The Daytona 500 will start 2010 with the 53rd running of "America’s Greatest Race" on a new racing surface. To promote that event for many Tampa Bay area race fans, NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski and Daytona International Speedway President, Joie Chitwood III, visited Busch Gardens for up-close encounters with park animals a month before the green flags fly.
Keselowski and Chitwood fed giraffes on the Serengeti Plain before getting a close-up experience with a two ton rhino. The Daytona 500 is sure to be fast running, but the carefully administered wild animal convergence didn’t require any hasty retreat by either Keselowski or Chitwood.
Keslowski was playful with his initial assessment about hand-feeding giraffes and a rhino.
"Apparently drooling is cool and maybe I can get away with that now," Keselowski said. "I don’t know. Drooling—they get away with things that I don’t get away with."
Keselowski is pleased with many off-track moments.
"It’s a fun day to get to come out to Tampa and have a fun day here at Busch Gardens," Keselowski said. "One of the things about being a race car driver is the neat opportunities you get to do."
NASCAR drivers do get unique experiences, many in Tampa. Last year Matt Kenseth played tug-of-war with a large tiger. The tiger swiftly won, but Kenseth was in no danger as the rope was stretched through a tall secure fence. Kenseth also fed giraffes on the plain. The previous year Greg Biffle swam in diving gear with large ocean fish, turtles and Morey Eels in the main tank of the Tampa Aquarium.
The ample population in the Tampa market creates strong NASCAR support and Tampa native and local University of South Florida graduate, Joie Chitwood, was pleased to there to promote the new surface at DIS.
A pesky pothole in the old surface spoiled the race for some fans last year.
"For me it’s gets back to the basics," Chitwood said. "I’ve got to make sure I’m competing with every other entertainment option out there and believing that what happened last year doesn’t come back. We had two red flags. We kept customers for six and a half hours, which is two and a half hours too long. The weather was about 45 degrees.
"It was way too long of a day for somebody to have an enjoyable experience."
Chitwood was clear about the impact of improvements.
"We’ve got to rebuild that trust again," Chitwood said. "Hopefully when they come back, when we have our open test, we’re going to validate that the $20 million was well-spent.
"Our message has to be to our fans, that we fixed that problem. We have stepped up to the plate and fixed the racetrack."
Chitwood knows his role as promoter can cause some to question his comments.
"I’m excited about what the drivers are saying about the asphalt. I can say the track is smooth until I’m blue in the face, but until a Brad Keselowski says it—that’s when fans believe it."
"I think it’s going to be a great race," Keselowski said. "The new surface is going to be a thrilling race. I’m really excited about it, and I mean that. To be able to go to Daytona and not have to worry about tires and all those things we worried about, and knowing that if you have anywhere near a semi-competitive car—you have a shot at winning the race."
It’s comforting to know that giraffes and rhinos will be well-fed and cared for by the efficient and accommodating Busch Gardens staff when the first flag of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season drops Feb. 20 in Daytona.
Photo credit: Dwight Drum @ Racetake.com