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New Motor-Sports Museum Aims To Give Visitors a Feel for Racing

Interactive Daytona, USA, opens this summer for NASCAR fans

DURING Motorcycle Week in this oceanside community, the growls and whines of engines recently delighted hordes of spectators. For Phil Denyes, though, the sweetest sounds came from a construction site next to his office at the Daytona International Speedway.

A transplanted Canadian, Denyes is general manager of Daytona USA, an interactive motor-sports attraction scheduled to open July 5, one day before the Pepsi 400 stock-car race. When reporters show up, Denyes takes them on a hard-hat tour of the attraction's 50,000-square-foot site to the accompaniment of hammering.

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With boyish eagerness, Denyes explains the layout and location of the soon-to-be exhibits, from the do-it-yourself pit stop to computer work stations where visitors can design and "test" their own race cars, to a replica of the gas station where H.G. (Big Bill) France fathered today's National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit.

A focal point will be the Bluebird, the hulking car that England's Sir Malcolm Campbell piloted to a world speed record of 276.82 m.p.h. in 1935. A central feature in Daytona Beach's long romance with motor sports, which dates to timed automobile races that gave the area its "Birthplace of Speed" reputation in 1903, the Bluebird will serve as a visual anchor in the Velocitorium, Daytona USA's central space.

"I think this will be a big home run," Denyes says, mixing his metaphors. "The history of motor sports is so rich here that we have an obligation to show race fans how Daytona became the 'World Center of Racing.' We plan to educate and entertain life-long race fans, as well as those who are just discovering the thrill and excitement of racing."

Clearly, many are making NASCAR's acquaintance. Stock-car racing is called the fastest-growing sport in North America.

Attendance on the 31-race Winston Cup series has more than doubled in eight years, reaching 5.3 million in 1995. The circuit is deeply rooted in the South but now has races in New Hampshire, Indiana, Michigan, Delaware, New York, Arizona, and California as well. And events are coming soon to new tracks in Dallas, Las Vegas, and Fontana, Calif.

NASCAR is rolling out a number of new projects, including a chain of nationwide NASCAR Cafes and a string of retail, theme-based stores similar to those under the Disney and Warner Bros. banners. In November, the first of a series of NASCAR demonstration races will be held in Japan, where $400 million is being spent to carve out a track from a mountainside.

Yet another venture, due to start in late summer, calls for opening a series of NASCAR Speedparks and All-American Sports Parks. These will incorporate go-kart racing either on undulating road courses or high-banked ovals. The Daytona International Speedway is famous for its 31-degree banked curves. A life-size replica of one will be displayed inside the "Ultimate Motorsports Attraction."

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Denyes says that he's had discussions about letting visitors to Daytona USA actually drive cars around the 2.5-mile trioval, which hosts the Daytona 500 and other events but sits idle much of the year. Putting people in cars, however, is out of the question because of sky-high liability costs.

"All our research shows that people want to sit behind the wheel of a car. They want to drive the car," he says. Although that's not feasible, visitors will be able to get a feel for being in the race by viewing a large-screen film of the Daytona 500. And to complete the experience, many people who pay the $10 admission to see Daytona USA may wish to invest another $5 to take a tram tour of the track. "This is a touch of reality," says Denyes, who oversaw the opening of a pace-setting Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in 1993. Eventually, he anticipates virtual-reality elements.

Daytona USA is not a Hall of Fame, although it pays tribute to the greats. Stock-car racing currently has three hall of fame/museums, in Charlotte, N.C., Talladega, Ala., and Darlington, S.C.

DAYTONA USA, however, sits at the center of the sport. And while operating autonomously under the umbrella of the speedway, it works closely with NASCAR headquarters, also in Daytona Beach. The synergy between the groups benefits the new attraction.

For example, the relationship has paved the way to what Denyes calls a "big coup," namely getting the winning Daytona 500 car each year for display purposes. "When the man down the hall (Bill France Jr.) controls the sport, certain things are possible," Denyes says. The race entry form now carries a stipulation that the winner turn over his car to Daytona USA for a $100,000 bonus.

Denyes says he learned at the Hockey Hall of Fame that "the love-in [with the public] lasts for the first year." After that, it's important to continually update exhibits and create new ones, the way Disney does. Disney World is about an hour away, and Daytona USA hopes to attract central Florida tourists for half-day visits.

Attendees at a private grand opening July 4 will receive special Lucite-encased favors: pieces of an asphalt roadway that formed a portion of the Daytona 500 when it was largely run on the beach beginning in the mid-1930s. The road was unearthed at a condominium construction site and trucks quickly dispatched to retrieve the buried treasure.

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