Tak­ing stock from in­field of the Day­tona 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Day­tona 500, Feb. 15, 2004

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MIL­TON smil­ton@thes­pec.com 905-526-3268 | @mil­to­natthes­pec

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.

KELLY JOR­DAN, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. cel­e­brates with­his crew af­ter win­ning the Day­tona 500, on Feb. 15, 2004.

TERRY RENNA, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dale Earnhardt Jr. passes Tony Ste­wart on lap 181 and goes on to win the 2004 Day­tona 500.

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