DAYTONA BEACH, Fla -- Yet another first for your humble roving correspondent. I've always wanted to do this. It was there for the doing but attending the Daytona 500 was a professional impossibility for me, until this year.
February is a sweeps month, an all important TV ratings period that requires all hands on deck for the duration. Because of that, I've always had to take a pass on invitations to attend the Great American Race. No longer. With my America's Houseguest Tour concept thoroughly in place, I'm doing things and going places that previously took a back seat to studio duties.
Which brings me to Daytona Beach, Fla. on this fourth week of February.
My first memories of this iconic race go back to ABC's Wide World of Sports coverage in the early 60's. Jim McKay and Chris Economaki, both now-deceased, were the eyes and ears for millions of kids like me who had been nipped by the auto racing bug.
That was the era of Fast Freddie Lorenzen, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, Marvin Panch, Cale Yarborough and, of course, Richard Petty.
My weekend host, Jerry Robinson, former Vice-President of Clermont Lumber Co., his wife Pat and their long-time friend Mallie McCarty are die-hard NASCAR fans and Daytona 500 attendees. Robinson's first trip to Daytona was memorable, if for no other reason than, for the ease of access he enjoyed.
"It was 1961. You could drive right into the infield and watch the race from there for $5.00," he said.
Needless to say, it's gotten far more involved than that over the years. The Daytona International Speedway has expanded to seat over 275,000 and tickets start at a tidy $95.00.
McCarty has followed racing for years and gone to many far flung places with Jerry but it wasn't until 2001 that he took the plunge. The Milford native, now of Bonita Springs, Fla. is a believer. And for many of the same reasons, I'm also sold on the hallmark event of the NASCAR season.
The France family's super speedway has grown with the times and they continually strive to make the fan experience everything it can be. Starting with parking. It is free and available at several satellite lots located within eight minutes of the track. A fleet of school buses transports fans non stop from early race morning until two hours after the checkered flag.
Are you listening Kentucky Speedway?
The fact that more than 250,000 people move in and out of the vast facility in orderly fashion even as a torrential thunderstorm intruded on Sunday's race, is testament to not just the track management but also to the brand of race fan who populates Daytona.
They come prepared and they come early.
There aren't the number of interactive exhibits that you see at Kentucky Speedway but then again they don't need them to attract fans. Daytona is the shrine of the sport and it shows.
This is the last year for the current configuration of the Speedway. Construction is underway on a $440 million upgrade to accommodate fans all the more.
But isn't that what you would expect for an industry that is all about moving as fast as you can?
Denny Janson's "My 2 Cents" column is published every Monday and Wednesday on WCPO.com. His video commentary airs every Friday at 6 p.m.