The Daytona you don't hear about

February, 9, 2009

PORT ORANGE, Fla. -- A day off at Daytona is a hard thing to bear.

It's not the silence from the speedway -- the peace and quiet is nice enough, here in the middle of Speedweeks.

The trouble is, today -- with the Shootout crowd gone and the larger crowds for the qualifying races and the Daytona 500 still to come -- is too strong a reminder of day-to-day Daytona Beach, when the races aren't in town.

This isn't exactly Margaritaville down here, and driving up and down the beach highway, A-1-A, is hardly a pleasure cruise. Daytona Beach and its suburbs aren't exactly boomtowns. They are weary, faded, salt-corroded.

So I've drifted back down to the south, to my hotel in Port Orange, to blog with my sliding-glass door open, to see and hear the endless sea, which eases the sadness of workaday Daytona.

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Daytona Sunset
Chris Gardner/US PresswireWhen the Sprint Cup Series stops in town, Daytona Beach lights up in more ways than one.

The locals are largely a sad lot, the waitresses at the pancake houses and the housekeepers at the beachside hotels, mostly from the Midwest and up East, are struggling to get by, you can tell.

And yet they are amazingly cheerful, upbeat. I don't know how they do it.

Among the elderly walking endlessly up and down the beach, you can distinguish the locals from the snowbirds. The locals are the ones with leathery skins.

There aren't too many, if any, rich and famous along what used to be called the World's Most Famous Beach. Even the Cadillacs and Lincolns are old.

The restaurateurs and bartenders up and down the beach will tell you the NASCAR legions aren't their favorite crowds. The spring-breakers are the worst, damaging property and spending little money. The NASCAR crowds generally behave, but don't spend much.

Oddly enough, the locals love the Bike Week crowds of March the best -- at least, ever since the Outlaws, Hell's Angels and the other serious gangs had it made clear to them they aren't welcome here.

Thousands upon thousands of motorcyclists descend on the area, showing off their custom bikes to one another, paying relatively little attention to the world-class motorcycle races at the speedway.

"I never go to the races, myself," I once heard a guy say on TV, in his star-spangled-banner bandanna. "I just come to look at everybody's scooter."

Not many NASCAR fans realize how troubled day-to-day Daytona really is.

About a dozen years ago, during January NASCAR testing, I was pistol-whipped and robbed in the parking lot of a cigar store that fronts U.S. 92, which runs from the speedway to the beach.

It started out as a carjacking attempt. I got into my rental car with a package of cigars, and when I tried to close the door, it met resistance. I looked up to see a .357 Magnum pointed at my face through the driver's-side window.

At first the two teenagers wanted the car, but when I reached to drop the keys onto the ground, they spotted my watch, and wanted that.

I got one crack on the head with the gun for emphasis. Then when I was deemed too slow producing my wallet, I got whacked on the head again.

Oddly enough, they forgot about the car, grabbed the watch and wallet and ran off. And there I sat, blood pouring down my face, covering a white golf shirt.

A policeman took me to Halifax Medical Center, the hospital where injured drivers are taken. The emergency room there was bedlam. Bloody as I was, and accompanied by a uniformed cop, I was ignored.

It started out as a carjacking attempt. I got into my rental car with a package of cigars, and when I tried to close the door, it met resistance. I looked up to see a .357 Magnum pointed at my face through the driver's-side window.

The policeman tried to get a nurse's attention, and gestured toward me as if the sight of me should be enough.

"He's just gonna have to wait," she said.

After a while, I asked the cop if we could just go. Enough was enough. The gashes in my scalp were superficial anyway.

As we left, somebody thrust a handful of sample packs of antiseptic ointment into my hands.

And that was all the treatment I got that night.

Next day, I met a police detective who would become a friend over the years. It took him a few weeks to find my watch, but he did it. He knew of a pawnbroker he suspected of sending Rolexes to the Middle East, watched the man's place, and one day there was my watch. The detective carried a jeweler's loop with him, and found the serial number that matched.

I had to pay $500 to the pawn shop -- pawnbrokers have a powerful lobby in Tallahassee, the state capital, so that they get paid even for items that prove to be stolen.

I still wear that old Rolex every time I come down here. I have it on right now. It's sort of a badge of survival to me -- and, said the detective, it may have saved my life.

"Those were 90-percent shooters," he said of the teenagers. He figured it was a gang initiation, and said kids that young shoot the victim 90 percent of the time, but that the prize of a Rolex must have been enough for these two.

Once, he took me on a tour of the area just half a block off U.S. 92, the main artery to the beach. He stopped in an empty parking lot just behind an auto-body repair shop.

"Right here, a few weeks ago, there was a gang killing," he said. "They blew the kid's legs off with shotguns before they killed him."

We drove on, past a joint called the Tropicana, locally known as "the Trop." They used to post a uniformed cop on that corner, to keep some semblance of order, until one got stabbed with a sharpened screwdriver.

Outside the Trop, eight or 10 men walked into the street, glassy-eyed, applauding the detectives in the unmarked car, whose faces all these crack addicts recognized.

"Every one of them is holding [crack]," the detective said. "Every one of them. You can count on that."

Beginning with Thursday's qualifying races, fans will zoom happily up and down U.S. 92 in their SUVs and pickups, to and from the speedway, without a care in the world, oblivious to what goes on, on either side of the street.

They don't advertise that sort of thing over at the World Center of Racing.

No use driving up to Ormond Beach, "the birthplace of speed." Long before there was an Indianapolis Motor Speedway (built in 1909), there was racing here, at the Winter Speed Carnival -- the direct ancestor of Speedweeks -- in 1903.

The Ormond Hotel, once the largest wooden structure in the world, with its 5 miles of corridors, winter home to the greatest racers and innovators of the turn of the 20th century -- Henry Ford, the Stanley brothers, Ransom E. Olds, Alexander Winton, William K. Vanderbilt) -- is no more.

The Ormond was demolished in the 1990s to make room for more high-rise condos.

So there are almost no reminders now, of the era that was the springtime of American ingenuity and industry, long before a Washington, D.C., mechanic named William Henry Getty France drifted here and decided to settle in the 1930s, and a decade later organized a fragmented, outlaw brand of motor racing called "stock car racing."

So I sit here gazing at, and listening to, the sounding sea, the same one that rolled in for Olds and Ford and Alexander Winton and the pioneers of the early 1900s.

The sea, and only the sea, remains the same now.



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