The idea to go to the 50th running of the Daytona 500 was born in Italy last summer. During a lazy afternoon by the pool, a couple of days before I was married, I was explaining to my best man how much I loved NASCAR when he admitted that he had been watching some highlights of the races on late-night British TV. So, we made a snap decision to go to the big race; all that was left was the question of logistics. The how part was simple; it would have to be a road trip. Roping in a great friend of mine from New York, I planned out a five-day, 2,500-mile round trip for the three of us, with the signature event being the 500 and a pre-race pit tour from a buddy of mine in the business who would act as our chaperone for the day.
My two traveling companions are both confirmed petrol-heads – one is a real Formula 1 enthusiast, but you could have written his knowledge of NASCAR on the back of a postage stamp with a paintbrush. I knew in some senses that I was taking a little bit of a risk by exposing them. Still, I figured they’d enjoy the full on NASCAR “experience,” and, if nothing else, a trip to the Deep South would be an eye-opening experience at the very least. Arriving nice and early at the track, we availed ourselves of perhaps the most turgid cheeseburgers in the history of fried food before heading through the tunnel to the infield with our host. At this point, he whipped out his little surprise for us – hot passes, credentials that enabled us to stay on pit road during the race.
Our first port of call was the Sprint Cup garage, where we spent a good 10 minutes analyzing the technical details of Martin Truex Jr.‘s engine before heading over to the driver’s motor coach lot to see if we could spot some of the stars. We weren’t disappointed, either, as we saw a parade of some of the biggest names in the sport walk by – not to mention Brian France zipping past on a canary yellow motorbike. We then made a quick stop in a luxury RV belonging to a contact of our host, where we were given drinks and sandwiches and were generally made to feel as welcome as if we were old friends.
Fully satiated, we then headed across to pit road. We picked up some used lugnuts from Kyle Busch‘s crew, who were selling them for a dollar a pop. From there, we wandered into the infield to watch the lip-syncing fiasco that was the pre-race show, along with the rather bizarre display of flag waving and very unrhythmic gymnastics. But in the midst of all that nonsense, the most impressive part of the pre-race shenanigans was watching the cars of previous winners driving past, with the Plymouth Superbird in particular getting the most attention. After the festivities were over, we walked across the infield grass to the finish line to snap a photo, and were lucky enough to be the last three people on the track before the real action began.
Sauntering back across to pit road, we ended up in Bobby Labonte‘s pit box and stood in line with the firesuit-clad crew for both the invocation and the National Anthem. To say this was super exciting was putting it mildly, although there was no doubt we felt slightly out of place – even if we loved every minute of it. As the race began, we hopped back across the wall and hung out in Sam Hornish Jr.‘s pit for the command, where the throaty roar of 43 engines and the heady mix of adrenaline, excitement and gasoline was unmistakable. Then, we walked down to Denny Hamlin‘s pit, where we stood right on the yellow line of his stall and watched another 60 laps.
That happened to encompass two pit stops for the No. 11 Toyota. No matter how many times you see a pit stop from the stands or on television, nothing compares to seeing it up close and personal. It’s from this angle (five yards away) that you really get a sense for just how talented, dedicated and choreographed these crew guys are.
With half the race now in the books, we decided to head up to the grandstand, giving us a chance to see the race from yet another perspective. Our seats were in the Oldfield Tower, affording us an almost perfect view of the cars barreling through turns 3 and 4. Then, with some 40 laps to go, I walked down to the front of the stand with the intention of getting as close to the catchfence as possible. As I fiddled with my camera to record some action, David Ragan slammed into the wall – literally right next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I jumped back a mile as dirt and tiny pieces of debris showered down around me.
Strolling back to car after the race, I was interested to hear what my boys thought. Their responses were interesting. Both were impressed by the sheer razzmatazz and scale of the “world-class event,” and both were completely blown away by the friendliness and the approachability of everyone we met – especially the crew guys we talked to, who had happily answered their technical questions. They were also impressed by the fan-centric nature of the sport. Or, as one noted: “It’s a lot better than spending 200 pounds ($400) to go to an F1 race, get treated terribly, and only see the cars go ’round one corner.” But the most telling part for my two new NASCAR converts is that they’re already signed up for another road trip – namely RV’ing to Talladega in October.
Opportunities like we had on Sunday are few and far between, and, to a certain extent, it was the sort of experience you couldn’t really buy. To say our host did us proud would be an understatement of almost mythical proportions. The only issue we were left with, though, was how do you possibly repay someone for such a perfect day?