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By Chris McBeath

When I think of Daytona, Florida, three things come to mind: bikers, beaches and NASCAR racing. Sure, bikers still rule this beachside community for one week each Spring, but in a recent visit, I discovered that this seaside community is reinventing itself as an action-packed destination for the entire family. And the changes are evolving with the speed so synonymous with the Daytona name.

Speed is what enticed me here. That, and all those reality shows. I'm no contender for American Idol, but when I heard that anyone could tackle the NASCAR track, my curiosity peaked. After all, Daytona Beach was the birthplace of speed and this, I told myself, was research.

In the early 1900s, Daytona's white, hard-packed sands earned considerable celebrity status for enabling new land-speed records, and by the time the first Daytona 500 ran in 1959, racing was truly entrenched in the American psyche. Still today, many NASCAR drivers get their start on the dust-choking, slippery dirt-tracks of Middle America, where they spin their wheels onto whatever chassis they can throw together. Few questions are asked. No license is required. It's the most raw, pure-guts racing around.

Since opening in July 1996, Daytona USA has not only become the icon oval for dirt-racers, it's also like the Disney world of auto racing. Flanked by five-storey high, 165,000 capacity bleachers, trolley tours navigate around the 480-acre arena and its 30-acre lake. The IMAX presentation has you rumbling in your seat, and the hands-on simulators will test your mettle on the fast track.

But I had come here for a reality show. So, under the heat of the midday sun and the background roar of engines, I joined a gaggle of NASCAR wannabes to get suited up in gear that had me sweltering with heat, and nerves.

Because the car doors are welded shut, both driver and passenger must slip into the vehicle through their respective windows - a surprisingly easy maneuver even for the 250 pound man ahead of me. Being a fan of NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, I had chosen car number 20 in the hope that my driver would be of similar championship stock. Peering at me like a road bandit from behind his visor, though, he simply nodded a thumb's up and we were away. Whoa .... within seconds, I was being propelled into the high bank at some 150 mph. The sheer velocity of the adrenalin-stoked ride pushed my harnessed body deep into the seat, and my jowls shivered uncontrollably beneath my helmet. Around we went, overtaking the car with my heavyweight companion on the outside curve as we clocked 160, 162, 165 mph. The 32-degree high bank loomed up as quickly as it dissolved into the straight-away, only to confront us an instant later. Then came a white flag, a checkered flag and just as quickly, the hell-bent-for-leather, white-knuckled, heart-pounding 'must-do' speed experience was over. For some, it was more than enough. For me, it was a cruel taste of exhilaration and I realize I'm hooked. Next time I'm going for the multi-day session that'll put me behind the wheel.

Thankfully, speed isn't the only thing that defines the new Daytona these days. Hotels are sprouting up on seemingly every sea-lined block and the beach, all 36 miles of it, provides for all manner of beach-based activities: parasailing, jet-ski and banana boat rentals, and swimming with the dolphins to name a few. Surfing may not rival Hawaii's big rollers, but for family fun, the shallow Atlantic waves fit the bill.

History, too, isn't confined to the sands. Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station, an 1887 working lighthouse soars to 175ft nearby, and Spruce Creek, a 2,000 natural reserve, makes for a terrific day trip along the pristine black water creek-be it by kayak, canoe or pontoon. For me, however, the dichotomy of Daytona's speed experience came as I drifted into the sunrise at 4 mph. Hot air ballooning is the very antithesis of road-racing, but as I floated above marshlands filled with wildlife and sparkling waterways, speed came to mean something very different. And that's just what Daytona is becoming. Something very different.


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1. Car # 20 (Photo: Bill Vanderford)
2. Stepping into Car (Photo: Chris McBeath)
3. Ponce de Leon Lighthouse (Photo: Bill Vanderford)
4. Kayaking on Spruce Creek (Photo: Chris McBeath)

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