Racin’ and Fishin’ at Daytona

I’ve been pretty fortunate in my journalism career to do some exciting things and meet some interesting people. I’ve often said that I had the second best job in the world, Pat Summerall and now Jim Nantz topping that list. And you might have heard me say more than once, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. I’ve had breakfast with Ali, lunch with Richard Petty and beers with Arnold Palmer. Tony Trabert is one of my best friends. What’s not to like?”

Add to that list now, I’ve fished in Lake Lloyd.

If you’re not a NASCAR fan, you’ve never heard of Lake Lloyd and have no idea where it is. Because Lake Lloyd sits in the middle of Daytona International Speedway.

When Bill France, Sr. was building the Speedway in the late ‘50’s, they dug down in the middle of the racetrack to grab enough dirt to build the 31-degree banking in the turns. When the track was finished in 1959, France named the lake after a local car dealer in Daytona who had given him his first job as a mechanic in the 1930’s.

At 44-acres, the lake was a little close to the edge of the track and a few times cars did end up in the lake so it was trimmed down to it’s current 29-acre size. Early NASCR Driver “Tiger” Tom Pistone was so fearful about driving into Lake Lloyd. he’d keep scuba gear in his car. Just in case.

France also had the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission come in and stock the lake with bass. And it rarely gets fished.

So when the invitation came from NASCAR to fish in Lake Lloyd with 2011 Coke Zero Sugar champion David Ragan, I immediately said yes.

I’ve bass fished for about 35 years and since my friend and former Georgia and NFL quarterback Matt Robinson taught me how to bass fish, I thought it was only fitting that I invited him to go along. Matt was there to get some pictures of me fishing with Ragan and if the chance came, throw a line in Lake Lloyd.

Ragan lists his hometown as Unadilla, Georgia, just south of Macon along I-75. “Being from a small town, I’ve had a chance to fish in some ponds,” Ragan said before jumping onto the bass boat waiting at the dock. He fished with Daytona President Chip Wile and looked right at home with a pole in his hands. The media was aboard two pontoon boats waiting our turn to join them.

Actually during the NASCAR races, any fan in the infield can fish from the dock at the lake. And there’s a charity fishing tournament held there before the Daytona 500. But a chance to get into a boat and fish some of the nooks and crannies, some of the structure and the drainpipes was something special.

Smartly, the folks from Bass Pro Shops who supplied the boats and the fishing equipment put an extra couple of poles in the media boats.

Before you knew it, Wile had caught three good-sized fish along the southwest corner of the lake. Ragan pulled two to the boat on successive casts. It was pretty windy but the tackle provided was able to handle that.

While we were maneuvering to get more pictures of Ragan and Wile fishing, Robinson, in the photographers boat, and me, in the reporters boat, rigged up some green worms and got lines in the water.

If you’ve ever fished with friends, you know those dual, simultaneous feelings that come over you when they hook the first fish. You’re thrilled for them, and at the same time more determined than ever to have something happen on the end of you line.

That’s how I felt when I looked up to see Matt standing on the side of the boat with his line bent in half reeling a bass to the boat. No sooner had he held it up to show me when I felt that familiar “tap-tap” in my hands. I set the hook hard but the line didn’t move so I figured I was snagged on the bottom.

That’s when the drag started signing with the line going in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, I brought what turned out to be a 4-6 lb. bass to the boat. He was big enough that I couldn’t get him out of the water with just the line and the pole.

I was feeling pretty good when I showed him to the guide on our boat who said, “You could throw a sledgehammer in here and catch a fish,” to a big laugh.

Ragan was clearly enjoying himself when I jumped aboard his boat. He had reeled in a few fish and helped a couple of novice reporters catch their first ever in the process.

After this season, NASCAR will move the second race at Daytona to the end of the year, the final qualifying race before the playoffs. Ragan was nostalgic about racing this Saturday at Daytona for the final time during the 4th of July holiday weekend.

“I love coming here,” he said. “When I was a kid, I knew we were going to sit around the house and watch the Firecracker 400 (now the Coke Zero Sugar 400). It was something we knew we were going to do. My dad (Ken Ragan) got to race here. I was fortunate to win here. It’s really special to me and my family.”

Ragan’s father is involved in his career and according to David, sometimes just shakes his head at how technology has changed the sport.

“He shakes his head a lot,” Ragan said with a laugh. “We have a group of engineers using simulation two weeks ahead of the race to prepare. We know the car, the engine. We’ve scanned the racetrack for the different bumps, the width, everything about it.”

“We know when we hit the racetrack about what we’re going to do,” he explained. “Just 15 years ago you’d have to do all of that with a smart guy pulling wrenches here at the track after a practice session. Now we’ve got smart guys pecking on the computer. But when they throw the green flag its still man vs. machine.”

At 33 years old, Ragan could be considered in the prime of his career. But the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are reminders that driving a racecar won’t last forever.

“Driving is a short window in the big span of my life and I want to make hay while the sun’s out,” he said. “Wives and girlfriends and children have to put up with a lot, but it won’t be forever.”

He admitted it was difficult to leave his two young daughters that morning for this appearance at Daytona.

“Sometimes you miss things you want to be at,” he said.

When I motioned to the water with a smile he answered,

“But hey, we caught fish!”

Lagasse Continues Speed Tradition

There’s always been a connection between North Florida and NASCAR.

LeeRoy Yarbrough called Jacksonville home and won 14 times on the top -rated NASCAR Grand National Circuit.
Speedway Park, also know as Jacksonville Speedway, was a half-mile dirt track at Lenox Avenue and Plymouth Street in what was then called “Southwest” Jacksonville.

The track hosted seven NASCAR Grand National races, won by racing legends like Lee Petty and David Pearson. Wendell Scott won the race there in 1963, and was the first and remains the only only African-American driver to win on NASCAR’s top circuit. Jacksonville Speedway closed in 1973 and a housing development now occupies that spot.

From his shop in St. Augustine, Scott Lagasse, Jr. continues that North Florida speed tradition.

His father, Scott Lagasse, Sr. had been a racecar driver for all of Scott Jr.’s life. He faintly recalled his dad’s success in the Sports Car Club of America Corvette Challenge Series in St. Petersburg in October of 1989.

“I can barely remember that,” Scott says, “But his original Corvette Challenge car was from Jack Wilson Chevrolet. He got wrecked early but came back and won.”

Lagasse Sr. raced 39 times across the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck series after winning back-to-back SCCA National Championships in the ‘80’s.

“A couple out of Wisconsin bought that Challenge Series Corvette sometime in the ‘90’s,” he explained. “They restored it and got all the ratings. They called us last year and said, ‘It’s time for it to go back to its home’ and sent it to the shop. It sits there now. It’s really cool.”

Scott Jr. knew early on he wanted to race.

“I remember my first motor cross bike for sure. I wasn’t good on two wheels, I was better on four,” he said this week as he prepared to drive the #4 Camaro for JD Motorsports Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series.

“I got in a car my dad was using to transition from the road track to the oval world. It was a fast car at St. Augustine Speedway. I ran my first race and won. I just had to lean on 30 years of stuff that was going in my ear,” Lagasse said with a laugh of his quick learning curve.

The Lagasse’s are operating out of a huge race shop right on San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine. Just less than 20,000 square feet and sharing that space with “Art’nMotion,” they also have a fabrication shop next door, “Where we do our real gritty, nasty work,” according to Scott.

A competitive nature has always been a part of Lagasse’s personality. A multi-faceted athlete, Scott says driving a racecar feeds that perfectly.

“It’s just a form of competition. The sport has competitive people. There’s the thrill of having to be perfect. It’s a high-speed chess game out there. A tenth of a second matters and all of that happens at 180 miles a hour.”

And it was that competitive part of his personality that ultimately led to a self-diagnosis of a serious medical condition.

“I was on the bike doing two-a-days, working on going to Charlotte to see Jimmy Johnson for his triathlon,” Scott said. “I texted my doctor and I just didn’t feel right. I was having to take days off because of a ‘tightness’ I felt after workouts.”

Lagasse went to see a gastro-intestinal specialist who found cancerous polyps in his colon. He had surgery and was back racing in six weeks. “It was the competitive side of me that forced me to the doctor.”

That’s one of the reason’s he’s is excited about his #4 Camaro this weekend sponsored by locals Micah Linton and Wally Devlin of the Rimrock-Devlin Group.

“There was open (sponsorship) space on the car and they put the Jay Fund on it. That has a really personal connection for me having gone through it.” The Jay Fund is Tom Coughlin’s charity that helps families’ battle childhood cancer.

Throughout his career, Scott has had success on several racing levels, and has had offers to drive full-time on NASCAR’s top circuits. None were fully-funded, top competitive teams, so he chose to race where he thought he had a chance to win.

“Could it have been different,” the 39-year old asked rhetorically. “Probably, but I’m really committed to the road race program we have going on.”

Lagasse has thirteen races on the schedule for his Camaro in the National Trans Am Series this year. Last September, Lagasse won his first Trans Am race and was surprised by his ability to adapt. “I’ve been pretty good on superspeedways but our team is really committed to our road race program.”

An avid cyclist, the Flagler College grad is the spokesperson for the “Alert Today Florida’ a campaign which raises awareness about pedestrian and bicycle safety. On Thursday he organized and rode in the third annual “Champions Ride for Bicycle Safety” from Daytona International Speedway. Jimmy Johnson, Aric Amirola and other NASCAR drivers were among those riding. Professional cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vandevelde along with former drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kannan have been part of the ride in the past.

Lagasse and his wife Kelley have two young children, so will the racing bloodline continue?

“I was watching a race the other night with our 4-year old daughter” Scott said. “And she said ‘This looks like a lot of fun.’ and I said. ‘No, no, no a piano is a lot more fun.’”

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Shorter SpeedWeeks, Better Racing?

From a 21-day stretch known as “SpeedWeeks” the racing at Daytona International Speedway has been condensed down to a few days. NASCAR fans still plan their February vacation around the 500, but the days of comping out in the infield for weeks or parking your multi-million-dollar RV and making new friends around the nightly bonfire are gone. There’s still camping in the infield, and the RV’s are still lined up, but a four-day stretch encompassing the qualifying races on Thursday through the Great American Race on Sunday is about the extent of racing now to kick off the season in Daytona.

“I learned I didn’t have enough race car,” Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me once walking through the garage after a practice 10 days before the 500. “We’ll get it right though. There’s speed out there,” he explained. He and the rest of the NASCAR drivers as well as the truck racers (when that became a thing), the ARCA drivers and the guys in the Busch series spent hours on the track testing and in practice, looking for the right setup.

No more.

Trying to even out the field, NASCAR has limited the amount of time on the track, keeping the big teams from spending time and money to gain an advantage over the field. Most drivers don’t like it.

“We don’t have enough time on the track,” Dale Jr. has said in the past. The two -time Daytona 500 winner is happy to just be driving in 2017, back from missing half of last season with concussion symptoms.

“I’m happy, I’m smiling, I’m back,” he said on media day this week. The newly married driver didn’t rule out a shorter than expected career.

“If I were to win the championship this year, I would consider it,” he said when asked about retirement. That, I’m sure, sent shivers through the NASCAR brass who are presiding over a fragile time in the sport, looking for star power.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Carl Edwards left the sport abruptly to perhaps pursue a political career and young drivers like Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott are just now finding their footing among the loyal fan base.

Without emerging stars in a personality-driven sport, changes to the race formats are what they hope is the first step toward re-capturing some of the magic.

“We’re doing things to make the sport better on television,” Johnson said this week. “If we can get people to watch on TV, they’ll like it and they’ll want to come see us race live.”

The 500 will have two stops this year, one after 60 and another after 120 laps. Points will be awarded for position in the race and they’ll restart.

“Just enough to let fans go to the bathroom and get a commercial break in,” one driver quipped.

FOX and NBC split the season for broadcasts and are counting on increased ratings and fan engagement on other media platforms to re-energize advertisers. If not, fewer races will be on TV, fewer dollars will be flowing into the sport and they’ll have to adapt. From a regional southeastern sport until the ’90’s, NASCAR races now in non-traditional places like New Hampshire and Las Vegas. If they don’t turn the fan decline around, Rockingham and Darlington will be back with prominent spots on the schedule.

Changing Daytona

From the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500 is a big jump, but since the NFL moved their big game back a week, the two biggest events in football and auto racing now follow each other just two weeks apart. Detroit was miserable and everybody knows it. They got a free pass from most of the media because they knew it was going to be miserable and the people tried hard.

You can basically hold the Super Bowl anywhere because most of the parties are indoors and in plush places. Those people in Detroit do have a lot of nerve picking on Jacksonville though. But when you get down to it, the people who attend the Super Bowl don’t want free concerts and an outdoor party atmosphere. They want late-night parties, strip clubs, casinos and cocktails that last deep into the night. If they could hold the game in Las Vegas, they’d think it was perfect.

Daytona is a whole different story though.

It’s people from everywhere, from all over the world and from every economic category you can think of. They’ve dubbed it “Speedweeks” in Daytona, bracketing the few weeks between the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Daytona 500 as one huge event. It’s now three weeks of races, preliminaries, hype and parties. They might call it a celebration of speed, but it’s really a fix for anybody who loves the smell of burning rubber and gasoline and gets a shot of adrenaline every time somebody zips by at more than 100 mph.

And likes to be seen at the place to be seen.

I’ve never been a big fan of the actual racing but have grown to appreciate it and admire all that goes into it. I like hanging around the garage area and seeing the meticulous details that are ironed out before a car hits the track. I have driven at Daytona, getting the car up to over 160 and that was a thrill, so I can appreciate somebody who’s just wild about the sport. And there are plenty of those.

It’s certainly more corporate than it used to be. From the fans to the drivers it’s a little more rehearsed, more refined if you will. Tents are still pitched in the infield between turns three and four at Daytona but they’re far outnumbered by the luxury buses and campers that are parked throughout the infield for the week leading up to The Great American Race. The days of catching a minute with the drivers in the garage area are gone, replaced by scheduled press conferences. Fans are still drinking plenty of beer and brown liquor at the track, but now white wine seems to be as popular.

And there are as many ladies rooms as bathrooms for guys. There used to be one in the infield, and it was always empty.

It’s not quite as fun as it once was, with the driver’s personalities driving the sport and the fan loyalty to a particular driver starting plenty of fights among friends.

When Jimmy Johnson won the 500 on Sunday, there was a collective shrug among the 200,000 plus fans at the track. No hooting and hollering and partying well into the night. Johnson’s proclamations in Victory Lane included all of the right people and no controversy, despite being found to be a cheat earlier in the week. His answers were nice neat and sound bite length, and I didn’t see a drip of chew anywhere.

It’s another shift in the personality of the sport.

From Richard and Cale, to Dale and Darrell and then Jeff, it’s now all guys who were trained to be drivers from birth. But it’s bigger than ever and includes just about everybody and there’s plenty of money to go around.

As long as NASCAR stays “cool” they’ll continue to grow. If not, we’ll all just have to become Tony Stewart fans.

Talented Skilled (And Spoiled)

I’ve always had a pet peeve about rude and spoiled people. It’s spilled over into my professional assessment of the people I cover, and usually colors my opinion about what they’re like. Not they’re accomplishments, or their talent or skill, but what they’re like, how they got where they are and what they’ll be like when their talent and skill erodes and the next big thing takes their place. That’s why the latest tantrums thrown by Tony Stewart and Kenny Rogers particularly frost me.

Stewart thought the woman in front of him coming through the tunnel at Daytona was going too slow, so he reportedly honked his horn at her and flashed his lights. When they emerged from the tunnel, Stewart reportedly swerved around her car, when, according to Stewart, the woman gave him the finger as he went by. Instead of acknowledging his part in this little dust up and moving on, Stewart stopped the car, jumped out and “went to find out what her problem was,” according to the driver of Joe Gibbs’ #20 on the NASCAR circuit.

Rude?

Of course.

Spoiled?

Absolutely, and either stupid or cowardly, depending on whose point of view you have. I can’t help but wonder what Stewart’s reaction would have been if it had been the typical male NASCAR fan driving that car in front of him. First, if Stewart had gotten out of the car, the guy driving would have been out and waiting on him. Second, there wouldn’t have been a lot of words exchanged. Stewart, who’s not a big guy to begin win, would have either been running or on the ground.

Quickly.

There had to be some talk in the infield at Daytona this week about what Stewart’s fate would have been had the situation been different. Stewart’s situation was recounted as a second-hand story. Kenny Rogers’ little tantrum was, as they say in the news business these days, “caught on tape.”

Rogers had missed a start for the Texas Rangers because of a tantrum he’d thrown the week before in the dugout. He smashed a few coolers in the dugout and broke a bone on his right (non-pitching) hand. So when he came out of the clubhouse for warm-ups the next time he was at the ballpark, naturally the cameras from all television stations in Dallas as well at the networks were trained on him. It’s their job. As in the producer told the photographer, “Get some pictures of Rogers when he comes out on the field and we’ll show them on the early news.”

No big deal.

Unless you’re rude, and spoiled, like Rogers.

I’m not sure if he was embarrassed, or there’s something truly wrong with him. But his attack on the photographers at the ballpark was unprovoked and way over the line. I’ve seen guys grab the lens of a camera, but never throw it on the ground, kick it and cuss the photographer. What’s the excuse or reason? Don’t give me this “he has anger issues” argument. What’s Rogers have to be angry about when he gets to the ballpark? And do you think he ever considered that those guys were just doing their job, much like he is when he comes to the ballpark every fifth day?

I couldn’t help but wonder, (again) what Rogers might have done if the photog was somewhere near his size. I can tell you there were more than a few discussions in the sports department about what Rogers’ fate might have been if it had been a couple of the guys I work with. All are hoping for that chance some day.

Bud Selig’s suspension of 20 games was not nearly enough, and the $50,000 fine isn’t much to a guy like Rogers who’s making $3.4 million this year. And it’s not like he’s a young rookie who doesn’t know any better. Rogers will be 41 this year and has had a long and relatively successful and lucrative career. And then they’ve allowed him to be selected to the all-star team? Is there any wonder that people don’t have any passion for the players or the teams any more?

Driving At Daytona

I’ve been trying to do a story on driving at Daytona International Speedway for a couple of years now. The Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) runs an operation there, as well as 21 other tracks around the country. It’s been suggested to me more than a few times, “Why don’t you just do the ride along?” “Look,” I’d answer, “if I’m going to get on the track at Daytona, I’m driving.” So, I contacted the RPDE p.r. department last year and finally settled on a date, April 16th of this year.

The sun was shining and the wind was down when I arrived at the track, “a beautiful day to drive” is how my ride described it. I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of driving at Daytona. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if I would be once I got behind the wheel. I heard a coach once describe that feeling of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” So I thought about that and settled into the routine set up by the Petty instructors. Those guys were great. There were 31 “drivers” in my class. The only requirements are you have to be at least 16 and have a valid driver’s license. You also have to know how to drive a “stick.” My class was varied, with some returnees, some thrill seekers, some NASCAR fans, and others who were given the driving experience as a gift. So a lot of the class was on a “0” birthday. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy. One driver was 74 years old. “Just wanted to see what it was like,” she explained.

Arriving at the media center, the instructors helped everybody get into an official RPDE drivers uniform and laid out the plan for the day. It started with a video, featuring “The King” himself, going over what to expect and what some of the basic rules were. Then the instructors followed that with a review of some of the technical parts of the day, and then split us into four “teams.” We headed out the door in groups of eight to get a basic overview of the car we’d be driving. I’d wondered if the cars were fake versions of Cup cars, but they’re the real deal. Climb through the window, put the steering wheel on, locate the fire extinguishing system and figure out how the switches on the left dash get the car started. My “team” then climbed into a 10-passenger van for a trip around the track. Out on pit road, James, a RPDE driver and instructor, floored it and headed for Turn One. When you haven’t driven on a high-banked track, that’s a weird experience when it first happens. The van just goes sideways and you’re going around looking “down” at people and cars on the infield. It’s like being on a carnival ride. James was an expert on the track, and it showed as he maneuvered the van in and out of the turns, talking about the line and how to drive the 2 1/½ile tri-oval. “Make you’re instructor do this,” James told us as he showed the hand signal for “back off.” (Waving his right hand in front of the rear view mirror.) “You should get waved off at least twice while you’re out here,” he continued as he talked about the sight picture you should get by keeping your instructor’s car about 5-car lengths in front of you. From there it was on to some pictures and a final drivers meeting. The lead instructor of the day, Dave Williams, (who actually runs the Orlando operation) was funny and cordial, treating us like real drivers and getting our competitive juices flowing. “Rev it at 2,000 rpm, and shift at 4, 000,” Williams explained, “and don’t spin the tires. If you do, it’ll be a stop and go penalty.” That’s a term familiar to NASCAR fans but Williams followed it up with, “We’ll tell you to stop, and you’ll go home. Our version of stop and go.”

I was about two-thirds down the list so I got to see a lot of the “drivers” go on the track, following their instructors around Daytona. It’s true, the anticipation was revving up my own motor and I was getting more comfortable with the idea of getting behind the wheel.

They finally called my name, and I was off to the staging area where I was fitted with a helmet and a head restraint system (it’s just like a parachute harness that hooks to your helmet. It’s a good idea that they have you completely ready before you get into the car so you can start to get “comfortable” with being “uncomfortable” wearing the equipment.

I can’t stress enough how much fun the guys at RPDE made the day. When it was my turn, another staff worker greeting me with a big smile and yelled, “ARE YOU READY?” Walking out to my car (The Aarons 312 machine) I reminded myself to “go for it” as I have many times when I’ve gotten to do these kinds of things because of my job. As expected, climbing in was an adventure, but the briefing was a big help. Another RPDE staffer helped me strap in the four-point harness, fire the engine and yelled, “When I tap the roof, GO GET THAT GUY!” At this point, I’m completely stoked these guys have me so fired up. So just like in the real thing, I’m sitting there running the RPM’s up, listening to the exhaust, waiting to go. My instructor (it turned out to be James) pulled five car lengths in front of me and I heard the “bang, bang” on the roof and “Go get ‘em” from outside the car. I pushed the gas pedal in and slowly let out the clutch and the car began to sputter and cough. “Don’t kill it you idiot,” I heard the voice inside my head scream as I pushed the gas pedal down. Meanwhile, James is pulling away from me, so I slid it into second gear and picked up speed. James was still pulling away. Into third as pit road was going by, and James was disappearing. So I jammed it into fourth and shoved the gas pedal down. “Roar,” is what I heard from the engine, as I closed the gap on my instructor. No sooner than I figured out the “sight picture” we were ON THE TRACK! We stayed low coming out of pit road, letting two cars on the track go by as we got up to speed and that voice in my head was screaming, “YOU’RE DRIVING AT DAYTONA! HOW COOL IS THIS?”

It’s an eight lap session, with your warm up and cool down laps counting, but your instructor is trying to give you the best experience possible. Before I knew it, we’re coming out of turn two and heading down the back straightaway. James is still accelerating in front of me, and I’m pushing the throttle down staying five car-lengths behind him. That’s when I remembered that he told me to make my instructor wave me off a couple of times in the first lap. So I jammed the accelerator down and tucked up behind the car in front of me, and sure enough, he waved me off. I saw turn three looming in the near distance and realized that “WE’RE TURNING LEFT THERE!” I never could figure out what those white stripes were on the track around Daytona, but behind the wheel, it’s obvious. They’re sight lines for the drivers as they get into position on different parts of the track. So as James put his right tires just inside the white stripe going into turn three, I figured my car would follow his if I just didn’t mess things up.

It might seem that the cars just follow the banking at Daytona, but I can tell you, if you don’t drive thru the turns, you’re going into the wall. Particularly coming out of turn four. The centrifugal force wants to run your car up the track, so you constantly have to adjust the line. Doing this without backing out of the throttle is un-natural, but I’ve heard the Earnhardt’s say that so often that it rang true in my head as I was doing it myself. Through the tri-oval and back into turn one, James was pushing the speed up incrementally, but we were definitely going faster. With each lap I was getting more comfortable, even telling myself to relax and made James wave me off a couple more times. I started to look around, seeing different things on the track and realizing there were constant adjustments needed to “find the line.” Driving was a full time job. But I did look around, even noticing the stands and where Dale was killed in turn four.

On my fifth lap coming out of turn four, I caught a glimpse of the two cars in front of us heading into turn one. Right away I thought, “We can catch those guys.” So I tucked up under James’ car again, and he waved me off, again. But he knew exactly what I was thinking because he picked it up again heading through the tri-oval and into turn one. Those guys in front of us kept appearing and disappearing out of my peripheral vision but I could see we were gaining on them. So as we rolled out of turn two, there they were, right in front of us, easily get-able. Just as they had described, the two cars in front of us drifted ever-so slightly down on the track, and James and I slipped to the outside. “Whoosh,” I heard as we went by them on the back stretch. That was really a highlight. We averaged about 150 mph, not fast by NASCAR standards, but enough to get my attention. I went as fast as James would let me, and thought later that I probably could have gone 30 mph faster, but it would take faster reactions in the turns and setting the car up right as you entered the high banking.

So it was great. “Put that among the coolest things I’ve ever done,” is how I think I described it when I got out of the car.

It costs around $500 and worth every penny. If you ever thought you’d like to do it. Go. And go FAST!

Junior Wins Daytona

There’s not much sentimentality in sports. Guys retire, they’re celebrated for a day, or possibly have a farewell tour in their last season, and they’re gone. Replaced by the next group, the next generation, the younger, faster, bigger stronger evolution of whatever game is being played. NASCAR might be the least sentimental of all, drivers retire, or die, and the sport keeps plowing along, growing in popularity, garnering new fans and creating a niche for itself as one of the premier sports in America. But even with the celebration going on as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 , I’m sure more than one fan had a sentimental thought remembering six years ago when his father drove into victory lane at Daytona for the first time as the 500 champion.

When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, a big segment of fans changed their designation from “rabid” to “casual.” He wanted to win and wasn’t interested in second or third or “a good run.” The other drivers knew it, and it made them compete hard against “The Man in Black.” Fans were polarized by Earnhardt, either they loved him or loathed him, even creating the ABE faction among themselves (Anybody But Earnhardt).

Dale Sr.’s presence is still felt at every NASCAR track, with his memorabilia for sale and the number “3” still popular among the buying public. No where is his presence bigger though than at Daytona. As the track’s winningest driver, Earnhardt looms over the field every time they take the track. So his son feels it as well. The pressure to continue his father’s legacy has been enormous. But right now, he’s succeeding in doing it.

It took Dale Sr. twenty tries to win the Daytona 500; Dale Jr. did it on his fifth attempt. Junior said earlier in the week, “A lot of guys have great careers and never win the Daytona 500 or the points championship. I hope I’m not one of them.”

Running with the best equipment and a solid race team, Earnhardt always has a good car at the super speedways. But he knows what to do with them. He gets to the front and figures out how to stay there.

On a day that the “Great American Race” live up to its billing as perhaps the greatest spectacle in American sports, Dale Jr. provided the finishing touch fans were looking for. He’s become NASCAR’s most popular driver, and is backing it up by getting to victory lane. Winning a championship is next on his “to do” list.