Taking stock from infield of the Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Daytona 500, Feb. 15, 2004
I thought I knew what a stock car race is all about. I thought I knew what Rolling Thunder sounded like, and I thought I knew the depth of NASCAR culture.
And then, one day, I found myself on the infield at the Daytona 500, and I realized I had known, to borrow a southern term, diddly-squat.
I, and all my childhood friends, grew up in the shadow of the vibrant Toronto-area stock car scene: Friday nights, as many as 25,000 fans would head to Exhibition Stadium for the races, then the smaller hard core would be back at it the following evening at Pinecrest Speedway, which was better racing and was just around the corner — well, a very long corner — from my parents’ house. Most Saturday nights, you could almost taste the noise in our living room.
But until Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed Tony Stewart on lap 181 of the 2004 Daytona 500, I had no idea what real noise was.
Trackside, at Daytona International Speedway, there was the surreal building roar of thunder — and that’s exactly what it sounds like — that announces that the pack is heading your way about three seconds before it actually gets there.
Then there was the collective, oh-ma-lawd-gawd scream when the 160,000 patrons — virtually all of them white, by the way — suddenly realized that they were about to become part of a country song.
Dale Jr. would win his first 500 on the sixth anniversary, to the day, of his late, great, father’s one and only 500 championship. You could not make that up. It was everything they had ever dreamed of: the truck wasn’t broken, the dog wasn’t stolen and the wife never left.
The 500 and a couple of other iconic NASCAR races are anthems; to an idealized past and a hopeful future, to a cultural point of view, to anything any fan wants it to be. It is raucous, it is drink-fuelled, it is riveting, but it’s not all pretty.
Big Stock Car was going upscale and national at the time but its present could not always outrace the prejudices of its past.
And its past absolutely breathes at Daytona, for the most part in a good way. The fan portion of the infield is a riotous menage of raunch, rebel yells, jerry-rigged campers and juxtaposed technology (everyone has the latest devices to tune into their favourite drivers).
Is there another major sporting event whose origins were on a beach? With volunteers hastily rebuilding collapsed corners with sand pails … during the race? That beach is just down the road, still part of the lore and the lure.
Former winners are everywhere on the infield and near the pits, easily visible to the fans, who all carry binoculars. And they readily respond to the fans’ waves and yells.
No major event allows greater media access to its current stars. Not long before the race, Blue Jays radio engineer Bruce Brenner — who drove up from Dunedin — and I strolled through the garages and exchanged casual greetings with drivers who would soon be risking their lives.
We went to the final corner where Dale Sr. had died three years earlier, in the 500 of course, within sight of his protégé Michael Waltrip winning his first NASCAR race, ever, in 462 starts (We told you, you can’t make this stuff up). We stood right at its base and marvelled at its absurd steepness, to which no TV screen of the day could do justice.
Unlike, say, pro hockey where you’re miles away from the action in a press box, we watched the biggest event in the sport from just behind pit row and the historic finish itself from a mere, and dangerous, 10 feet away.
After the race, I jumped onto the track and retrieved a stillspinning lug nut from Earnhardt’s wheel and no one blinked.
Can you imagine doing that at the Super Bowl? You’d still be in jail. And when a collector in Hamilton heard I had it, I sold it for $200.
Near the end of the race, as I inched toward the finish line, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and turned around expecting to find a security guard at the end of it, ordering me to leave.
Instead, I found Richard Petty, The King, smiling, “Pretty amazin’ sight ain’t it, son?”
Yes, Mr. God, it is.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. celebrates withhis crew after winning the Daytona 500, on Feb. 15, 2004.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. passes Tony Stewart on lap 181 and goes on to win the 2004 Daytona 500.