedway has turned it into more than a racing venue. It’s a small city within itself, complete with its own solar plant and enough steel to represent one percent of the entire U.S. steel production.
Promoted as “Daytona Rising,” the new construction on the speedway began in July 2013 and was completed last month in time for the 2016 Rolex 24. Changes to the 58-year-old structure include five expanded “injectors,” the 21st century name for the redesigned entrances that lead fans to a series of escalators and elevators. They are then transported to three different concourse levels, each featuring spacious social areas, or “neighborhoods,” along the nearly mile-long frontstretch. New, wider, and more comfortable seats accommodate 101,500 fans along with twice as many restrooms and three times as many concession stands.
“The International Speedway is much more of a social experience now,” says Lori Campbell Baker, Daytona Beach’s director of public relations. “It’s also more than the World Center of Racing…it’s now the World Center of Entertainment.”
In addition to racing and other events, the speedway will host the inaugural “Country 500” music festival May 27– 29 featuring some of the top names in country music, including Luke Bryan, Kid Rock, Lady Antebellum, Willie Nelson, and dozens of others. Three huge performance stages—all specially designed and built for the festival—will be set on the infield.
And that infield is something to see up close and personal. A 30-minute speedway tour by shuttle is available ($16, adults; $10, ages 6-12), but my husband and I opted for the 90-minute all access tour ($23, adults; $17, ages 6-12). If your time allows, the extra $7 is worth the price because you can exit the shuttle and get a behind-the-scenes view of the International Speedway. I must admit I’ve never been to a NASCAR event, but touring the Daytona International Speedway was a cultural experience I will not forget. It also laid the groundwork for understanding and appreciating how many of the city’s other attractions relate to the racing tradition.
For example, Florida’s tallest lighthouse, the Ponce De Leon Lighthouse, is a landmark not just because it was built in 1887. Early stock car races took place along a 4.1-mile stretch from Ormond Beach to the lighthouse. Today, the Inlet Light Station is on the National Register of Historic Places and is surrounded by several dwellings that explain life as a lighthouse keeper in the 1800s. Climb the 203 steps to the top for a breathtaking panoramic view of the inlet and Daytona Beach. Take a deep breath of salty air, release all of your tensions and just imagine what it looked like when those drivers came hauling down the beach.
Within walking distance of Lighthouse Point Park is the Marine Science Center, where youngsters as well as the young-at-heart can explore the area’s diverse ecosystems, touch stingrays, and learn about the bird rehabilitation program in Volusia County.
The Marine Science Center is just one example of how Daytona Beach is a family friendly destination—even when it’s too cool to sunbathe on “America’s Original Beach,” as the folks in Daytona call it.
TRIP TIP: If the boardwalk area is too noisy for you, head just a couple of miles south on A1A to Daytona Shores, where beaches are less crowded and the race car drivers often stay. The Shores Resort, where you might bump into a few of the drivers and crews, offers relaxing amenities, such as its nightly “S’mores at the Shores.” Sit around the fire pits with your own s’mores kit provided by the hotel—a great treat on a cool February night. The Shores also features a gallery of historic racing photos that will surely bring back memories for longtime fans.
Take advantage of winter’s less-than-ideal beach weather and head into town. Tourists often fail to discover the city’s world-class museums located across the Halifax River on Nova Road. The newest offering is the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum that showcases paintings spanning nearly 200 years of Florida history from the 1800s into the new millennium. Well-known artists John James Audubon, Thomas Hart Benton, and N.C. Wyeth are among those who traveled to Florida to paint, and their works are displayed in the unique cracker-style facility.
Located in the same 90-acre nature preserve as the Brown Museum is Daytona Beach’s Museum of Arts & Sciences (MOAS), which houses American, African, and Cuban art collections, as well as a prehistoric Florida gallery where a giant ground sloth skeleton hovers over visitors. We elected to visit MOAS late in the day so we could stay for the electrifying laser show in the museum’s planetarium. The state-of-the-art astronomy facility features dynamic and educational programing and a rocking light show with music.
One of Daytona’s “sweetest attractions” is the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory, where free 20-minute tours are offered Monday through Saturday on the hour. Located on South Beach Street, the factory is known for high quality, handmade chocolates made fresh daily.
Of course, no trip to Daytona Beach is complete without a stroll or two along the famous Daytona Beach Boardwalk and Pier, a combination of history and fun. The historic bandshell is the site for seasonal weekend concerts and special events while the Joyland Amusement Center is the place for family Go-Kart races. Take time to explore the boardwalk’s historic markers that offer lasting tributes to races of the past.
Seeing all Daytona Beach has to offer in a weekend is a race to the finish, but we gave it our best try. And the good news: it was just a trial run until our next visit.
PHOTOS: Tony DeSantis + Provided By Daytona International Speedway