Another NASCAR season is upon us, with the world's top drivers descending on Daytona Beach, Florida this month to begin their annual odyssey of continuous left turns in front of thousands of sunburned, over-served spectators who marvel at their skills and desire to engage in such a perilous sport.
And every year, I can only yawn. For there exists a stretch of roadway just 70 miles to the west of Daytona Beach that would make the high banked turns and scorching asphalt of Daytona, Talladega, Martinsville -- or any NASCAR track for that matter -- look like a church picnic pony ride in terms of danger and thrills.
Of course I'm referring to Florida SR 528, also known as "the road exiting Orlando International Airport."
This daily recipe for disaster reads as follows: Begin with one seemingly normal, DOT-approved stretch of roadway. Add retired snowbirds reacquainting themselves with their driving skills. Toss in foreign visitors fumbling with equally foreign onboard navigational systems while studying English-only tourism brochures.
Finally, for good measure, mix in a steady supply of haggard dads, backs aching from hoisting luggage onto roof racks and ears ringing with the sounds of wailing children wondering why Mickey has yet to appear.
You promised we'd see him Daddy. Where IS he?
He's right there.
That's a bill board.
NASCAR'S finest wouldn't last five minutes on this road before radioing their crews and, in panicky southern drawls, demanding to pit. I can almost hear the exchanges now.
DRIVER: I'm fixin' to come in.
CREW CHIEF: What's the problem? Need a tire change?
DRIVER: Nope. Tahrs are runnin' fine.
CREW CHIEF: Your engine overheatin'?
DRIVER: Negative. She's runnin' smooth as my Grandpappy's moonshine.
CREW CHIEF: Then dadgummit, whatcha wanna pit for?
DRIVER: 'Cause I ain't never been so scared in my entire life. Whoa, did you see that?
CREW CHIEF: See what?
DRIVER: Camper at nine o'clock. Triple lane change. No signal.
CREW CHIEF: Git on out of there!
As a frequent traveler, I'm no stranger to driving in strange, often tricky environs. I have successfully negotiated the 600 hairpin turns accompanying the Road to Hana in Maui, simply so I could bask in the waterfalls that greeted me at journey's end. In San Francisco I traveled Lombard Street, better known as the world's most crooked road. I even joined the throng of cabbies in midtown Manhattan, nearly trading paint with several but still locating the Queensboro Bridge and arriving at LaGuardia in plenty of time to make my flight.
But each time I venture to the middle of the Sunshine State, I hug my wife and children extra tight. I call my attorney to make sure my affairs are in order. I place another call to my insurance agent, just to confirm my term life policy hasn't lapsed.
Only then will I exit the rental car lot and enter 528.
I often wonder why Disney, which seems to control everything in Orlando, hasn't taken over this most perilous of traffic routes. From a monetary standpoint, it makes perfect sense. After all, tourists would be apt to spend more money at Disney theme parks if they arrived in one piece. There exists a monorail within the Orlando airport -- a system that does a fine job shuttling visitors from their gates to baggage claim. Now all that's needed is an eager Disney engineer to extend this transit system out the doors and all the way to the Magic Kingdom's turnstiles. True, those not wishing to visit Disneyworld would still have to navigate 528, but at least the odds of getting clipped by an Animal Kingdom-bound minivan would decrease exponentially.
So Daytona-bound NASCAR drivers, as you attempt that late race pass or consider drafting to gain an edge, remember that others are doing the same thing nearby, only without rhyme or reason. There is no checkered flag, monetary winnings or prestige awaiting them.
It's just the price they must pay for a carefree Florida vacation.