A pilgrimage for race fans Daytona 500: Many Marylanders will be among the more than 160,000 in attendance when the 1997 Winston Cup competition begins today.

February 16, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Judy and Alan Whetzel and their Baltimore friends are ensconced in a restaurant across from Daytona International Speedway playing 20 questions. They're doing fine until they're asked, "What do each of you like about auto racing?"

The seven of them exchange glances. They have been to every race staged at Daytona International Speedway this week and they'll all be in the grandstands today for the Daytona 500. What is it they like?

They are just a few of the Marylanders who make an annual trip to watch the Daytona 500 Winston Cup stock car race. When the race begins at 12: 15, the stands will be filled with more than 160,000 passionate fans.

"I like the adrenalin rush," Brad Coberly says. "The first time I came to Daytona, I walked up to the fence next to the track in Turn 4. All you can see is fence there. The cars come by at 190 miles an hour, so fast I didn't even see them. But I thought I had been hit. You can feel the wind that hard against you. And it's funny. They're so loud, and then they're by you so quick, there's a kind of quiet and a pause and then the wind comes and it's stunning."

The fans themselves are like stock cars. They start slowly, but warm up fast. Given time, they can come up with a lot of reasons for being here: the sound of engines, the smell of tire rubber, the close competition.

"It's easy to relate to the drivers," says Alan Whetzel, who has become a fan because of his wife's enthusiasm for the sport.

"Kyle Petty," Vickie Arnold says with a laugh, acknowledging she waited 2 1/2 hours for the driver's autograph this week.

"My father loved cars," says Judy Whetzel, who is a mail carrier. "On Sunday afternoons when I was a kid, we'd go look at all the new cars at the new car lots. As kids, we thought it was fun to shine hubcaps on the family car. A good car is a nice piece of work. To see them racing -- I think because I appreciate a car -- I just enjoy seeing them all in action."

The Whetzels, Brad and Suzie Coberly and Steve and Vickie Arnold are all in their 40s and all from the Essex and Middle River areas. Three years ago, they pitched in and bought a $15,000 van just to take them to the races.

Their friend Pat McNeal, another Middle River resident who saw his first Daytona 500 in 1965, is building a double-decker motor coach to go to the races in style.

"I used to sleep in a truck or car in the infield in my younger days," says McNeal, 56. "Now I go in comfort and spend $120 for a ticket to the big race."

The Daytona 500 is as American as mom, apple pie and Chevrolet. And fans say one of the reasons they enjoy motor racing is that the athletes who play the game don't take them for granted.

The personal touch

They can still bring their own sandwiches. Still bring a cooler of soda or beer to tuck under their seats in the grandstands. Still get an autograph without paying for it and, if they plan it right, actually get a hug from Dick Trickle, as Suzie Coberly did during a cancer benefit outside the track Wednesday.

"You would have thought he knew us," she says, a gold pendant with Jeff Gordon's car number hanging around her neck.

Because of that personal connection, fans are willing to spend a lot of money. They get up at 4: 30 a.m. to drive to the track to find parking and stand in line for everything from entry, to food, to souvenirs, and then take their seats for four or five hours -- no matter what the weather.

Herb King and his family have driven from Howard County. They'll be sitting in the Campbell Grandstand today along the front stretch. They say Winston Cup racing is the best family sport around. King, his wife, Bea, and their children, John, 12, and Chris, 10, will be decked out in racing shirts and hats.

"I like the speed and the crashes," says John, a sixth-grader at Mount View Middle School and a Dale Earnhardt fan. "I don't like people getting hurt. I just like the crashes of the cars."

Chris, a fifth-grader at Waverly Elementary in Ellicott City, roots for Dale Jarrett, enjoys the passing and "getting out of school."

But getting out of school for the King children doesn't mean getting out of schoolwork.

"They've got loads of homework," says Bea, and the boys explain that they buckle down back at the hotel room before and after dinner each night.

King, 63, is two times retired, once from the Baltimore County Police Department and once from Maryland National Bank. Driver Darrell Waltrip, who is celebrating his 25th racing anniversary, has nothing on King, who is witnessing his 25th Daytona 500.

"It's a tradition with me," King says of the trip that runs from Tuesday before the race to the Tuesday after. "I came here the first time in 1972. I took the train because there was a gas shortage, rented a car when I got here. Richard Petty won.

"It's a nice family sport; we've made it a family sport. My first wife, Joyce, she died of cancer. She loved racing, too. And now my second wife likes it just as much."

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