DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Strates Shows' Giant Wheel cuts a high profile during the annual Rolex 24 race at Daytona International Speedway.
The 24-hour race took place over the final weekend of January and covers a road course in the facility's vast infield in addition to the track itself. Strates has set up rides in Daytona's infield over the past 12 years, according to Clarence Darling, one of the show's supervisors.
In addition to the Giant Wheel, the carnival featured a Sky Flyer and Construction Zone kiddie ride, plus a few games owned by Gerald Culbert and George Geotz. Culbert serves as one of the show's lot managers as well as concessions manager. A crew of about a dozen workers handles the Daytona date. The games don'
t do that well at Daytona but they make the operation look good and give it a carnival atmosphere, Culbert said.
The Giant Wheel is the big money maker. Set up on a huge property where the grandstand stretches nine-tenths of a mile long, the wheel stands out among the motor homes, concession trailers and other portable equipment tied to the event. Starting Saturday afternoon (Jan. 30) and running through the wee hours of Sunday morning, Strates officials expected up to 1,000 customers to pay $5 apiece to ride the attraction, Darling said.
"It will stay open until 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., and I'll be out here as long as there's people riding it," he said. It also costs $5 to ride Sky Flyer. The Construction Zone costs $3 per ride.
Over the past decade, Strates has set up in several different locations within the infield. The carnival used to book more rides at Daytona but has found itself with less space to work with in recent years, Darling said. At one time, Strates featured a Fireball and a large Scooter, in addition to the wheel, before the show was relocated to its present location near media parking in the middle of the infield.
The centralized location makes it easier for the local television stations to capture the Giant Wheel's bright lights as part of their Rolex 24 coverage. The ride's LED package is turned on as soon as the ride is set up on Thursday, in an effort to capture everyone's attention and lend to the flavor of the event.
"That wheel is what made Strates," Culbert said. "For a long time, it was the biggest in the carnival business."
But times change and technology has driven the need for greater flash which hopefully leads to incremental cash. Strates has a brand new Dream Wheel currently making its debut at winter fairs in Florida. The newest attraction, made by Technical Park of Italy, has LED lights attached to white tubs that may provide a glow matching the ride's color formations.
In Daytona, though, the Giant Wheel serves its purpose against the backdrop of powerful engines roaring around the property. Culbert enjoys the spot even if business is soft for his game concessions. The Boston-area native has played New England his entire life and has booked with Strates for the last few years. He helps lay out lots at some of Strates' bigger dates such as the Hamburg (N.Y.) Fair after taking the responsibility over from the retired Bob Miller.
When business is slow, Strates' skeleton crew can plug portable televisions into light poles and watch the race on television. "I come here to enjoy the racing before the season starts," Culbert said. "it's a nice little break."
Darling, at 70 years old, tried to stay retired but the Strates family keeps convincing him to stay on the road, he said, laughing. Darling, originally from Michigan, moved to Georgia in 1953 and has lived there ever since. As a kid, he worked for carnivals in Valdosta, Ga., including the old Gem City Shows. His daughter, Lauren Davis, and her husband, Leslie, work for Allen Cockerham's Carnival Americana, which was previously Bill Hames Shows.