Birthplace of NASCAR is a historic, highfalutin, hidden gem in Daytona Beach

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The penthouse where NASCAR was founded in 1947 is now a gay bar.

Back then, Bill France Sr. walked into the four-story, art deco Streamline Hotel and, in a series of meetings, laid out the rules and regulations of what would become the nation's most popular racing organization.

Friday, two days before the 54th running of France's baby, the Daytona 500, the lobby of that same hotel, now dusty and worn, was filled with a combination of cheap NASCAR memorabilia and a line of drag queens set to sing and shake to a raucous crowd of almost exclusively male patrons gathered inside the hotel's racing-themed bar.

In all of American sports, there is no more profound juxtaposition of past and present.

This here was a fine symphony of salt air, longneck Buds, an old Ken Schrader cardboard stand-up awkwardly holding a package of Little Debbie snack cakes, cheap wigs, Kasey Kahne posters, Lady Gaga lyrics, "Do you have a husband?" pickup lines and, right there on the wall near the front desk, a historic, hopeful black-and-white photo of France and other racing enthusiasts banking on a future no one could predict.

"The times they are a-changin'," crooned entertainer Kelly Mitchell, opening the show with the classic Bob Dylan tune. And, really, who could argue with her?

Or him.

Or reality.

This was a circus in all of its glory, a simply wonderful mix of grandiosity, color and approachability right here in the birthplace of a sport that has thrived on packaging the exact same cocktail. If Bill France Sr. had ever decided to create a gay bar, this would be it: comfortable, inclusive and with beer sponsorships on every inch of the wall.

Yes, there in a room with a checkered-flag ceiling, the hood of a Busch Series car on the wall and a neon Miller Lite rainbow "Pride" sign glowing above, Kelly Mitchell and her crew were right at home.

What, this is more flamboyant than neon-green race cars? Wilder than those makeshift clubs in the infield of Daytona International Speedway?

"My favorite driver?" Mitchell said. "How about Madonna."

Mitchell laughed. Everybody laughs at this. It's funny and there is no reason to apologize for it.

"I love it," Mitchell said. "This place is anything but straight."

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An old police chief once called the Streamline a "den of iniquity," which the regulars took as a badge of honor. Developers have proposed buying the place, renovating it and turning it into a spiffed-up, NASCAR-themed museum and hotel.

Somewhere in between lies the Streamline's present reality: an aging joint with more personality than customers ($89 rooms available even on race weekend).

Where else could you purchase a Kurt Busch vintage die-cast car for $44.95 while listening to a husky drag queen belt out Shania Twain's "Man, I feel like a woman?"

"Showtime … (at the) NASCAR bar," the Streamline's promotional flyer proudly read. "Where the men are men (and so are some of the women.)"

And yet there's no denying its history – its patently cool connection to the sport that keeps this beach town famous.

In December 1947, Bill France Sr. gathered a group of racing enthusiasts in the rooftop lounge, now the "Penthouse Club." It remains the city's best perch, with crashing waves just a block to the east and the lights of the famed Daytona International Speedway, France's ultimate legacy, glowing six miles to the west.

Back then, France was trying to bring order to a sport that traced its roots back to the bootleggers flying over the dirt roads of the South during prohibition. He emerged with NASCAR but never turned his back on the outlaw nature of the sport – a populist, live-and-let-live (just live it fast) persona. What other major professional sport was born in a bar anyway?

So maybe that's why NASCAR seems comfortable with fate taking its course with the Streamline. Who is it to judge?

"Bill France Jr. came here with the mayor and dedicated the plaque outside [marking the hotel's place in NASCAR history]," hotel manager Michael Blake said. "They had no problem and they knew what business was happening here."

NASCAR is a far more progressive company than its stereotype. It's taken strong stances against the flying of the Confederate flag, engaged in outreach programs to inner cities and been home to tremendous professional opportunity for women – not just as drivers but team owners, executives, marketers and publicists.

And while its fan base is often categorized as solely Southern, rural and working class, the infield rows of tricked-out motor homes with Northern license plates and price tags pushing $400,000 tell a different story.

Perhaps it's why Blake says NASCAR fans generally range from indifferent to supportive of the Streamline. Whether it's in the expansive infield or here near the beach, this is a group that's often looking to raise a little hell before watching a little racing. The love of a fast car cuts through barriers.

"This is 2012, not 1912," Blake said. "Just as I wouldn't say they are all rednecks, they shouldn't say anything about the lifestyle of some of the people in our building. I think most people are more grown up about lifestyles now."

And of course there is this: "There are a number of people who live an alternative lifestyle that are NASCAR fans," Blake said.

Some of them on Friday were at the Streamline, where a large yet amazingly agile performer was cranking out Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" to a rowdy, hysterical throng. Then Taylor McCray delivered a rendition of "Milkshake" that was met with enough cheers to rattle the Mark Martin stand-up in the lobby which had been defaced with mascara painted around his eyes.

Mitchell was soon back in control of the microphone, complaining that McCray was unjustly skinny considering "all she does is drink and eat taquitos at 7-Eleven." And at that point, the old Streamline was up for grabs.

Somehow it all made perfect sense, with a sea breeze pushing the smoke of Marlboro Reds through the air of the precise spot of Daytona's most historic decision, in a battered and boisterous hotel that created a sport of the people, for the people. All the people.

This was Daytona 500 weekend in full effect – completely and terrifically in full effect.

"We'll be back," Kelly Mitchell would soon declare.

Yes. Yes, they will, every Friday at 11.

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