Alaskan couple makes long trek to Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Road trips are a way of life when you live in the largest American state. For Ken and Kelly Knecht, the miles often come in bunches — but especially when they made the trek from their Alaska hometown to Daytona International Speedway.

“Up there, you’ve got to drive a long ways to get from town to town — if there’s a road even,” says Ken Knecht, 60. “Down here, it seems pretty easy to drive. We don’t mind driving at all.”

An appetite for the open road is a necessity. Fans come from all over to make their pilgrimage to the World Center of Racing, but the Knechts are among a select few hailing from The Last Frontier.

The Knechts, accompanied by Kelly’s sister Dennise Casey, are making their third trip to the 2.5-mile track, but this year is their first visit camping in an RV in the sprawling Daytona infield. Their two previous trips came in July for the Coke Zero 400; Sunday will mark their first Daytona 500.

The couple’s hometown of Eagle River is a small community just outside of Anchorage, flanked by the mountains of Chugach State Park. It’s also just a half-hour cruise to Alaska Raceway Park, a NASCAR-affiliated short track in nearby Palmer, where the Knechts attended races during their high school years.

But the Knechts’ initial connection to motorsports also extended to the days of the CART Series and their trips to that circuit’s race in Long Beach, California. When CART and IndyCar divided into rival series in the mid-1990s, the Knechts’ interest in open-wheel racing waned.

“When it kind of split, I was looking for a new racing series and found NASCAR,” says Kelly Knecht, 55. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ ”

Since discovering stock-car racing, they’ve visited several faraway tracks — Atlanta, Darlington, Sonoma, Texas, Phoenix and Charlotte among them. But among speedways on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, only Homestead is farther away from home for the Knechts.

Driving from Alaska to the opposite corner of the contiguous United States is tough enough, an estimated 77 hours of driving time and 4,700 miles. But the Knechts raised the degree of difficulty, with stops in the Seattle area, Phoenix and other business-related sidetrips before powering through to Daytona in their 2018 Tiffin RV.

“Gosh, a total of 20 days maybe getting here?” Ken Knecht says.

Continuing to cross new venues off their bucket list is what’s kept the Knechts coming back — that and the thunderous anticipation of the green flag, Ken says.

And maybe the weather. Friday’s forecast for the Anchorage area called for temperatures in the low-20s and freezing fog. In contrast, Daytona Beach enjoyed a sunny Friday that topped out at 80 degrees.

“It’s hot. I’m melting,” Kelly Knecht says with a laugh. “I have to say, I like the mornings when it’s a little cooler. … I like the beach here and the warmer weather, but I miss the mountains and the snow of Alaska. That’s home.”