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Minter: Older’s Better For Jr. And Me

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 10 2010
The wonderful old Turn 4 tunnel at Daytona. (File photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The wonderful old Turn 4 tunnel at Daytona. (File photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Driving into Daytona International Speedway this morning, running a bit late due to traffic in Jacksonville, I drove right by the first tunnel to the infield.

I’d rather lose a few minutes than break a decades-long tradition of driving into the track through the old, narrow corrugated-metal tunnel in Turn 4.

Just seeing the old opening to the infield, and the grassy banking leading up to the track takes one back to the days when Richard Petty was Daytona’s King. It even brings to mind the old photos of cars, including Richard’s father, Lee, sailing out of the track in the track’s early years.

I find plenty of company on these sentimental journeys.

Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers racing team that has been a fixture at Daytona since the races were held on the old Atlantic beach/Highway AIA race course, also finds his way to the old, narrow tunnel every time, bypassing the newer, wider structure on the other end of the track.

“I didn’t know they had another tunnel,” he said, probably joking, but maybe not. I chose not to find out for sure.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another who seems to be drawn by the heritage of the track.

During the media portion of Preseason Thunder at Daytona last month, Earnhardt made his way to the media center for his required appearance there. As he was coming and going, he studied the historic Daytona photos on the walls of the press room, pausing occasionally to point one out to the members of his entourage.

Earnhardt said that as he rolls through the old tunnel to start another season, he mentally closes his eyes to the “fan- and driver-friendly improvements” that have been made at the track in recent years.

He misses the old, low-slung cinderblock garages, with their well-worn wooden work benches. And he longs to once again sit on the tattered couch in the long-gone Goodyear building and soak up the war stories being told there.

“When I pull into Daytona… it’s so modernized and different today than it was when I first came here,” he said. “But I try to remember…. I try not to really get caught up in the hype that it is currently. I think about the old races that I saw here, whether I saw them on television or whether I watched them on a VHS tape or I watched them live.

“I try to think about when I saw a car come off a corner or a certain car go around 1 and 2 or guys come through the tri-oval, or whatever. I think about that looked like and what all has happened here and try to remember the names and the faces of all the people that have came through here and had success and made the sport what it is, made the track what it is.”

The one part that Earnhardt does like about the present Daytona is that it offers him a chance to connect his name once again with those from the past.

“It’s the people who have come through here that really have put it on the map,” he said. “That gets me pumped up. Thinking about those things gets me excited, because I want to add another chapter to all that.

“I try to stay away from the energy that is current, the energy that’s present at the time and all the glitz and glamour that’s produced for that weekend and try and think about the history and add to the history and try to be a part of that.”

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 10 2010
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