It’s kind of a pilgrimage every year, returning to Daytona for the 500. This year was a little different, knowing that it was the 50th running of the race and they’d have plenty of special things line up to celebrate. (Not technically the 50th “anniversary, but the 50th running of the race). And they did have all of the past champions there with fireworks and a special gold and white-checkered pattern to commemorate the occasion.
It’s a spectacle.
I mean a spectacle that makes the Super Bowl look like an amateur. It’s not like any other NASCAR race. Other races have qualifying and maybe a Nationwide race on Saturday but Daytona is a week. Or two, thus the designation of “Speedweeks.” And fans set their calendars to this “celebration.” They take at least a week off, show up in their trailers, RV’s pickups or whatever and plant themselves for the next 10 days.
It used to be that they made everybody leave the track before Thursday and then re-enter for the weekend. That was a huge cluster so they’ve streamlined it and now it becomes it’s own city inside the track. In turns three and four, people set up small tents and camp for the duration. On the east side of the infield there are travel trailers with flags flying and cases of beer in the beds of pickup trucks. Moving west, the trailers give way to million dollar luxury buses, all complete with flat screens but with their own bonfires and outdoor setups.
One fan sets up a Tiki bar every year, complete with a thatched roof and the small paper lanterns. Thursday night when I left, he had at least 500 people as “guests.” (I’m back and forth a few times during the week to cover different events. For the past few years I’ve left via the turn one tunnel and because I drive a foreign car (BMW) I get a lot of strange looks. Honest. If it’s not American made or a truck, it’s out of place. Maybe that’ll change with Toyota making some inroads.)
Luxury busses have made a big change in the infield at Daytona. Since they built the turn one tunnel they can arrive at their leisure instead of at only certain times to cross over the track. You can tell that it’s made a huge difference. Also since Monday was a holiday, most fans stayed Sunday night, making an even more festive atmosphere. (It would have only been crazier if Junior had won.)
It used to take hours to leave the infield because the trucks and buses couldn’t depart until the race was over and they could cross over the track. Now the tunnel allows big rigs to leave when they’re ready.
The people watching is unbelievable as you might imagine. But first and foremost the people there are fans. Big time fans. Everybody has a driver allegiance and they display it as loudly and as proudly as they can. It’s really a cult of personality multiplied by at least 43 times. More if you count the folks still tied to Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. (I’d wear my “3” stuff occasionally but what I’d really like is some throwback Cale Yarborough swag.)
Everywhere you go is packed. Even the pits, where you could get away from the craziness in the past are now packed with people. Some watching the race on the track, some watching the pits and others with their back to the track and watching the race on the 30-foot big screen next to Victory Lane.
The race was somewhat uneventful until the end, and I’m sure that’s how NASCAR likes it. The first caution wasn’t thrown until 81 laps in, and that was for the phantom “debris on the track.” There wasn’t “the big one” that everybody waits for at the super speedways and that’s good. Just some high speed bumping in the final laps as drivers jockeyed for position. The finish showed why you need help at Daytona with Kyle Busch pushing Ryan Newman past Tony Stewart to the checkered flag.
Newman had a fast car all week but Stewart was the man to beat. Had Busch decided he wanted to win instead of pushing his teammate to victory, Stewart would have caught and passed him.
Since they rebuilt Victory Lane, the crowd inside has swelled and swelled each year. There’s a media section for photogs and another for television and a third and fourth for fans and VIP’s. But what’s happened is that the floor of Victory Lane is now packed with family members and other assorted visitors. The entire Thunderbird squad was crammed in there. Not just the pilots who did the flyover but the information officers, mechanics and anybody else in a blue jumpsuit and a T-Birds patch.
They fire off cannons of confetti, this year gold metallic to mark the 50th running, so that’s everywhere. There’s Gatorade everywhere and chaos reigns. It’s pretty well managed by NASCAR who take the winning driver where he needs to be, from Speed Channel to the local media, to the hands and feet in the concrete station and back up on stage for about 50 pictures with different hats on.
I was glad to get a chance to speak to Roger Penske in Victory Lane. After more than 20 years of coming to Daytona, he finally had the winning car. I believe he’s the only car owner to have winners at Daytona and at Indianapolis and he said, “I hadn’t thought of that, but with 14 wins at Indy, we have a ways to go here!”
Penske is a top-shelf guy, and seems like the kind of guy you want to work for. I’ve been around him a few times and he’s always been extremely gracious. I thanked him for that the last time I spoke to him at the announcement that Detroit was getting Super Bowl XL and he laughed. But the guy standing next to him stepped out and introduced himself as the Mayor of Detroit and said, “You’re right, he’s the greatest isn’t he?” So that was a pretty solid endorsement.
Everybody should experience Daytona, if only once.
There’s nothing like it.