What’s the big deal about a bunch of cars going around in circles on a track? The thought has run through my head nearly every time I’ve caught a glimpse of NASCAR on television. Millions of people are enthralled with the sport so there must be something to this, right? In an effort to find some answers and to experience a slice of American sports culture that was foreign to me, I decided to take a weekend and fully soak up the ultimate NASCAR experience at the Super Bowl of racing, the Daytona 500.
NASCAR fans know that race day doesn’t begin when the starting flag is waved. It begins as soon as the sun rises and the gates open for the day. Arriving at Daytona International Speedway in the wee morning hours, it doesn’t take long to “get it.” NASCAR is as much about the fan experience as it is about the race. Excitement was buzzing in the air as crews were working feverishly to tweak their stock cars one last time with fans watching on, eager to catch an up close glimpse of their favorite car before it was pushed out to pit row for the race.
But wait, wasn’t there a concert and then a race to watch as well?! Our group begrudgingly pulled ourselves away from the Fan zone and searched for prime seats for the pre-race concert with Florida Georgia Line. After a quick pit-stop to sign the finish line, we found our perfect concert viewing area at the top of the 18% incline of the actual race track. From there we had an amazing view of the concert stage.
As the concert drew to a close we made our way to our prime seats near the top of the center grandstands. In racing, as I quickly learned, higher is better because up near the top of the stands fans can easily see the action on the entire 2.5-mile tri-oval super speedway. Drivers were announced with great fanfare, riding around in the back of pickup trucks and waving to fans. Next up was a visit from the Thunderbirds as they shot across the sky flying at 200 mph in perfect formations, just feet away from each other in the air.
And then, Gerard Butler (Grand Marshall for the 2016 races) said the words we were all waiting to hear, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
It was at that exact moment that things got loud. Very loud. We all scrambled to pop in our earplugs as the cars did a couple caution laps and got into the correct position. Then, the starting flag was waved and things kicked into high gear. The cars flew around the track at nearly 200 mph, crowded together like sardines. How on earth could they do that without crashing? After a couple dozen laps, one of the drivers ended the streak when it tapped another driver and sent several into a tailspin. No one was injured and after a few pace laps to ensure the track was cleared the heart stopping race continued. It was awesome. Everything about NASCAR was most definitely awesome.
So what’s the big deal about NASCAR? I would say it’s a combination of sport (watching a couple laps around the track makes it very evident that it takes tremendous skill to drive those cars) and fan immersion. As a matter of fact, I have yet to come across another professional sports experience that offers a more immersive experience to its fans than NASCAR. What other sport encourages its fans to not only attend events but to actually go behind the scenes of event preparation, hang out on the actual field (or track as it may be) leading up to start time, and even camp out inside the hallowed grounds of the sport for days leading up to the main event?
Need a place to stay? Check out reviews of family-friendly lodging in Daytona Beach.
A New Daytona International Speedway
The races at Daytona did not always take place inside the hallowed grounds of DIS. The original races took place on the hard packed sand of Daytona Beach, beginning at the turn of the 20th Century. As a matter of fact, a land speed record was earned by Henry Segrave on the sands of Daytona Beach back in 1927 as he pushed his Sunbeam 100 to top speeds of 210 mph. The need for speed caught on, and stock cars raced around the two mile track which looped from the beach to Atlantic Avenue up until 1959, when the first official Daytona 500 took place inside the DIS. Visiting DIS is a nostalgic experience for many fans who have been coming to the races for decades. As important as nostalgia can be, so is progress, which the Daytona International Speedway embraced as it underwent a $400 million dollar renovation. Completed just in time for the start of the race season, DIS boasts 101,000 wider and more comfortable seats, dozens of escalators to take fans high up into the bleachers, twice as many restrooms, three times as many concession stands with a plethora of traditional sports food and several gourmet snack stands, free WiFi throughout the stadium, and several new neighborhoods (or injectors) to enhance the social aspect of the experience in the grandstands.
The goal of the Daytona Rising Project is to enhance the racing experience for fans without taking from all that makes the Daytona International Speedway so great. Fans will love the interactive race experiences peppered throughout the five injectors sponsored by Toyota, Florida Health System, Sunoco, and Chevrolet.
Race Day Tips
BRING EARPLUGS. Regular ear plugs you can buy at the drug store are fine. There are also headsets available for rent which will offer ear protection as well as audio to compliment your race day experience. Kids headsets are free with adult rental.
Dress in layers. It can get quite warm mid-day but mornings and evenings can be cloudy and cool. Also, this is Florida so be ready for rain. Pack a poncho to avoid a thorough drenching.
Get to the Sprint Fan Zone early (8 or 9 AM) if you want to see the cars in the garage getting ready for the race and possibly score autographs or lug nuts from the drivers and crew. The Sprint Fan Zone is also the best place for kids to hang out before the race because in addition to the race related actions, there is also a play area with a rock wall and several games. The Fan Zone also features a stage where celebrities are interviewed and music is played. Kids under 12 are free in the Spring Fan Zone. Access is cheaper on the days leading up to the main race ($30 vs $95 on the day of the Daytona 500) so consider going to an earlier event for a less expensive alternative.
The Midway sits outside the track and is free to access. It is huge and mostly filled with corporate sponsored booths promoting products through samples, coupons, and little games. Outside the entrance to the Toyota injector, you will find a mini ferris wheel as well as a closed driving course where you can take an exhilarating spin in one of several new Toyota vehicles. It’s also a great place to score some fan merchandise!
If you have an access pass, be sure to spend plenty of time on the infield once it opens up. Walk on the track (it is much steeper than it appears) so you can feel the 18% incline of the straightaways and ponder just how steep the 31% turns actually are. This is also a fun place to watch the pre-race concert and the driver introductions. Be sure to bring a Sharpie (silver is best ) to sign the start/finish line.
Take part in the Richard Petty Driving Experience which allows kids as young as six to experience the thrill of racing around the DIS. Our G-force inducing, high-speed trip around the track was one of the highlights of our Daytona experience.
Want to really engross yourself in race culture? Consider camping in the infield where you can watch the race from the top of your RV.
Oh no! I have to wait until next year to visit DIS with my family
Wrong! There are several events taking place at the track all year long, including Supercross motorcycle races and NASCAR’s Coke Zero 400 in July. If you are heading to Daytona Beach outside of race season and still want to visit the track, take the 90 minute All-Access Tour which takes you to the race track as well as inside Gatorade Victory Lane, the driver’s meeting rooms, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garages, and a Speedway suite which will leave you with an awesome view of the track. Adults $23, kids 6-12 $17. Under 6 are free.
Check out reviews of kid-friendly activities in Daytona Beach.
All photos by Jordyn Coffin.
Disclosure: I visited the Daytona 500 as a guest of the DIS as part of the Daytona Rising Project. All opinions are my own.