“Seven, eleven and three-quarters,” a fan shouted to me through the rain few years ago before the infield was open at Daytona International Speedway.
“What?” was my bewildered response from the parking lot outside the tunnel entrance in turn four.
“Seven, eleven and three-quarters,” (which actually sounded like “sevem levem, tree quarters”), the fan repeated.
“Every time we come to the tunnel, the man says, ‘too high’ we just laugh and say ‘put a stick on it,’” the loyal fan continued.
The vintage ‘70’s Chevy pick up had an odd looking iron podium welded to the truck bed.
“Custom built this platform,” he added. “Looks too high, but before he put the stick on it, (measures it) we jump out, let the air out of the tires just enough, and it’s seven, eleven and three quarters.”
“Just need the right number of beer in the back, about twenty cases is right,” he said as he surveyed the truck bed.
“Want a cold one?” (I promise this is a true story)
One of my favorite sights, and one of the most amazing in all of sports, is the one as you emerge from the tunnel and into the infield at Daytona International Speedway. I’m always anticipating that moment, emerging from the dark, quiet of the tunnel into the sun-splashed infield, full of sights and sounds made by partiers and fans strewn inside the 2.5 mile track. I really like taking people there for the first time, and seeing their eyes wide open, mouths agape, speechless at the reverie enjoyed hours, and sometimes days before the race. Vehicles of every shape and size, most customized to fit through though the eight foot height limit imposed by the tunnel, are painted NASCAR colors with every number represented.
People of every shape and size are there as well. T-shirts, or no shirts are the standard infield uniform for guys, bikini tops for women. The excitement is high, fueled by anticipation and beer.
I spent most of the day at the track Saturday before the Pepsi 400 that night. Taking my nephew and my son to the infield for the first time on race day was particularly fun. But it was a bit more subdued than in the past. “The Man in Black,” was missing.
Sure, there were flags everywhere, most topped with the familiar “3” on a black background. Lots of “thumbs up,” or “three fingers” exchanged between Dale Earnhardt fans still wearing black hats. I know this because I wore my Dale hat to the race for the first time. It was a little strange but I learned a lot too. For the first time since Earnhardt died, fans returned to the track. Many were there to pay tribute to Dale, but all were there for the same reason: to see a race.
There were memorials to Earnhardt and reminders everywhere. Wearing my “3” hat when Dale was alive would have aligned me with 100% of NASCAR fans: those who rooted for Dale, and those who rooted against him. Now, it puts me among the “old school” of racing fans.
“We’re sold out of those, gone yesterday,” one concessionaire told me when I asked for a Dale Jr. hat for my nephew.
“Used to be that we couldn’t keep the 3’s in stock, but now the 8’s go flying out of here.”
“Lots of switching going on.”