Instead of doing my usual routine of talking about a certain driver or off-track drama, I wanted to take a different approach this week. I would like to share a personal story from last year’s Fourth of July – my experience going to the Daytona International Speedway for the first time. It is a recollection of my day spent out there, but it is meant to be about Daytona and the impact it has had on one man.
One year ago this week, I fell in love. At the age of 23 years old, I had been going to every Talladega race for the past decade, along with a few other tracks sprinkled in. However, I had yet to make a trip to the track that put NASCAR on the map, the legendary Daytona International Speedway. It’s a good nine hour drive from where I live, and issues like time and money had always prevented me from making the trip.
That all changed last year when I impulsively made the decision to purchase tickets to the Coke Zero 400 (one of very few impulsive choices I don’t regret). I was finally going! My travel companion would be my girlfriend Katie, who was almost as excited. She has a cousin who lives in Jacksonville, and she graciously allowed us to stay at her house for the trip. This was huge, because as many of you know, finding a free or cheap place to stay for a race is next to impossible. Jacksonville is a little over an hour a way from the speedway, so it was a convenient location.
Come Saturday morning, the day of the race, I am more excited than I was as a kid on Christmas. However, I start getting my typical race day anxiety as well. Will my seats be okay? How will traffic and parking be? Will it rain? All of these thoughts constantly filled my mind while trying to leave as early as possible – since it was going to be just a day trip, I wanted to make the most out of our time down there.
I will never forget making the exit off of Interstate 95 into the speedway. The anticipation of seeing the track for the first time ever was at its peak. I roll down the windows to take in the Daytona air and listen to the Grand Am cars roaring around the speedway. We could hear the track, but still no sight of it yet.
Then, out of nowhere, the massive facility appears, towering over us with a welcome only DIS could do. Think of Homer Simpson when he sees a doughnut; that was the look on my face when my eyes finally made contact with the speedway (minus the drool of course). Seconds later, we see the bridge that says “Welcome to Daytona Beach,” the same one you always see on the pre-race shows. It was really cool to see that as well. At this time, there wasn’t any rush to park; I wanted to drive to the other end of the track and soak in all of its outside surroundings. That, and parking up close was a whooping 80 dollars.
All of this was completely different than my home track of Talladega, where miles of empty land surround the area along with plenty of free parking. Here at Daytona, retail stores and restaurants engulf the area, and once the shock factor started to wear off, I realize that we were going to be in for a long walk if I wanted cheap parking. We eventually found a spot for ten dollars, and had a good six plus hours to walk around the venue.
I did my usual at the track routine of hitting up all the souvenir trailers and made a few purchases. Daytona USA, which is located just outside of turn four, was the next stop. If there was any let down on the trip, this was it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really cool place. The problem was that the only attraction they were showing on race day was a 3D video, which we decided to pass on. Other than that, it was just more souvenirs for sale, a place to eat, and air conditioning. The “restaurant” they have is called the Turn 4 Grill, which sounds pretty fancy; however, it turned out to be nothing more than your regular track concession stand.
You know what though? Concession stand food tastes twice as good when you are at Daytona.
As we made our way to our seats, it began to drizzle, which is a race fan’s worst fear. I wasn’t heading back home the next day, but I certainly did not want to drive back to Jacksonville only to come right back the next day (even if there were any cheap hotels around, they were all sold out 70 miles outside the track). The rain got worse and it was time to purchase ponchos. This is what I had been dreading for hours, as Mother Nature certainly had been teasing us with rain all day. As it is with a typical summer shower however, the rain quickly subsided and we decided to wait from our seats. Somehow, I enjoyed watching the jet dryers at work; I counted how many laps they made to dry the track, which was only four I believe. Now you know why you never hear me say a race is boring.
I would also be remiss not mention looking at turn four during the delay, realizing what occurred there ten years ago. It was surreal knowing that was the spot that took Dale Earnhardt’s life. Dale was never my favorite driver growing up, but I always respected the heck out of him and appreciated all the battles he had here.
After a two hour delay, the green flag finally waved. Boogity, boogity, boogity! No, I didn’t actually say that, but I’m sure the noises coming out of my mouth made less sense. While on that subject, for those of you who have never attended a race, the best thing about it is you don’t have to listen to commentary or watch what the television puts in front of you. You are your own director; you chose which driver to follow and what battles to see. As long as you have a scanner, you will know more than what you hear on the television as well.
The night ended with Kevin Harvick in victory lane, with the usual restrictor plate chaos occurring in the final few laps. Quite frankly, it didn’t matter who won that night or how eventful the contest was. I finally witnessed my first race at Daytona, enjoying a summer evening outdoors with thousands of other race fans. Instantly, I became addicted to the track, and knew I would have to come back to the Daytona 500 in seven months (which, thanks to my Dad, I was able to).
I won’t be going to this weekend’s Coke Zero 400. Part of me feels down that I won’t be there, but at the same time I am so grateful that I got to go. Words can’t describe how much I enjoyed my day there, so I can only tell you this; if you ever have the opportunity to go to Daytona, make it happen. You won’t regret it.
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