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Who Says Dirt Don't Draw?

Outside of the locked entrance at Volusia Speedway Park, a long line of excited fans wait for the gates to open, letting them into the grandstands for the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars portion of the 48th annual running of the DIRTcar Nationals. 

The world-class dirt racing event takes place each February in Florida, showcasing the premier series of the World of Outlaws and DIRTcar families in one spot over the course of 12 days. Drivers and fans come from all over the United States and Canada to compete and enjoy the world's best display of dirt racing. One man has made the trek all the way from Uganda. He came to the United States for a conference but insisted that he had to see the Sprint Cars while in Florida. 

“I learned about racing from TV back home. I love it. They are so powerful, they give you life,” said Elisha Kakawerere with a grateful smile on his face. The man traveled 7600-miles  to make it here for the race. He says he will be back again. 

The parking lot is now overflowing with a four-mile line out on the highway while the speedway staff methodically directs traffic to the far corners of the property in what is turning out to be the best-attended Friday night in the event's history. By the end of the night the staff has to access an adjacent property to handle the overflow. 

In the campgrounds, campers and buses from as far away as Montana and South Dakota sit parked next to folks who made the much shorter trip from places like Georgia and North Carolina. Hundreds of campers make their homes for the week in everything from state-of-the-art buses to makeshift compounds built with tarps, poles, and ingenuity that would make Karl Kinser smile. Some fans even catch their shut-eye in hammocks swaying between the moss-covered trees. 

One family had, for years, camped at the nearby Daytona International Speedway. Two years ago, they came out to Volusia on a whim after hearing about it from other campers at the asphalt behemoth. After seeing the racing, they decided to change their itinerary and now camp out here for the week.

The gates open, and the people file in. Some of them rush to get their seats, while others hit the midway, which is full of people buying t-shirts and petting gators. One food truck operator claims they’ve already sold four times as much food as they did last year. Hers is a family business, and you can tell by the smiles on their faces that this has been a needed boost for their pocket book.

A woman from Smooth Waters Wildlife Park holds a small alligator, letting people pet it and take pictures. Gators are synonymous with Volusia Speedway Park. The trophies handed out to the drivers range from small bronze-colored statues of gators to the three-foot Big Gators for the Gator Points Champions, and the feature winners have the choice to hold a live one over their head in celebration. Some accept, but most are just as happy to hold it tenuously before them for a quick photo.

 

One young man who had worked the previous night at the speedway is standing next to the concession stand in the corner watching the action on track as the UMP Modifieds run their feature race.

“I’ve spent most of my life going to drag races and stuff. I’ve never been to a circle track until I started working here yesterday. Man, this is amazing!” he says with an ear-to-ear grin.  

At this little half-mile of dirt on the outskirts of the Ocala National Forest — despite the hundreds of racing events nearby, some of them considered premier on a global scale — the DIRTcar Nationals is overwhelmingly successful. The place is absolutely packed. There isn’t an open seat in the stands. The beer tent is full. The midway is full. Volusia Speedway is full. This is one of the very few events that exceed the hype. And for a motorsports fan, nothing beats being a part of it. 

As the Sprint Car feature begins, dozens of fans line the fences. Standing next to Do Not Stand signs posted on a bright yellow rail, they lean in to get a view of the cars as they idle by, four wide, in the trademark World of Outlaws salute to fans. 

Near the end of the fence a group of three greying men stand close together clutching cans of beer and taking selfies. A noticeably older man drives up in his three-wheeled scooter. Accelerator to the stops, he pitches it sideways, almost rolls it over, puts it in reverse and backs up to the men already standing there. He spins around in his seat and cracks open a beer. These men have been friends for a very long time. And from the looks on their faces, they are living out their childhood dream. They clearly feel young again. 

Then the rag drops. The Sprint Cars move massive amounts of air, and as the cars gain momentum and come around for their second lap, the wind picks up flinging flecks of dirt and dust into the groups standing on the flanks and way up to the top of the bleachers. There is a mass recoil as the less hardy take a few steps back. The others are quick to follow in retreat. 

After a few laps, some of the braver among the group begin to approach the now soiled rail. They walk up cautiously as if approaching a force of nature, like you would walk up to the caldera of a volcano. They quickly turn back around with smiles on their faces and dirt in their teeth. 

As the competitors pass under the checkered flag, and the roar finally dies down, a little African-American girl turns to a giant man in an “I Stand for the Anthem” shirt, both of them smiling, both of them entertained. The man high fives the little girl as she tells him this is her first time at a race, and she wants to come back again. 

The midway is packed again as the fans file out. Many of them stop at the lines of merchandise trailers picking up final purchases, most saying they’ll be back again tomorrow. To walk against the flow is like being a salmon. You are swallowed up in the mass of humanity. It’s remarkable how many people are here. 

“Son of a bitch, this is awesome!” a young man yells as he climbs down from the stands.