I’ve written before about how I got into NASCAR. With the 54th running of The Great American Race upon us I wanted to talk about my first and only experience at that event.
Previous to Daytona, I’d been to Michigan International (a few times) and Charlotte (once). Those races were great!
I popped my live NASCAR cherry at Michigan. We went to the August 2001 race. Got the tickets from a guy I bowled with. Back then, it was difficult to get tickets to ANY race… and Michigan was one of the tougher tracks at which to land seats. Mind you, when watching most stick & ball sports, closer to the field is better. NASCAR is the opposite. Michigan is a 2-mile track. The best seats are the higher ones so you can see more of the track… I didn’t know this and was happy with the fourth row seats I was able to get.
A few laps into the race…. Dina says, “Hey, look at your shirt!” There was a considerable amount of rubber on it from the cars hitting the corner right in front of us… Pretty cool, though we couldn’t see the other side of the track. Michigan was fun… but the seats were cramped and the view was minimal at best.
Charlotte was better, I think. Lots of drinkin’… seats were better (read: higher) and it’s a shorter track than Michigan. But the race we went to was a shorter event… The All Star Race. Still fun!
So mid 2005, my buddy, Jimmy Hendrix, starts working on me to get me to go to the next Daytona 500. He had asked me about going to the previous three or so years.. but I always refused because Dina got pissed if I did anything outside of her control. This time I said yes… and I’m so happy I did!
This wasn’t about just going to the race and sitting in cramped seats to watch it. This was about watching the entire race from the infield, or middle of the track. I’d never done that… but heard it was the way to go.
Driving down.. it was Jimmy, Jason, my ex-wifes cousins Tony and Brian, and myself. I volunteered to help Jimmy drive so I wouldn’t have to be cramped up in the back seat of Jim’s F-150.
We left at midnight the Monday before the race (that took place the following Sunday) so we could drive straight through to the Mooresville, NC area, where most of the race teams have their shops. We had breakfast in Mooresville then went to check out Roush/Fenway Racing and Gibbs Racing. Amazing how those shops are so pristine and kick out such bad ass race cars!
We stayed somewhere in Georgia on Tuesday night and partied a little bit to get ready for the next five days of
partying watching racing.
Wednesday morning, we continue the drive… right to the Walmart in Daytona Beach (had to go
beer & grocery shopping for what ended up being seven dudes). When we got out of the truck, we could hear the racecars practicing from almost two miles away… There was a “hum” that was quite noticeable from that distance! And there’s a different sound to the cars that race at Daytona versus what I was used to at Michigan or Charlotte… At Daytona they use that silly little restrictor plate to slow the cars down in an effort to make the racing safer. The plate gives ’em a different pitch!
After the grocery shopping is done we head over to the track… We get to drive through this big tunnel that goes under the track to find our camping spot in the infield. Now Daytona’s a huge track (2 1/2 miles), so the infield is a city in itself! They have all the vendors one would expect, shirts, hats, food & ice vendors…. but also full showers (Showers were really gross… every time I went, there was always a pair of flip flops, or underwear or used condoms on the floor… or a combination of all those) that I wore my shoes into.
After finding our plot… we set up our own little city. I think there were three vehicles, four tents and a huge canopy set up to house all our coolers, tables and other accessories… Then we assembled a platform (preconstructed by Jim & Jason) to install in the back of Jim’s pickup. This platform gave us the vantage point we needed to see the entire 2 1/2 miles of racing surface.
After we got all our stuff set up we went and checked things out. There were tons of things to see. All kinds of different vendors… giving stuff away (That stuff works… it got me hooked on Gillette Fusion razors). Hot girls everywhere. We watched interviews with different drivers, team owners & celebrities…
After nightfall the party started. People had actual bars set up on their campsites… The one campsite had a freakin’ club set up… a decent sized one… they had music cranking, tons of people dancing, and even had a DJ! It was called Club E (read:Earnhardt). We watched wheelbarrow races… We watched golf cart races! We saw boobs! We saw people having sex in public! That night I was drinking this stuff that Jim and Jason made, called warm apple pie. I know there was apple cider in it, and some kind of overproof liquor we bought in Georgia. It really tasted like apple pie…! But messed me up rather quickly!
We ate like kings all week! Big breakfasts, deep fried chickens w/ french fries, burgers, bratwurst… sandwiches… you name it!
It’s kind of humorous…. the track would wake up everyone each morning with an announcement over the PA system, “GOOD MORNING RACE FANS,” and it seemed so LOUD because of the hangover… but it got me fired up nonetheless!
We watched lots of practice from the platform on Jimmy’s truck. We watched the qualifying races on Thursday. But Friday night was the first racing at Daytona I was able to see with a full field of vehicles! It was the truck race…. and the freakin’ ground shook every time the field went by! It’s something you can only appreciate by being there!
Now I wanna skip to race day… 2/19/2006. It was warm and sunny the entire week… But we woke up on Sunday and it was overcast, chilly and there was this mist in the air all day. It wasn’t rain, but it made everything cold and wet. Sort of uncomfortable… I hadn’t packed well enough… assuming that central Florida didn’t get like that in February.
But I didn’t feel the cold… For the entire time we were there, the stands were never full. But come race day, we watched some 170,000 people fill the stands. I remember hearing the PA announcer say that… between the fans in the stands, the ones in the infield (US!), the various track workers, the NASCAR officials, the drivers and their teams… there was damn near 250,000 people there for that race! UNREAL! There was an excitement in the air that I simply can’t describe… That’s all why I was oblivious to the cold.
I do have to mention the pre-race show! Jimmy, Jason, Jackie and Rob went in search of some food I think, while I stayed back with Tony and Brian to go watch the driver introductions and get a look at the Budweiser Clydesdale team that was making their way around the track. It turns out that Jackie found one of the vests that the “ticket takers” wore. He used that vest to allow them to all get into the prerace show! They were damn near front row for the Bon Jovi show that took place near the middle of the the front stretch! They stood with the drivers for the singing of the National Anthem…. while I was looking at horses!
Anyway… It was a pretty good race although my driver, Carl Edwards, got caught up in a wreck on lap 78 (I saw his car up on top of another car; right in front of us) and ultimately finish dead last. And Jimmie Johnson, who I despise, won the race, so it was some sort of double whammy kidney punch to me!
But it was an experience I’ll never forget… and one that I’d like to try to replicate at some point in the near future. Like this year!
Special thanks to Jimmy Hendrix and Jason Turk for letting me tag along!