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Start your engines and race to Central Florida

Mom's the best. Apple pie is fine. But if you really want to make an American's heart pound, you're talking white-line fever: horsepower, cubic centimeters of displacement, bucket seats and a wild, swinging needle on the tachometer.

For you Americans who love cars, Central Florida is the place to go.

You can settle into Orlando for a heavy dose of internal combustion or head in almost any direction _ east to Daytona and Edgewater, north to Ocala or southwest to Sarasota.

You can get a close-up look at how manufacturers such as General Motors Corp. test their cars. Get some insight into Daytona International Speedway. Test your mettle at a top-ranked stock-car driving school. Wander through museums featuring Corvettes, dragsters or classic cars. Or munch burgers at a flashy, Hard Rock-style restaurant for people who dig stock cars and drag racing.

Around Orlando

Disney officials expect their giant slot-car ride to surpass the popularity of Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror. It is Walt Disney World's longest and fastest ride, hitting speeds of 65 mph.

John Maciarz, GM's resident manager of the Test Track, said he wanted the exhibit to do two things: tell the story of the rigorous tests the cars go through, and give visitors an experience that could be had only by a test-car driver.

Here's the rundown: Six passengers get into a computer-operated test car _ it can develop 250 horsepower and zoom from 0 to 65 mph in 8.8 seconds _ to shoot off into a series of exciting tests.

First you'll climb a 15-degree, three-story-high hill and bump over various road surfaces.

Next you'll make two passes through a set of cones: first without anti-lock brakes, when you spin out and knock over the cones; second with ABS, when you cleanly snake through the course. Then you zip through two temperature test chambers. In one, heat lamps will broil you (briefly) at 120 degrees. In the second, you'll shiver as the temperature drops 100 degrees.

Next, you and the car are sprayed with a yucky, green "corrosive" mist followed by a test in which you almost suffer a high-speed crash into a barrier. From there, you'll zip uphill on a switch-back mountain course _ in the dark.

Finally, your car zooms outside on the test track, where you will rocket to 65 mph on a 50-degree banked track.

The entire ride will take five minutes and 34 seconds, and you will travel just short of a mile: 5,246 feet.

A preshow, to entertain the people waiting in line, focuses on actual tests performed by General Motors at the test facility in Milford, Mich. The preshow will have 22 displays, 16 of them animated: A heavy weight slams down on a car door, a simulated human butt wiggles on car seats, robot arms repeatedly open and close car doors. Dummies will suffer simulated crash hits on various parts of their bodies: the head, the knee, the chest.

After the ride, you can see how an auto plant stamping machine makes oil pans and how a robot welds parts. Then you will be able to test-drive simulators, using modern gizmos that show your location, tell you where to turn and alert you when other vehicles are near your car.

RACE ROCK: This restaurant is for racing fans _ drag racing, stock car racing, Formula One racing, motorcycle racing, hydroplane racing, any kind of souped-up-engine racing.

It has mannequins decked in racing suits and helmets worn by stars such as Richard Petty. Hung on the walls are dragsters, race cars and speedboats, including Miss Budweiser. Big Foot, the world's largest monster truck, is out back. Televisions show races _ and crashes. The waitresses, all with a sort of Up-With-People perkiness, are decked out in yellow racing coveralls.

The restaurant's 12 big-name investors include Petty, Gordon, Don Prudhomme, Scott Parker, Michael Andretti and Ernie Irvan.

The food is, well, basic bar food: burgers and sandwiches with names such as Fully Modified or Super-Stock and a variety of salads and pizzas.

Race Rock is on International Drive north of the Beeline Expressway. It is open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until midnight and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. No reservations needed. Call (407) 248-9876.

Around Daytona

DAYTONA USA: The very word "Daytona" means car racing.

It all started on March 26, 1903, when Alexander Winton in his Bullet raced Ransom E. Olds in his Pirate over 23 miles of packed sand between Daytona and Ormond Beach. It ended in a tie. The top speed: 57 mph.

Attached to the famed Daytona International Speedway is the nifty museum Daytona USA, which gives the history of racing in Daytona and of the race course. From 1936 until 1958, it was a 4.1-mile course, half on the beach and half on Highway A1A. To keep people from sneaking through the palmettos for a free look, race course officials put up signs that read: "Beware of Rattlesnakes."

The present trioval course is 2.5 miles long and 40 feet wide.

The museum is terrific, not only for its history and display of cars, but also for some first-rate hands-on experiences.

You can actually join a crew for a timed pit stop where you change tires, fill the gas tank and so on. The five visitors I saw did it all in a respectable 27.51 seconds. You can sit at a microphone and broadcast a race and even take the tape home. And you can drive in a simulated time trial.

Daytona USA also offers a tour of the Speedway, with an up-close look at the track, the pits and the infield buildings.

The museum is in Daytona Beach on U.S. 92, also called International Speedway Boulevard, east of Interstate 95. Cost is $12 for adults, $10 for those older than 60 and $6 for children 6-12; children 5 and younger are admitted free. The Speedway Tour is $6 for anyone 6 or older. Hours: 9-7 daily. Call (904) 947-6800.

MARK MARTIN'S KLASSIX AUTO MUSEUM: This is 'Vette lovers' heaven. The museum first gained fame because it had 60 Corvettes, including one from every year the car was made. But after four years of wall-to-wall 'Vettes, the museum began looking for diversity. It now has sold all but 15.

But it still has every body style made since the sports car came on the market in 1953. For those with a bit of TV sentimentality, expect to hear the theme song from the old Route 66 show playing in the background.

In expanding its car collection, Klassix now has a 1950 Ford Woody station wagon, a 1958 Impala convertible, a 1974 Ferrari Dino and a 1955 three-wheeled Messerschmitt that got 100 miles to the gallon. The museum also has a collection of motorcycles, including a 1947 Harley Knucklehead and a lot of old Indians.

Klassix is a mile or so from Daytona USA on U.S. 92, just west of Interstate 95. Hours: 9-6 daily. Prices: $8.50 for adults, $4.25 for children 7-12 and $7.50 for seniors. Prices do not include tax. Call (800) 881-8975.

FINISH LINE RACING SCHOOL: Described by several racing magazines as the No. 1 short-track school in the country, this Edgewater school is where wannabe racers come to learn and veterans come to tune up their skills.

The chief instructor is former NASCAR-modified driver Mike Loescher, who started the program with his wife, Kristal, also a first-rate driver.

"If a student has any talent at all, he'll be running fast enough at the end of our three-day course to qualify for any late-model race," Mike said.

Finish Line also offers ride-alongs for people who just want the experience of being in a stock car, and half-day programs in which you drive 12 laps with an instructor. The costs, respectively, are $99 and $399.

Then you get into full-day courses, in which you drive by yourself for $999, a two-day course for $1,899 and a three-day course for $2,399. You drive actual race cars and super trucks and are supplied with fire suits, underwear, helmets and gloves.

The school also offers race driving classes for disabled drivers.

The school is on U.S. 1, just south of the Edgewater business center. Classes also are given in Orlando; Martinsville, Va.; Hickory, N.C.; and Atlanta. Call (800) 946-7223 for a taped message any time.

Around Ocala

DON GARLITS MUSEUM OF DRAG RACING: Known as Big Daddy, Garlits is a legend of the drag strips. Since 1952, he won time after time, breaking his own speed records _ always in cars named Swamp Rat.

This truly is a museum for dragster wonks. For those who can't tell a hemi from a slingshot, it's likely to be a long couple of hours.

The museum has 88 dragsters, including funny cars and the familiar needled-nosed dragsters with huge, fat tires in back and bike wheels up front.

And for the true aficionados, the museum has an entire room with just engines.

Garlits also has a classic car museum with 55 antique and classic cars, including lots of Ford roadsters from the 1930s and '40s, big-shouldered Dodges from the '30s and one of my favorites, a 1954 MG-TF.

Garlits is 8 miles south of Ocala in Belleview, just off Interstate 75 at Exit 67. Admission to the Drag Race Museum is $7.50 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for children ages 3-12. For the Classic Cars, it's $5 for adults, $3 for children. A combination ticket is $10 for adults and $3 for children. Don't bother getting the $3 audiotape; the signs on the exhibits tell as much. Open 9-5 daily. Call (352) 245-8661.

Around Sarasota

BELLM CARS & MUSIC OF YESTERDAY: This is a funky but absolutely charming small museum with 49 cars.

Try to get there on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday when Jim Griffith, a former Michigan manufacturers engineer, gives the tour. He'll charm you with how the 1905 Schacht had the first cruise control, show you a 1921 Lincoln pickup truck and explain how America began using the term okay because Otto Kruger was an inspector at Ford from 1912 to 1928 and when he approved a new car, he put his initials on the windshield.

Among other cars, the museum has a 1952 Daimler that was owned by Princess Elizabeth before she was crowned queen of England, a couple of Duesenbergs, four cars owned by circus king John Ringling and a 1977 Stutz Blackhawk with 24-carat gold plating inside.

The second part of the museum has an interesting collection of player pianos, music boxes, calliopes and band organs like those on carousels. Ask to see the musical chair.

New museum owner Martin Godbye, who owns a classic car dealership in Sarasota, promises to renovate and upgrade the museum.

To get there, take I-75 to Exit 40, go west on University Parkway until it stops at U.S. 41 and the Ringling Museum. Turn right, and you're there. Open 9:30 to 5:30 daily. Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for children 6-12. Children 5 and younger are admitted free. Call (941) 355-6228.

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