For gearheads, Florida is a paradise on wheels

08/18/2012 12:00 AM

08/14/2012 5:41 PM

You don’t have to be a rabid car racing buff to be among the 200,000 spectators who attend the Daytona 500, but it helps.

“A lot of our folks are real diehards,” said Lenny Santiago, spokesman for Daytona International Speedway. “They plan their vacations around the race. Some even spend 10 days here.”

The Daytona race is the single biggest spectator event in Florida, but whether one has a passion for antique or modern cars, for auto racing or simply enjoy being with like-minded fans, this state is a great place for car lovers. Florida is home to several major automobile race tracks, offers almost a dozen museums showcasing classic cars, stages two prestigious annual Concours d’Elegance (an upscale vintage car exhibit/auction) and is the site of parades and special exhibits featuring antique vehicles.

With so much variety — and good weather year-round — it’s not surprising that Florida ranks among the top states, including California, for automobile aficiandos, said Ken Breslauer, spokesman for Sebring International Speedway.

Within the state are dozens of race tracks, of which 21 are paved ovals and road courses. Three of these host races of national renown. Biggest is the annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway, which will be held next year on Feb. 24. Also nationally known is the annual 12 Hours of Sebring, the biggest sports car race in the nation. Held annually at the Sebring International Speedway, that race next goes off March 16.

Locally, two major races are conducted at the Homestead Miami Speedway. Coming up Nov. 16-18 is its top competition, the Ford Championships Weekend, and in spring the track will host the Grand Prix of Miami on its road course.

Of high interest to serious automobile fans is the Concours d’Elegance held annually in Amelia Island. The 18th annual event, expected to attract 300 cars, is set for March 8-10. It includes road rallies, auctions and seminars. Almost 300 classic production and race cars will be on view during the event, which takes place on the 10th and 18th fairways of The Golf Club at Amelia Island.

Next year’s Amelia Concours will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Porsche 911, as well as the golden anniversary of Ford’s iconic GT40, winner of the 24 Hours of LeMans for 1966 to 1969. www.ameliaconcours.org.

Another Concours d’Elegance, the 11th annual, will be held Nov. 11 in Winter Park. Last year, it attracted 70,000 attendees. This year it will specially feature Porsche and Lincoln cars in what executive director Tim Webber calls the “art of the automobile.” More than 170 automobiles will be on display. www.winterparkconcours.com.

Auto buffs may also want to visit Ormond Beach, known as the Birthplace of Speed. It was here on the hard beach sands, early in the 19th century, that such racing greats as Ransom E. Olds, Barney Oldfield, Eddie Rickenbacker and Sir Malcolm Campbell set early speed records.

Races are no longer held in Ormond Beach, but every year it stages a Birthplace of Speed gaslit parade on Friday night after Thanksgiving with up to 300 vintage cars taking part. On Saturday, a exhibition of around 150 cars is held in Fortunato Park. An incognito Jay Leno has been known to show off some of his collection at this event.

By the way, you can drive your own car on the beach ($5 fee), but you won’t break any speed records — the speed limit is 10 miles an hour.

For those who want to experience the thrill of racing, several tracks offer track rides. The Richard Petty Driving Experience, which offers ride-alongs with a professional driver or an opportunity to drive a race car, is available at Daytona, Homestead and Walt Disney World Speedways. www.drivepetty.com. Skip Barber operates a driving school at Sebring International Speedway. www.skipbarber.com.

Car museums range from small facilities that specialize in a certain type of car to one that has 1,200 vehicles on display. They may showcase vintage cars, rare models, cars used in movies, motorcycles or other types of vehicles.

Following is a more detailed look at selected car race tracks and car museums.

RACE TRACKS

• Daytona International Speedway: The Daytona 500 takes place Feb. 24 next year during the track’s renowned Speed Weeks, which will kick off with a sports car race Jan. 25-27 and continues with the NASCAR Speed Weeks Daytona Shootout Feb. 16 and a new event, the USNOH Battle at the Beach Feb. 18-19. Two weeks later, the track will host the Daytona 500 motorcycle race.

Another major competition at Daytona comes the July 4 weekend, climaxing with the Coke Zero night races July 5 and 6, followed by the largest fireworks show in the Southeast.

Even if one doesn’t attend a major race, there’s plenty to see and do at the Speedway, which is open year around. Speedway tours take guests to areas not normally open to visitors, such as the drivers’ meeting rooms and NASCAR Sprint Cup Garages. Three levels of tours are offered daily except during event days and holidays. The track also offers the Richard Petty Driving Eperience, which puts the guest into a stock car for a run around the oval. Several levels are offered, ranging in price from $135 to $2,199. www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com.

•  Sebring International Raceway: The 12 Hours of Sebring, a sports car race that is that track’s best-known competition, attracts a fiercely loyal following. “We get a lot of people whose fathers brought them here. It’s a family tradition,” said Breslauer. Interestingly, he said, while NASCAR fans elsewhere root for a driver, Sebring sports car fans root for a car.

The track also hosts the Sebring Historics Oct. 26-28, which features vintage car races. Many companies and race groups use the track for tests during the year, and guests are welcome to watch these at no charge.

In spring and winter, the track also has a Skip Barber Racing School on its grounds. www.sebringraceway.com.

•  Homestead Miami Speedway: Top race event of the year here is Ford Championships Weekend, which will mark its 11th year Nov. 16-18. Like other major races, it attracts a wide range of visitors.

“We get fans from all 50 states and 14 countries,” said the track’s Ken Steiren. Some 80,000 are expected to watch the Ford Ecobost race.

The track also has a Richard Petty Driving Experience for part of the year. It is active 280 days of the year with private testing, club events and what Steiren calls “weekend warrior types.” www.homesteadmiamispeedway.com.

•  Other race tracks: Most other Florida tracks conduct races on Friday or Saturday nights. Lists of all Florida car race tracks, including dirt ovals, drag strips and Kart tracks, which are not discussed in this article, can be found at www.na-motorsports.com/Tracks/FL/, www.racereview.com/florida.htm, or www.2havefun.com/racing/racing-in-florida.shtml.

AUTOMOBILE MUSEUMS

•  Dezer Collection Museum: Opened earlier this year, this 50,000-square-foot museum in North Miami has more than 1,200 vehicles, including not only automobiles but motorcycles, bikes and even a submarine. For many visitors, the most fascinating display may be its collection of cars used in movies, among them Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and Harry Potter. One of the larger groupings is of James Bond vehicles, among them six gadget-equipped Aston Martins and a T-55 Soviet tank. Overall, the collection is valued at more than $100 million. www.dezercollection.com.
•  Muscle Car City: One of the largest muscle car collections in the nation, this Punta Gorda museum has such GM cars as Camaros, Chevelles, El Caminos, Impalas, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. Owner Rick Treworgy has a large number of Chevrolets as well as at least one Corvette from each year from 1957 to 1975 and several from each series after that. www.musclecarcity.net/museum.html.
•  Sarasota Classic Car Museum: The second oldest continuously operating antique car museum in the nation, this museum displays more than 75 automobiles. Among them are John Lennon’s 1965 Merecedes Benz, Paul McCartney’s Mini Cooper and John and Mable Ringling’s collection of Rolls Royces. www.sarasotacarmuseum.org.
•  Tallahassee Automobile Museum: More than 80 antique vehicles are displayed in this collection, among them Abraham Lincoln’s horse-drawn hearse and an 1894 Duryea. Other displays span the gamut from turn-of-the-century Stanley Steamers and Model T Fords to 21st Century Plymouth Prowlers. www.tacm.com.
•  Tampa Bay Automobile Museum: Most of the 50-odd cars on display in this Pinellas Park museum were made in Europe and demonstrate special creativity and engineering advances, such as front-wheel-drive cars from the 1920s. A special feature is the only replica of the France 1770 Fardier de Cuqnot, the world’s first self-propelled vehicle. www.tbauto.org.
•  Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing: “Big Daddy” Don Garlits was a legend in drag racing and his Ocala museum features 90 specimens of the species. In another building, the museum displays 50 antique cars. Also on the premises is the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, The facility stages several car shows during the year. www.garlits.com.
•  Elliott Museum: Currently, this 50-year-old museum in Stuart is closed while a new one twice as large is being constructed. Among its 85 or so cars is one of the largest collections of Model A automobiles. The new facility, scheduled to open next spring, will feature a unique display system — 54 cars rotating in a three-level stacking system. www.elliottmuseumfl.org.
•  Fort Lauderdale Antique Car Museum: This museum displays 22 Packard automobiles, all in driveable condition, dating from the turn of the century to the 1940s. Among them are a Roadster with a compartment for golf clubs and a 1929 Dual Cowl Phaeton that self-lubricates as it is driven. www.antiquecarmuseum.org.

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