Tuesday, February 05, 2008

If you ain't first, you're last

They say that NASCAR has overtaken the NHL as America's fourth "major league," though up here in the north we just don't see it. Stock-car racing just isn't an enjoyable spectator sport on the television, though each week during the season, the site of the race is overflowing with fans setting aside a weekend to watch cars go fast.

After spending a weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Dave's bachelor party, we started to see what all the excitement was about. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not planning any Daytona 500 trips this year or any year, but having now been to a professional race, I can see the allure, if you're into that sort of thing. It's probably very similar to a golf tournament. Standing for hours on end in the sweltering sun of a July day just to watch Tiger Woods and a bunch of other millionaires walk by and send a ball off into the distance where I can't see it doesn't draw me in, but there are plenty of people who attend the big events each year.

The allure of a race is that it's an event. The one we went to -- the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona -- certainly gives you more bang for your buck. On Friday -- the 25th -- we saw practice runs and then a three-hour race called the Koni Challenge. On Saturday, the 24-hour race began at 1:30 p.m., and $85 got you inside the gates in the morning and all the way through Sunday afternoon when the race ended. Add on the garage access upgrade (which brought the tickets to $85), and you're allowed to walk through the garage area, where the teams prepare -- and repair -- the cars. Fans walk right up to their driving heroes; it's like having access -- as a fan -- to a Major League clubhouse or NFL locker room before the game. And on race day, we walked onto the track, leaning into the banked front stretch and walking across the start/finish line. There aren't too many fans who get to cross home plate at Yankee Stadium the day of a game.

One particular cool story: I heard of one fan who spent his first day at Daytona taking pictures of his favorite drivers. That night, he took his memory card to CVS and had prints made. The next day, he had the drivers autograph the photos he took the day before.

Both races we saw made use of the infield course at Daytona. Instead of 24 hours of left turns and driving in circles, the cars made a left turn at the end of pit road and drove onto the infield course, where two sharp horseshoes made things interesting, before coming back onto the main track only a few hundred feet from where they left it, just before Turn 1. So there's a lot more technical skill, strategy and braking involved in the races we saw than your standard NASCAR race.

But the biggest thing you don't get a feel for watching on TV as opposed to being there is the sound of racing. Daytona is huge, but no matter where you go -- the stands, the infield, the lake, the turns -- the drone of engines is always in the background, and when you get close to the track, the roar is intense. It's the difference between attending a rock concert and watching the summer concert series on the Today show.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to go back to the track at midnight Sunday with the rest of the group. Felled by an illness, I chose to sleep in preparation for my early departure the next morning to drive back to Orlando for my flight home. I'm told the night scene was even more thrilling -- the brake discs glowed orange with the heat and the atmosphere took on a different tone under the cover of darkness (and the klieg lights illuminating the track).

The weekend drained me, but I still managed to enjoy the foray into a new world, a car geek's world, a race fan's world. While there are similarities to a college football Saturday, there is no three-hour window where you're inside the stadium, focused on the action. When you're in the infield, the action continues around you, and the tailgating is part of the spectating. It's like attending a football game, a car show, a carnival and a picnic all at once.

But I think it will forever remain a Southern obsession, with only the die-hard niche fans giving it any attention up in the Northern reaches of America.

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