Despite having a feverish love for everything automotive for my whole life, I’ve been to very few major races. Last fall I ticked off one big box when I attended the 2015 United States Grand Prix, and was instantly hooked on Formula 1 from the second Vettel’s Ferrari SF15-T launched from the pits. This year, I took a left turn in the complete opposite direction of F1 and attended my first Daytona 500.
Despite growing up close to the proximity of Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR fever seems to have passed over my hometown of Dallas. My father took me to a Winston Cup (now Sprint) race in the early 2000s but it didn’t pique my interest. Now that I’m a little bit older, I jumped at the chance to go to NASCAR’s biggest circus to see what the Daytona 500 is all about.
Fresh off a $400 million renovation, the Daytona International Speedway claims to be the first “motorsports stadium.” The large-scale investment shows, with renovated facilities, grandstands, and four stadium entry points coined as “Injectors”. Three of these “Injectors” are sponsored by Chevrolet, Toyota, and Sunoco, respectively, and feature prominent branding and displays from the sponsors themselves. I tagged along with Chevy for the race, so I primarily haunted the Bowtie injector, which was filled with Chevrolet’s finest, including a special section of custom SEMA vehicles and engine displays.
Our seats for race weekend were far up in the stands, right outside the fabulous Rolex 24 Hour Suite. Much like the vaunted Paddock Club at the USGP, the Rolex suite was big on amenities and provided one of the best views in the stadium.
Just like at major sporting events, the race track’s grounds hold a veritable carnival of activities. Vendors sell food that would make even the most deep-fried Texas State Fair veteran blush, live music thrums somewhere in the background, and everywhere you go, there are automotive-themed events and displays.
Perhaps even more than Formula 1, loyalty to drivers and brands is evident in NASCAR fans. If you aren’t wearing a piece of racing paraphernalia, you aren’t trying hard enough. During some of the more tense parts of the race, some fans could hardly stay in their seats, cheering on their favorite car during critical moments.
Diehard fans, however, make their way down to Daytona in large RVs, often sporting flags or decals for their team and driver. Walk near the RV village packed into portions of the infield, and the smell of beer and downhome barbeque threatens to draw you in.
NASCAR isn’t shy about letting fans get close to the action. For a good hour-and-a-half before the engines fire up, portions of the track, the grassy infield sections, and sections of pit lane are open to all. Some attendees lounge on the grass, while autograph hounds sniff out team leaders and celebrity drivers.
Celebrities also play a huge role in the pomp and circumstance: Professional wrestler John Cena was the honoray pace-car driver, and the Grand Marshall role was claimed by Gerard Butler. Finally, a squadron flyover from the United States Air Force in F-16 Falcons puts the bow on the opening ceremony.
Once the celebrations are concluded, it’s time to race. The racers line up on the grid, and the stock cars’ thunder reverberates through the metal stadium. A pair of Toyota Camry pace cars strains at the front of a long pack of stock cars as they made a few laps before the official start.
When the green flag fell, the stadium erupts in cheers and exhaust noise. Although the Sprint Cup cars run airflow restrictor plates to limit their top speed around the superspeedway, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from sound alone. The mechanical thunder echoes through the stands, fading into a dull roar as the cars travel more than a half-mile from where we sit.
The race field itself is tightly packed, with few position changes until the pack eventually thins out toward the final laps. This year’s Daytona featured the closest finish in its 58-year history, with Denny Hamlin edging out Martin Truex Jr. for the win.
Seeing that photo finish occur in person gave me a valuable glimpse into the appeal, of NASCAR. Even if you are there for the crashes, of which there are many, NASCAR is about unpredictability, and means rooting for the underdog can actually see benefit. Just look at Joey Logano’s 2015 Daytona win, and Chase Elliot’s pole position this year, when he became the youngest person to sit on pole. In NASCAR, half the field in any given race could take the win, making it one of the most exciting and rewarding series to watch.
Just like my first visit to the USGP got me hooked on F1, the Daytona 500 was a hell of a way to get my feet wet in NASCAR. I know this won’t be my last race.