About 20 miles outside of Jacksonville, Florida, the headlights on our 1965 Mustang went out. Pitch-black, at 75 mph. I immediately slowed as I pulled and pushed on the light knob. Nothing. I flipped the fog lamp switch. One lit up, but it was pointed at the trees lining the freeway. Tightly gripping the steering wheel, I leaned forward, straining to see through the windshield’s rock chips and bug guts. I could barely make out the reflectors embedded in the white line along the shoulder. My copilot, Daniel Golson, stuck his head out of the passenger-side window as I pressed the brakes. “Well, we still have those,” he yelled back into the Ford. Ducking in behind a passing car, we leeched off other motorists’ headlights to the next exit.
When Daniel, also an auto writer, and I realized we were both covering the Daytona 500, we decided a bro-trip from the Big Peach to Daytona Beach, ahead of the 500, would be the perfect way to catch up and hang out.
Our journey began in Duluth, a small town northeast of Atlanta, where we had reserved a red-over-red 1965 Mustang fastback on DriveShare, the Hagerty service that allows you to rent classics and other fun-to-drive cars from their owners. Bob and Gale Baker handed me the keys to their Mustang while Daniel finished the checkout process on the DriveShare app with a couple taps on his phone screen. I hopped in, pumped the gas pedal twice, and turned the key. The Mustang sprang to life. Less than five minutes from the shady streets of Duluth where we started, I was flicking the chrome turn signal to merge onto I-285, a menacing loop of highway that encircles Atlanta with a wall of traffic.
Seeking relief from the bustle at a freeway diner just south of Hot’Lanta, we spent breakfast looking out the window from our plastic booth, gawking at our new old car. With our bellies full of pancakes and bacon, we merged back onto I-75. The morning slog had thinned by then, so I gave the Mustang more juice. The 289-cubic-inch V-8 piped a confident tin-can burble out of the stock exhaust. In an unfamiliar old car, everything is new. The T-bar handle on the automatic three-speed wobbled, the rope-thin steering wheel vibrated, and the tachometer bounced around in the housing. After an hour at the wheel, we grew accustomed to all the quirks, and we had yet to break down, so we drafted an omni-explanation for every rattle, whine, and tick: “It just does that.”
An hour down the road was the Allman Brothers Band Museum in Macon, Georgia. In 1971, the band popularized the term Hot’Lanta with a grinding funk instrumental of the same name, but the Tudor-style mansion known as The Big House is closed on Tuesdays. We salvaged the stop by cruising through a few of Macon’s fourteen historic districts in our historic fastback. College Street is a narrow two-lane lined with century-old estates that runs from Little Richard Boulevard (named after another Macon celebrity) to Rose Hill Cemetery. We capped our visit with a drive-by salute to the four members of the Allman Brothers Band interred at Rose Hill, including Duane and Gregg. Keep on keepin’ on.
Late afternoon. Radio stations crackled in and out of tune as we drove. Hibernating oak trees, patches of pignut hickory, and military-straight ranks of farmed loblolly pines lined the road. We started to rank the best highway billboards, settling on “Strippers: Beautiful Ladies and World Famous Wings” as the winner and “Carrol’s Sausage and Country Store” for runner-up. At a Valdosta gas stop, we were approached by a greasy diesel mechanic in striped overalls. He circled the car and said, “Is that a 289 in there? I bet it’s fast.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but I wish it was a little faster.”
He said, “No, that’s enough for you.”
The sun set as pink rays through our quarter-window, and shortly after, our headlights went down, too. Google informed us that the Mustang’s headlight switch is the weak link. Having no spares, we soldiered on, cheering when we spied the first green road sign for Daytona. Streetlights lit the rest of the way, and fingers were crossed that we wouldn’t pass any cops. I dropped Daniel at his hotel and drove on to the Speedway, bathed in white light like a band about to crank it up.
I had the next few days to rove around Daytona. First stop Wednesday morning: the Streamline Hotel, a mint-green four-story where NASCAR’s founding members met back in 1947. Still in operation and the oldest standing hotel on Daytona Beach, the Streamline is a tourist attraction for race fans. On this particular Wednesday, the adjacent parking lot was filled with old stock cars, including an Oldsmobile Super 88. Owner and Hagerty member Bill Blair, Jr., watched his father, Blair, Sr., hoist the first-place trophy at the 1953 Daytona beach race in an identical car.
After bench racing with Blair, Jr., and the other old-timers outside of the Streamline, I headed south on Florida State Road A1A. A section of the tarmac served as the front stretch of the old Daytona Beach Road Course, before the superspeedway was built inland in 1959. Now the road is a strip of resorts and condos, but as I pressed harder on the loud pedal, it was fun to imagine what it was like to trade paint with Hudson Hornets and Lincoln Cosmopolitans before chucking it all into the first turn.
That night, I attended a local short-track race in New Smyrna, 15 miles south of Daytona. New Smyrna Speedway, a proving ground for weekend racers, is as rubber-stained as it is beer-soaked. Some drivers are gunning to race in the big show one day, while others are happy to bang doors and travel to the next paved bullring. Because of New Smyrna Speedway’s proximity to Daytona, NASCAR Cup Series drivers have been known to hop in a car and show the locals how to go fast and turn left. NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans once said, “If you can win at New Smyrna, you can win anywhere in the United States.” Kyle Busch, the 2019 Cup Series champ, was fielding a car that night. Before the race, I sat in the infield of the half-mile oval and watched a driver pull hard on a cigarette while strapping into his race car. He was ready to bang doors.
Next morning, seeking refuge from the strip malls and condos of Daytona, I wandered out to Ocala National Forest and spent the next two nights deep in the woods, inside a trailer. Landlord Dave Personett was once an SCCA hotshoe, but now he spends his retirement caring for his miniature donkeys and renting refurbished houses on Airbnb. The national forest contains more than 600 lakes, rivers, and springs, and hardly any traffic or stoplights. I cruised for hours.
On race day, I tucked the Mustang in a distant paved lot and rode the tram. Rolling out of the Speedway’s tunnel under Turn One was like being born into a new world. The dueling perfumes of race fuel and barbecue swirled around the 180-acre infield. More than 100,000 fans packed the grandstands. Rowdy fans in brightly colored racing T-shirts and cutoff shorts cheered from plywood viewing platforms affixed to the roofs of buses and motorhomes. The rigs were parked so closely together that their mirrors were touching. This party was reaching a crescendo. Gentlemen, start your engines.
The field of 40 stock cars roared under the green flag to start the 500, accelerating to 200 mph, or a football field per second. Among them were a gaggle of Mustangs. The purpose-built, tube-chassis race cars could hardly be considered Mustangs, and compared with Bob and Gale’s ’65, they were eons apart. The only similarity: These Mustangs didn’t have lights, either.
Or, indeed, propellers. A biblical deluge suspended the race after only 20 laps. When what had become The Days and Nights of the Daytona 500 resumed the following Monday, it was a crash fest, ending with last-lap leader Ryan Newman getting stuffed hard into the wall just moments from victory and sliding across the finish line on his roof while trailing licks of flame. By then, the old, fritzy Mustang and I were gone, ramblin’ back to Atlanta and the world of responsibilities. Big wheels rolling on and on, as the Brothers sang, but everything’s gonna be alright.