Daytona 500 Experience - Closed
Daytona Beach, Florida
This could be the noisiest museum on earth. A battalion of TV monitors -- probably more than in any museum, ever -- continuously blasts either howling engines, feverish announcers, gushing music, or stock car drivers spouting good ol' boy homilies, all at full volume. Rumblings and screechings escape from IMAX shows, motion simulator rides, and a NASCAR-theme video arcade. It's a vast, open, hall with vaulted ceilings and a polished cement floor -- as if a sports bar had been built inside an aircraft hanger. And it's kept dark so that you can see what's on the TVs.
The people who come here love it.
Daytona USA [since renamed Daytona 500 Experience] opened on July 4, 1996. To be fair, it doesn't see itself as a museum, but as an "interactive attraction." It's purpose is to entertain, rather than educate, although you do pick up a thing or two along the way. For example, NASCAR drivers lose from five to ten pounds of sweat during a race, and the headlights on their cars are fake -- plastic decals.
All the big stock car champions (and their cars) are honored here: Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Jimmie Johnson. Their faces -- usually seen on the TV screens -- are rarely identified by name. Visitors recognize them by their racing number and the sponsor logos plastered across their car hoods and fire suits. This museum isn't trying to win any converts. If you don't know that the guy in the K-Mart jumper is Daryl Waltrip, or that the STP car is driven by Richard Petty, then why are you here, pointy-head?
Speaking of logos, they're on every surface at Daytona 500 Experience, like kaleidoscopic billboards: Budweiser, Winston, Valvoline, Lowe's, Sunoco, True Value Hardware, The Home Depot, UPS, Brawny, Winn-Dixie, Crown Royal. The "Victory Lane" section has been bought (by Gatorade), as has the IMAX theater (Pepsi), the Technology of Speed exhibit (Dupont), and the You Call The Race display (The Speed Channel). Even the video in the history exhibit is branded with a full-screen watermark (Goodyear).
To the left of the entrance is this year's winning Daytona 500 car, straight off of the track with "no adjustments" so it's caked with mud, confetti, and crusty champagne. You can have your picture taken next to it for ten bucks. To the right is a walk through Daytona history, featuring the Bluebird V that hit 330 mph on the beach, back in the days when races were held on Daytona Beach. A slab of asphalt from Hwy A1A is here as well (from the days when races at Daytona were held on that), as is a 31 degree incline, banked to simulate a modern Daytona Speedway curve. A sign dares you to try to stand on it -- the same approach used in the Titanic Museum's "sinking deck" display -- and claims that you'd have to move at 70 mph just to keep from sliding to the bottom.
At the 16-Second Pit Stop Challenge (corporate sponsor: Ford) onlookers are handed a jack and an air wrench and are dared to change a tire faster than a "pit crew" of Daytona 500 Experience employees. In the Heroes of the Track gazebo, you stand surrounded by eight anonymous, helmeted, slouched dummies on elevated chairs, while eight TVs bark at you simultaneously. Each monitor has the face of a NASCAR driver, all declaring how much they love golf, fishing, and family. It's as if you're trapped in a futuristic video conference/barbeque, surrounded by regular folks who just won't shut up.
The motion simulators and arcade games, with names such as Dream Laps, Acceleration Alley, and Thunder Road (corporate sponsor: Toyota), have signs warning away small children, pregnant women, and people with heart problems and "nervous disorders." Acceleration Alley, for example, sits you in a scaled-down stock car and hurls you into a 200 mph simulation of the Daytona 500, against 42 other drivers.
We exit toward the gift shop, and the guard fixes us with a look of bewilderment. "You're leaving NOW?" he asks. "The NASCAR 3D film is just starting!" Engine roars and trumpet fanfares are coming through the theater walls -- but we leave them to the fans. We prefer the real road, where at 65 mph we can make it through the turns.