Witnessing History at the Daytona 500

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Ben Gaal ’14

Enough people to fill three Browns Stadiums.

The atmosphere and production of the Super Bowl.

The prestige of the Masters.

The adrenaline of the Kentucky Derby.

The entertainment of a state fair and music festival.

The culture and hospitality of the Deep South.

The smell of burning rubber and high octane.

The deafening roar of American Muscle and jet engines combined into one.

NASCAR’s DAYTONA 500 is the second-highest annually attended sporting event in the United States, behind only the Indianapolis 500 of IndyCar. Known as “The Great American Race”, the DAYTONA 500 is one of America’s premier sporting events, drawing people from all over the country and world to Daytona Beach, USA, in late February of every year. This year, I was one of those people.

DAYTONA 500 by the numbers:

150,000-200,000 estimated in attendance (including grandstands and infield)

200 mph average around the track

100 decibels from the cars—enough to impair your hearing

45 seconds to complete one lap around the 2.5 mile superspeedway

31˚ banking in the turns—enough to flip a truck

3-4 Gs experienced in the corners at 200 mph

It’s 70 degrees at 10:00 AM in sunny Daytona Beach, Florida. We have just gotten to our seats in Segrave Tower. After a long drive, lots of traffic, a ten minute bumpy bus ride from Lot 7 to the Daytona Beach pedestrian bridge, and a long walk to our seats, we take a breath to comprehend the magnitude of our surroundings. Three hours ‘til the green flag.

After a few minutes, we decide to take the long walk to the FanZone outside the main grandstands. People, people, and more people. Rows and rows of merchandise trailers, food stands, and Budweiser Clydesdales, with racecar demonstrations and free Ragu and 5-Hour Energy stands sprinkled in. 11:00 AM, 2 hours ‘til the green flag.

We start the long walk back to our seats. We pass the Daytona International Speedway Museum and walk of past champions. We get back to our seats. 50 Cent is showed on pit road. It is now 80 degrees. Luke Bryan comes out to perform…that must mean it’s 12:15 PM. One hour ‘til the green flag.

Before anything sinks in, driver introductions are finished. The NASCAR-unique invocation comes next. Aloe Blacc sings the National Anthem, timed up perfectly with a flyover by the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds. The anticipation builds. 1:00 PM, twenty minutes to the green flag.

The track announcer introduces the day’s Grand Marshall, Captain America actor Chris Evans. “DRIVERS! START. YOUR. ENGINES!” The engines fire and the cars roar as they come to life. The crowd roars too. The electricity is tangible. The cars roll off pit road. Ten minutes to the green flag.

Four painstakingly long pace laps. The cars come two-by-two to the “one-to-go” flag and begin the final warm-up lap. Two minutes ‘til the green flag.

The cars come through turn 4. The lights on the pace car are off. Everyone is on their feet. People are shaking, hair standing, and Goosebumps are spreading through the crowd like a virus. The pace car heads down pit lane. The 3 car is out front. The crowd screams. The green flag waves.

Rain.The cars roar by, coming up to full speed behind 900 horsepower. They head into turn 1, through turn 2, down the backstretch, into turns 3 and 4, side-by-side. You can feel and hear the hum of 43 cars coming down the 31 degree embankment. They’re coming toward you at 200 mph. They cross the start finish line. The 3 car leads lap one. Your thoughts are drowned and ears deafened as the cars pass by. But as soon as they come toward you, they pass, then they’re suddenly back again. Forty-some laps are suddenly complete in what seems like the blink of an eye.

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Rain.

Tornado.

Rain.

“We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t race in the rain?”

Rain.

Rain.

 

That’s six hours of rain, and a tornado. After going back to the car, picking up some food, then attempting to dry off, word comes that the rain has stopped and the track is close to dry. We’re going back racing. Primetime.

We expect the stands empty. It’s old boring NASCAR—what common fan just coming for the spectacle would stay during a six hour rain delay? Only the diehards will be here, and we’re one of them. Wrong.

Within a matter of minutes, nearly the whole front stretch is full again. It’s nighttime. The shiny reflection of the grandstands in the speedway lights can’t be seen—the stands are packed. 200,000 people must have liked what they’d seen six hours ago. It would only get better.

“Drivers, to your cars!” Cheers. “Drivers, START. YOUR. ENGINES!” Screams. The electricity feels like the start of the DAYTONA 500 all over again. But, it would pale in comparison of what was to come.

160 laps of 200 remaining. The green flag waves. The pack is three-wide, six-deep. 40 cars running at 200 mph within two seconds of each other. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. takes the lead. The crowd goes wild. Forty laps to go…twenty to go…ten to go.

Wreck. A few laps under green. Wreck. Suddenly, NASCAR’s version of overtime—a green-white-checkered finish. By the way, Dale Jr. still leads.

Could it be? NO! He hasn’t won in a year and a half. He won the DAYTONA 500 ten years ago. He’s not his daddy. He always blows it. The 3 car is back. Is it fate? No. It would be too good to be true.

The green flag waves. Two laps to go in overtime. The crowd has been on its feet for the last thirty laps, palms sweaty, body shaking. Dale Jr. comes by leading the pack. Last lap.

This can’t be happening. Something will happen. Watch out for the 2! OH, watch the 11!

The pack enters turn 3. Dale Jr. leads. The pack comes through turn 4. Dale Jr. leads. He’s gonna win! 200,000 people on their feet! 200,000 screaming and cheering! 50,000 people crying (not me). Dale Jr. crosses the finish line. P 1. HE WINS! The crowd loses it—hugs and high fives all around!

Jr. comes around after his victory lap. Driving slowly down the front stretch, soaking in the energy of the crowd. What’s it like having hundreds of thousands of people cheering for only YOU?! He comes by. The crowd gets louder.

We had just witnessed history.

 

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