What is the Daytona 500?
It’s the most well known NASCAR race (and the first major stock car race of the season) held in Daytona Beach, Florida, the birthplace and headquarters of NASCAR. Though the dates vary, it usually takes place towards the end of February at the Daytona International Speedway. The racetrack is tri-oval shaped and has a slope that ranges from 18 to 31 degrees to prevent cars from flying off the track, and even then, restrictor plates are required to keep speed and horsepower low enough to guarantee safety. Each lap around the track is 2.5 miles. Since the DAYTON 500 is 500 miles long, drivers must complete 200 laps to finish.
The technique that drivers employ is called drafting, which allows them to gather more speed in a vacuum formed by leading cars. That’s why drivers form certain formations and try to stay closer together.
How I ended up there:
I begged. That’s pretty much how it went down. I’d gotten an email about three weeks before the race asking if I was still interested in volunteering at the Daytona 500, and I jumped at the chance. In the end, my mom and I only went for the race because there were too many logistical roadblocks involved with volunteering, but it all started with that one email.
Everything after happened so fast that I had to pull out all the stops for my mom to agree to my crazy plan. At first, it was begrudgingly (for obvious reasons). Most hotels were sold out, two round trip plane tickets were worth the price of six, and a lot of people were iffy about “the racing crowd.” I’ll get to that.
I know better than anyone that I’d given my mom a hard time, and I’m not even sure I would’ve said yes to myself if I had been the parent, but I think she could tell how badly I wanted to see the race, and since she knew that I wouldn’t take advantage of how easygoing she was deciding to be with me, she agreed.
Why I so desperately wanted to go:
It’s true that I’m not the biggest diehard NASCAR fan out there, but I'd always known that the Daytona 500 is a legendary sporting event, and I'd always been captivated by the spirit and enthusiasm of those who love it. I found it fascinating that people from across the nation would travel to Daytona Beach for just a night or two to see the race, so I wanted to experience its allure for myself.
Going to the race was about the people, the atmosphere, the experience. For me, it’s always been that way when it comes to sporting events, and it always will be. When I’m a part of an event like the Daytona 500, I get to witness and share in the excitement of all the passionate people around me; I get to laugh with them and enjoy a few moments away from the world to have a bit of fun. There’s nothing like it. The way that we, a bunch of strangers, can come together, laugh, and cheer together is incredible. It’s infectious, and it steals my breath away. In an ideal world, we'd always be that way with each other, but since that isn't the case, I take what I can get and make the most of it.
The Daytona 500 was a real sight to see. I can personally attest to the fact that it was much more sophisticated and organized than most people would think, and I instantly understood why hundreds of thousands of people traveled from near and far away to see it. Though the event began at 2:30 PM, most people spent the entire morning at the speedway. We arrived around 10 AM.
After we got there, I couldn’t stop smiling. There was just so much to do outside the racetrack! Entertainment stations were set up, cars were on display for people to marvel at, the gift shops had air-conditioning, Monster Energy took fans on test drives in four-wheel cars that could balance on two wheels, and NASCAR sponsors were practically launching free t-shirts into ever-growing crowds. Needless to say, the place was packed and buzzing with good vibes. It was also extremely family-friendly.
The Pre-Race Show was also a highlight of the race. It was fantastic. Rascal Flatts performed, and the crowd sang along to hits like “Yours If You Want It,” “I Like the Sound of That,” and “Life is a Highway.” It was a blast.
Shortly after, nervous energy began to penetrate the air, and I felt my heart race as drivers were introduced, interviews took place, the National Anthem was performed, fighter jets executed an impressive flyover, and the famous countdown finally began.
It might not seem all that entertaining to sit for hours watching the same cars race around the same track for 200 laps, but when you’re there, and when the people around you are sitting on the edge of their seats and even standing up as cars drive by, it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype. Even my mom enjoyed herself, and I would’ve never pegged her as a NASCAR fan.
The leaderboard changed constantly, and when accidents happened (i.e. a six-car pileup), everyone was anxious to know which cars had been caught in the mess, which ones would need serious repairs, and which drivers would end up with a DNF (Did Not Finish) beside their names. It seems that every year there’s a fan favorite, so imagine the crowd’s disappointment when Chase Elliott (#9) could no longer compete in the race.
It’s true that some of the people around us were a bit… sloshed, especially after all the beers that they’d had, but they were all harmless, and no one was ever hostile. The craziest thing that happened was probably the guy sitting behind us relentlessly offering his never-ending supply of alcohol and asking to take selfies. Nothing we couldn’t handle.
Overall, and for SO many reasons, we enjoyed ourselves immensely at the Daytona 500. It was a new and beautiful experience. I like to think that we learned from it and lived it to the fullest.
Plan your trip well in advance. It’s easier to secure the best travel/accommodation packages that way (because they will sell out).
Call to buy tickets and choose seats that are higher up for a better view. It can get LOUD by the track.
Bring lots of sunscreen and dress comfortably and lightly. It’s ALWAYS hot in Daytona.
Bring earplugs if you have sensitive ears or decide to sit close to the track.
Arrange for transportation ahead of time, and try not to drive because when 250,000 people vacate the speedway at the exact same time, it can take awhile.
Try not to wander around the area by the speedway alone or at night. It’s not the safest place in Daytona.
Part Two coming soon! It’ll be more travel oriented for those of you interested in getting to know Daytona Beach.