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The Daytona 500 returns Sunday for 65th race

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Talia Blake
File Photo: Race cars parked in the garages at the Daytona International Speedway

The Daytona 500 will return on February 19th, marking 65 years of the race. Tickets for the grandstand seating, and RV and camping sites sold out shortly after the ticket window opened for the second year in a row. WMFE’s Talia Blake took a trip to the coast to talk with Frank Kelleher, President of the Daytona International Speedway, about the iconic race.

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Talia Blake
Daytona International Speedway
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Daytona International Speedway
Daytona International Speedway
Frank Kelleher is the President of the Daytona International Speedway

Racing Fans Flock to Daytona

Racing fans will be packing Volusia County this weekend to watch 40 cars race at 200 miles per hour at the Daytona 500.

Frank Kelleher, President of the Daytona International Speedway, said they’re expecting around 175,000 people in attendance.

"It is a massive undertaking, when you think of ingress and egress and our relationships with local and state government, law enforcement, and fire rescue."

Those in attendance to the race, won't only spend their money at the Speedway, but throughout Volusia County.

Kelleher said a recent study by NASCAR and Florida State University examining the economic impact shows that "NASCAR is big business in the state of Florida."

"So that's Daytona International Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Sebring International Raceway, as well as One Daytona," he said. "Our events, inclusive of motorsports events, and all other activities we host at our facilities bring $1.7 billion in economic activity to the state of Florida annually. Our operations create nearly 22,000 jobs and $600 million in wages."

Kelleher said that leads to more than $136 million in state and local taxes generated annually.

The Daytona International Speedway alone brings over $800 million in economic activity to Florida annually, according to Keller.

"And another element that we're really proud of is that the Speedway also creates nearly 12,000 jobs and more than $290 million in annual wages."

History and Cultural Significance

Drivers drivers raced on the sands of Daytona Beach, before the first running of the Daytona 500 at the Speedway in 1959, which had 41,000 people in attendance, according to the Speedway website.

But, Keller said it wasn't until 1979 that the Daytona 500 got on everyone's radar.

"There was a big snowstorm in the northeast. A lot of people glued to their TVs, nothing to do," he said. "And they saw a dramatic finish and a famous fight of some tough guys after the checkered flag was dropped on the backstretch."

Then during the 1980s and '90s, Kelleher said corporate America began to come out to NASCAR events in big ways.

"You think of those times to where today what it looks like. It is definitely diverse. It is definitely young," he said. "We make our legacy fans still feel welcome. A lot of the things that they have grown up loving about NASCAR is still here and still available in the venue. But it is definitely a much younger and diverse crowd."

Attendees to the Daytona 500 come from all over the world to experience what Kelleher calls "a true slice of Americana."

"There's something about being outside and hearing the roar of the engine and the competition. It's pretty insane," he said. "I mean 200 miles an hour, 40 cars pushing each other, getting pushed, beaten and banging. I mean the gladiator element of what a racecar driver is."

Leading up to the Daytona 500 on Sunday, NASCAR will kick off the racing season with Speedweeks on Thursday.

"This is a multi day sporting event to where we will have campers living on property, some upwards around 10 days, that are coming in from all over the country, all over the world," he said. "They come here for a taste and feel of what NASCAR is all about."

It's not only a place to be for the fans, but for the drivers too.

"As a racecar driver, whether it's two wheels or four wheels, Daytona is where you want to compete at and win as," he said. "And in the world of stock car racing, this is the most prestigious race."

Daytona Speedway and Volusia Schools

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Talia Blake
Grandstand seating at the Daytona International Speedway can seat over 100,000 people, according to Frank Kelleher, President of the Speedway.

When it comes to the relationship the Speedway has with Volusia County, Kelleher said it's important to stay relevant by authentically showing up.

He said they're in consistent communication with Volusia County Schools about ways they can get involved.

"The reality is, we need to hire H-VAC, plumbers, and welders. Daytona State provides opportunity for us to tap into students that are graduating with those certificates and those degrees."

Along with connecting students from Daytona State and Embry Riddle to jobs, Kelleher said many current and past students at Bethune Cookman University are interns at the Speedway.

"Some of which have gone on to find full time employment."

However, sometimes authentically showing up has nothing to do with racing.

During the CommUNITY Rainbow Run in 2022, which benefits the OnePulse Foundation and the National Pulse Memorial and Museum, Kelleher said their involvement was not to sell tickets.

"It was to validate and to sympathize with our neighbors that we understand that they're hurting and that there was a tragedy. And if there's something that we can bring to that event, to honor it, to honor the families, as well as put a smile on people's faces, whether that is by handing them a free gift, or taking our pace car and dipping it into a rainbow thematic with the 49 on the door, to say, 'hey, we see you and we want to be here."

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.
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