A group of well-mannered men recently went on an excellent trip to Daytona Beach. I was fortunate to be among them. Let me observe that bicycle racing and auto racing are at the polar extremes of the racing world. Perhaps if I knew more about bicycle racing I could write something about that sport, but sadly, I merely “race” around town on a mountain bike.
During my visit to Daytona Beach I did not observe any bicycle racing. Instead, I spent most of my time at the Daytona International Speedway watching NASCAR races. The title of this piece was going to be “NASCAR Baby!” but I feared it might cause some to refrain from reading further. Sorry for the bait and switch, but this little story is actually for those who know little or nothing about NASCAR, so keep reading.
The weekend after the Fourth of July saw the running of the Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway. Some of you may know this race as the “Firecracker 400” but Coca-Cola has seen fit to shower significant funds on NASCAR for the honor of putting its name to one of the most significant races on the NASCAR schedule.
I have been travelling to NASCAR races for nearly ten years with my brothers and friends. Each trip has been a fantastic adventure featuring great camaraderie and spectacular racing. This trip did not disappoint on either count. I was fortunate to accompany my good friend Jack Matava on this mission, and let me assure you that no one knows Daytona as well as Jack—and no one has Jack’s connections at the track. We linked up with my brother Pete and his friends from New York as well as Jack’s multiple friends from all over for a weekend of racing festivities. Some of us arrived the day before the Nationwide race and were able to hit some of the Daytona Beach landmarks such as the Boot Hill Saloon, the North Curve, Ponce Inlet, McDougall's and, according to some photos I found on my camera, the Cabbage Patch. One would be hard pressed to engage in a better warm-up for a Daytona race than the itinerary we followed.
Daytona Beach played a significant role in the history of NASCAR and you really cannot go anywhere in town without a reminder—particularly the North Curve restaurant and bar. It sits on Daytona’s beautiful white sand beach at the location of the old track’s North curve--but you guessed that didn’t you? Yes, the track was once situated on the beach and the popularity of the venue spawned one of the most famous racetracks in the history of NASCAR. The photographic memorabilia on the walls of the North Curve is a “must see” for any race fan visiting Daytona.
The track is now situated further inland and adjacent to the airport and the highway. Daytona is one of the “superspeedways” where the cars nudge over 200 MPH. The 2.5 mile tri-oval (folks, there is no such shape, but that’s what they call it) has an infield that is a city unto itself and we were fortunate to have garage and pit passes (hot) for both the Nationwide and Cup races. Our access to the garage area allowed us to watch the cars as they were prepped, wheeled in and out of the inspection area, and then to the pit area as we followed the crews. Some of us even spent part of the race in the pits as the cars came roaring in and out for tires and gas. The pit areas are crowded with the crews, spare tires, gas cans, and all of the equipment needed to keep the cars adjusted and running—and a few nosy fans. The aroma of brake dust and gasoline prevails in the pits during the race. Calm down, there’s more.
The pit stands where the crew chief (think manager of a baseball team) and others sit during the race are likewise beehives of activity. There are also the unsung heroes some of us listen to on our race scanners—the spotters. During the race each driver has a spotter atop the grandstand that guides him (or her—go Danica!) through the packs of cars travelling up to 200 MPH while only inches apart. Many folks do not realize how important the spotters have become as NASCAR has instituted safety measures to protect the drivers from neck and head injuries such as the horrible injuries that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. The ability of the drivers to turn their heads is practically zero due to the tethers and braces that hold their helmets in a safe position.
After an incredible finish to the Nationwide race on Friday night we spent the day on Saturday gearing up for the Cup race. The pre-race ceremonies concluded with Robin Mead singing the National Anthem as a B-52 Stratofortress (I love that word) flew low over the track past the Goodyear Blimp. NASCAR knows how to put on a show and the Air Force (or Navy Air) always gets in on the act much to the delight of the fans. Our armed forces have a heavy presence at the races as both car sponsors and outside the track in the fan zones where all manner of military vehicles are on display alongside the trailers full of NASCAR swag. In keeping with NASCAR’s respect for our veterans we were also treated to a series of testimonials about living Medal of Honor recipients who were on stage as their stories were told. Let me observe that a living Medal of Honor recipient is a rare commodity as the acts of valor necessary to win the Medal of Honor typically involve sacrificing one’s life. The stories of these remarkable men are things we do not hear often enough. Over 100,000 people fell silent as their stories were told. I am happy to report that patriotism and respect for our men and women in the armed services is alive and well in NASCAR nation.
Many people who have never seen a race except for a snippet on television cannot understand how much is going on behind the scenes and the various strategies employed by the drivers and their crews. Sitting up high opposite pit road during the race affords a perspective unavailable on television. Unlike most other sporting events, the best seats in the house at a NASCAR race are near the top of the grandstand. Don’t make the mistake of buying a seat at track level or you will see very little of the race and you will be picking little bits of tire debris out of your beer all race long (although I have been told that tire debris is non toxic). NASCAR on television is a pale reflection of what one sees live at the track. I spend much of my time with people who are not race fans and I always marvel at how quickly they dismiss its entertainment value (“rednecks turnin’ left”) never having attended a race. My explanations about the value of seeing a race in person sometimes make me feel like I’m trying to convince a child to try a new food with no success. I will submit to you that more people who see a race in person come away exclaiming, “Wow! I did not expect that!” A race fan is born. How do you think a lawyer from Connecticut who golfs and rides a bicycle got hooked?
I would be remiss if I did not mention one of our side trips to Jack’s farm in New Smyrna Beach. I have been searching for words to describe his ten-acre wonder and the only description that seems to fit is “playpen for men.” Use your imagination, but think of a place where every vehicle known to man is garaged along with a saloon, some farm animals, a pond and some catfish thrown in for good measure
Stay tuned for my next post about Yoga class in New Orleans.