DAYTONA BEACH — Baseball fans go to Cooperstown. Football zealots head for Canton. Archaeologists make for the Great Pyramids. But if you’re a race fan, this is the place: a low, inconspicuous concrete building about a half mile from Daytona International Speedway, tucked behind the speedway credential office. You have to want to find it. Lots of people make the journey, as if it is Lourdes.
It is the International Speedway Corporation Archives & Research Center, a long name for rooms filled with lots stuff, racing stuff, fascinating stuff, history stuff, as if it was all under a Christmas tree.
“To me, it’s more fun than going to Disney World,” said Bob Kaufman, who lives near Pittsburgh and visited the center with his wife Josie. The visit and tickets to the Daytona 500 are part of his 60th birthday present. “My brother and I, growing up, would sit by the radio for hours listening to the races.”
At the center, you can see Marvin Panch’s 1960 Daytona 500 winning car, right on the floor, next to a replica of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s long, sleek “Bluebird 3,” which he used to set land speed records on the hard sand beaches at Daytona in 1932.
You can see a display dedicated to the late Dale Earnhardt — “Earnhardt Corner.” You can see hundreds of photographs on walls of racing Hall of Famers, trophies everywhere. You can see a driver entry form for the first Daytona 500 in 1959, with the notation “Only premium gasoline will be permitted.”
You can see the restored office of NASCAR patriarch Bill France Sr., the late Big Bill, down to the oak paneling, his pencils in his holder, his race hats, turquoise phone and the plaque on his desk that reads “Money isn’t everything, but it does tend to keep the children in touch.” For some visitors, that office is like being in church.
“I can stay in here forever,” said Wilfred Paradis, who is in his 60s and lives near Richmond, Va. “I can’t get enough of history.”
The archives and research center isn’t on every Daytona map. It isn’t open to the public except on a reservation basis, as part of a Daytona VIP tour that costs $55 and includes a ride on the track, a visit to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America as well as the track’s luxury suites. Thousands have pulled up on the bus since since the center became part of the tour in 2012. The little low building that is the grabber. It takes you back if you want to go there. Old drivers and owners, like the Allisons and the Wood brothers, sometimes show up to poke around. Fans love taking photos with the life sized cardboard cut-outs of Earnhardt and his son, Dale Jr.
“I’ve seen people cry, I mean cry, in Earnhardt Corner,” said Herb Branham, director of the archives and research center.
Branham disappeared, then comes back with a present: under plastic, the actual minutes taken at the December 1947 meeting on Daytona Beach, in the Ebony Room at the Streamline Hotel, where Big Bill and others invented the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Big Bill’s words:
(ital) “It’s got distinct possibilities. We don’t know how big it can be if handled properly. And neither does anyone else. I do know that if stock car racing is handled properly, it can go the same way as big car racing or bicycle racing.” (ital)
Forget it, he was rolling.
This is not a museum. That would be the NASCAR Hall of Fame up in Charlotte. The key words here: archives, research. A climate controlled vault, 70 degrees, 40 percent humidity, holds five million photo negatives and thousands of feet of racing film. Branham is always pulling photos for various stories. Filing cabinets, inventoried and alphabetized, are a treasure trove: King Richard Petty, Big Bill with King Hussein of Jordan, U.S. presidents at the track, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts from nearby Cape Kennedy hanging with the racer boys, as well as a shot of honorary Daytona official Frank Sutton, who played gunnery sergeant Vince Carter on the TV series Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
“He even wore his uniform that day,” Branham noted with a smile.
“My grandmother and grandfather would winter here,” said Bob Kaufman, who is retired, but competes at tractor pulling. “They’d tell us about the races on the beach. And here they are, all the pictures. This is like a bucket list.”
On this day, the tour bus disgorged 24 fans, and Branham gave a littles speech, then told folks to wander around. There is everything everywhere. It’s like going to someone’s house and they have a collection of stuff.
“You hear a lot about the changes and challenges in our industry,” said Branham, a former sportswriter. “But when people come in here, time stands still. It can be the 1930s, it can be the 1940s, it can be the 1970s. When they come here, this is like an oasis.”
When they come here, they linger, so much so that the tour bus sometimes pulls way without them. That happened the other day. A couple was left behind. They waited patiently for a ride, then began to wander around again, one last look. And time stood still again.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly