Dover offers more than the excitement of racing and slots

Slot machines and a speedway may be the best-known attractions in Dover, Del.

But there's much more to do in the capital of the country's first state.

Just about two hours from Baltimore, Dover offers a variety of museums as well as great restaurants and tax-free shopping. Admission to most of the museums is free. Shopping includes a mall with more than 100 stores as well as outlet centers on the way to Dover.

The city is home to Dover Air Force Base. Base personnel have provided military air support since World War II as well as humanitarian aid in crises as diverse as the evacuation of Americans from Iran in 1978 to the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Dover itself has had a role in this country's history since the American Revolution. On Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware's constitutional delegates met here and became the first to ratify the new Constitution of the United States.

In modern times, Dover's fame has tended toward its recreation opportunities. While people in Maryland grapple with the idea of slot machines, Dover has been attracting folks from around the region to its casino and harness racing track at Dover Downs for years.

In September and again in June, NASCAR fans descend on Dover en masse to watch racing at the famed Dover International Speedway. This year's Winston Cup race - the MBNA America 400 - starts at 1 p.m. Sept. 21. Limited grandstand tickets were still available at press time.

Major attractions

Dover International Speedway (off DuPont Highway, U.S. 13, 800-441-RACE): They call it "the Monster Mile" and for good reason. This tough, 1-mile oval course of concrete offers no forgiveness to a driver who miscalculates his speed or abilities. The track has 3,200 feet of curves, and driving around it 400 times without making any mistakes can be a white-knuckled experience for even the most veteran racers.

The fall race weekend kicks off Sept. 18 with qualifying sessions for the Busch and Winston Cup races. The Busch North Series race at 4:15 p.m. Sept. 19 is 150 laps featuring the top drivers from the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Sept. 20 brings the final practice sessions for the Winston Cup drivers as well as the Stacker 200 Busch Series truck race at 1 p.m.

The jewel in the crown, however, is the Winston Cup race Sept. 21, scheduled to feature NASCAR's top contenders including Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and others. Loyal fans wouldn't miss the contest or the chance to mingle with their peers. Dover becomes the racing capital of the country for these three days.

When the track isn't in use by the professionals, novices pay big bucks for their chance to "tame the monster." The Monster Racing Excitement driving school offers the opportunity to drive 10 to 30 laps around the track in the same vehicles the big drivers use - for $329 to $899 a person. Family members can accompany the "drivers" to the stands and the pits. There's even an in-car video option to forever capture the experience.

Dover Downs (1131 N. DuPont Highway, 800-711-5882): Two thousand feet of slot machines, live harness racing from November to April, a luxury hotel and a gourmet restaurant. No wonder Dover Downs attracts visitors by the busload.

Open 8 a.m.-4 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays and noon-4 a.m. Sundays, the slots get very little rest. Denominations range from nickel to $50, and there's a premium slots area with $100 machines. Cash jackpots go to $150,000.

Horse racing is simulcast year-round, but the real excitement starts in November when live harness racing returns for the season. Dover Downs' signature event is the Progress Pace, which awarded a $337,100 final purse in 2001.

Michele's, the casino's flagship restaurant, is where Dover residents take out-of-towners they want to impress. The menu emphasizes fresh ingredients, well-prepared and presented in a white-tablecloth atmosphere. The restaurant is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and offers only brunch on Sundays.

Other attractions

Air Mobility Command Museum (1301 Heritage Road, Dover Air Force Base, 302-677-5938): The B-17G Flying Fortress, C-133 Cargomaster, P-51D Mustang and UH-1 Huey helicopter are just a few of the nearly 30 aircraft on display. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Delaware State Visitor Center (406 Federal St., 302-739-4266): Two galleries of Delaware-related exhibits as well as tourist information. Make an appointment for a guided downtown walking tour or a tour of the historic State House. You can also get information on eight state museums.

Biggs Museum of American Art (406 Federal St., 302-674-2111): Upstairs from the Visitor Center, 200 years of paintings, furniture and silver; featuring some of the best examples of craftsmanship for their time. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village (866 N. DuPont Highway, 302-734-1618): With more than 4,000 artifacts, the museum tells the history of farming and early American life in the area. Closed Mondays.

Delaware State Police Museum and Educational Center (1425 N. DuPont Highway, 302-739-7700): See how policing has changed since 1926. Hear live radio communications from the air base. Closed Saturdays and Sundays except the third Saturday of each month.

St. Jones Estuarine Research Reserve (Kitts Hummock Road, south of Dover, just past the Dickinson Plantation, 302-739-3436): Boat rides, canoe trips, walks and hands-on nature programs. Scientists here study the estuary, where fresh water from the St. Jones River meets salt water from Delaware Bay.

Where to eat

Cool Springs Fish Bar (2463 S. State St., 302-698-1955): Seafood is a specialty, the wine list is well-rounded and this restaurant would easily hold its own against the competition in a much larger city.

Sambo's Tavern (283 Front St., Leipsic, 302-674-9724): Just outside Dover, but worth mentioning because NASCAR drivers give the crab mallets a workout when they're in town. Driver Jerry Nadeau's staff awards Sambo's its coveted "four steering wheels."

The Village Inn Restaurant (just east of Dover on Route 8, 302-734-3245): Bob Thomas is a chef and member of the James Beard Foundation who, with his wife Carol, runs the acclaimed restaurant as well as the nearby Little Creek Inn bed and breakfast. Closed Mondays.

More information

Kent County Delaware Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-233-KENT or www.visit dover.com. Also visit www.doverspeedway.com, www.doverdowns.com and www.destate museums.org.

Getting there

Follow Interstate 95 north to Route 1 South. Get off in Dover and watch for signs for the speedway, Dover Downs and the city's downtown historic district. If you prefer the scenic route and want to stop for outlet shopping or a seafood dinner, follow U.S. 50 through Annapolis and across the Bay Bridge. Continue north on U.S. 301 to a right on Route 302. Turn right on Maryland Route 454 at Templeville. Route 454 becomes Route 8 at the Delaware state line. In Dover, turn left on U.S. 13 North (also called DuPont Highway) and follow the signs.

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