The Daytona 500
Guest Post: Vicky Akins
I don’t understand the love of racing. I watch it on TV and this is what I see: Go very fast, turn left and repeat. I just don’t get it. But because my husband is a HUGE fan, and a very thoughtful young man, who is a friend of our son’s bought him and 5 of his friends Daytona 500 tickets, we found ourselves on our way to Daytona Beach, Florida. This was my husband’s fantasy trip while I was certain it was going to be my nightmare.
I was also unaware of the amount of preparation this event apparently requires. I was informed there are coolers, ponchos, snacks, beverages and a number of miscellaneous items to be purchased and organized. I’ve never seen my husband become such an intense shopper. Price seemed to be no object; this from the same man who will stand at the grocery checkout line and mumble obscenities under his breath about the cost of food. It was fascinating. There was also the mandatory purchase of various NASCAR products: cooler cups, shirts, flags, jackets, more shirts and various other items specific to whichever driver you support. I suspect if I’d searched, I would’ve even found underwear sporting the smiling faces of drivers, but this freaked me out a bit, so I never looked.
Convinced they were suitably ‘geared up’; we headed for Daytona International Speedway. Listening to the excited conversation between the three men in the car was the equivalent of taking a bus load of small children to Disney World. There was giddiness about them I would’ve guessed had been lost since their younger years. It was almost, well, cute! Pulling in the speedway parking lot, must have truly been a spiritual experience, because amid their sudden silence, I’d swear I could hear the “Hallelujah” chorus as they gazed up at the massive stands. Once parked, we were then shuttled and re-shuttled to a ‘sacred place called the ‘Fan Zone’. This is like a NASCAR carnival. Thousands of similarly dressed people, from all walks of life, roamed about the infield, where they could watch the crew work on the cars, or the drivers giving interviews to the news crews or even get their picture taken with the actual Championship trophy. There were also at least half a dozen more temporary stores set up and filled with merchandise, you know, just in case someone hadn’t completed the mandatory pre-race shopping spree. Music blared as the country styling of a local band entertained those who’d stopped for a burger and a cold drink, or perhaps just to sit down with another fan and discuss why they thought their driver was the best.
While we socialized, I learned about the cars and how they undergo strict inspection for adherence to the rules and specifications. I learned which drivers were the most loved and which ones don’t top the popularity list because they don’t always play well with others. Yes, apparently there are even ‘bad guys’ in NASCAR. It was really very educational and I tried to absorb it all and maybe catch a little of that enthusiasm they all shared, but I still just didn’t ‘get it’.
When it’s almost time to start the race, fans walk from the infield, across the track to the grandstands. Some cross almost reverently, pausing to have their picture taken or kneel down and feel the pavement. Others run, trying to gain the momentum needed to climb from the infield to the stands because the track banks upward approximately 18 degrees. In the corners of some speedways, it can bank at or above three stories high, a fact which most of us who are not racing aficionados didn’t know. I’m woman enough to admit at one point I thought the tracks were flat. It wasn’t until a visit to Talladega International Speedway with Midlife Road Trip that I learned how very wrong I was. The angles can be steep, which gave me an entirely new respect for how difficult it must be for those drivers to control the cars.
When it was time to begin, a blessing is spoken for the drivers, our troops and our country. A moving rendition of the National anthem fills the field with an almost palpable pride which is followed by the exhilarating thunder of the Blue Angels flyover before the Master of Ceremonies recites the words every fan lives to hear, “Drivers, start your engines.” The crowd erupts in excitement and over 150,000 people leap to their feet to wait for that moment when the pace car pulls off into pit row and the adrenaline rush begins.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed and bored to tears. I was dreading the noise level because the older I get, the more my appreciation for quiet grows. I was prepared to be looking at my watch every ten minutes to see how much longer I had to endure this torture. But when those 40 plus cars sped by in a heartbeat, the stands beneath my feet shuddered, the bleachers shook and what sounded like 10,000 lions roared past chasing their prey. My heart pounded. The smell of racing fuel filled my nose and lungs. I stood up with the crowd and their voices echoed in my ears. I stretched and twisted around trying to watch them for as long as I could, before they disappeared from sight and I found myself excitedly anticipating when they would come around again. I agonized with every other fan when the lead was taken from the driver I found myself rooting for. I leapt to my feet at every crash. Over and over they rumbled past and with each lap I became more immersed in the scene around me, reveling in the skill and sheer grit and determination it must take to be a driver. Before I knew it, my husband’s favorite driver was crossing the finish line, grabbing the checkered flag and burning the tires up and down the stretch of track, waving at all the cheering fans…including me. I watched my husband’s exhilaration, smiling with pride like he’d just run the race himself and realized that in his mind and the minds of every die-hard fan, they had. It’s called the ‘Great American Race’ because everyone who loves it is a very real part of it.
And I’m proud to say that after all these years of not understanding what is so special about a bunch of cars circling a track over and over again….I finally get it.