NASCAR continues to woo and court me as I explore the sport and fall in love with the ease of a 16-year-old girl. The key to this new-found affinity has been going to the races in person. This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway.
Home to the Daytona 500, the sport’s most prestigious race which boasted a record purse of over $19 million in 2012, the track and surrounding area are like a racing oasis. First let me put the sheer size of the venue into perspective. The Daytona International Speedway spans 180 acres, which is more than twice the size of Cowboys stadium and has a capacity of over 167,000 – 62,000 more than the house that Jerry built. As I entered the racing behemoth, I was immediately greeted by an endless row of fans chilling outside of their decorated RV’s, drinking beer and sitting in blow-up pools. Just picture a 24-hour pre-game session where you don’t have to drive to the club or the game: just take a shower in your RV or one of the bathrooms provided on the infield, get dressed and walk to the party. And one BIG party it is. As I entered the track area I was surrounded by bars, games, televisions, eateries, and palm trees. It was like an adult yet family-friendly amusement park culminating in an evening of exciting NASCAR action.
The weekend featured two races. Drivers in the Nationwide Series race on Friday night and those in the Sprint Cup series compete on Saturday. I liken the difference between the two series to minor league versus major league baseball. The Nationwide Series is the level where many drivers compete prior to reaching the Sprint Cup series, which boasts racing stars like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Danica Patrick.
I have written before about how impressed I am with how fan-friendly NASCAR is, and this time did not disappoint. Spectators with “Hot” passes are able to view the race from a perspective that you wouldn’t be able to in any other sport, having access to walk and view the race only a few feet away from the action. Nationwide Series driver Nelson Piquet Jr. even allowed me to watch the race from inside the pit with the crew. The rush you get from watching those cars go around the track at nearly 200 mph, sounding like a pack of monstrous bees from only a few feet away, is amazing.
Saturday, racing fans got a special treat as Sheryl Crow put on a concert before the race. Also, the cast of the new movie Grown Ups 2, including Adam Sandler, Shaquille O’Neil, and Kevin James were the race’s Grand Marshalls. In true comedic fashion the trio instructed the drivers, in song, to start their engines as if they were a 60’s a capella group that, although hard on the ears, was uniquely genius and funny.
On pit row, armed with a fan vision monitor and headphones that allowed me to watch the race from the palm of my hands while listening to the drivers communicate with their teams during the race, I felt like I was a part of the action. It took everything in me not to jump up and help change a tire. That night Jimmie Johnson made history becoming the first driver since 1982 to sweep races on the 2.5 mile track and Vashti vowed that she will be in the building next year for the Daytona 500, not only as a sports journalist, but as a fan.
Next stop is the Brickyard in Indianapolis to the kiss the bricks.