Roaring engines fill the air with daze of thunder
Get your motor running and get out on the speedway, writes Sarah Nicholson
WHAT American sport has 75 million fans – 40 per cent of them female – who spend more than $ 3 billion on official merchandise every year?
It also sits second on the ladder of television’s most-watched sports, behind only American football.
It’s not baseball, basketball or even ice hockey.
It’s NASCAR – the National Association of Stock Car Racing – a motorsport competition that started in America’s South in the 1940s, when drivers ran vehicles they bought ‘‘ off the shelf’’ at their local dealership.
It now includes more than 30 events on tracks around the US.
There are 40 drivers in the 2010 NASCAR field, with each piloting a car that’s been handmade by teams spending millions of dollars on each vehicle’s frame, body and massive 750-horsepower V8 engine.
These drivers, including Australian Marcos Ambrose and contemporary idols like Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon, reach speeds of almost 320km/ h in races that take place from February to November and cover 480km-965km in an afternoon.
The spiritual home of NASCAR racing – and the track where the competition’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, is held every February – is the Daytona International Speedway, an hour’s drive north of Orlando’s theme parks in the sunny US state of Florida.
For a NASCAR fan, visiting Daytona is like a tennis tragic touring Wimbledon and, emerging from the tunnel that cuts under the track to the circuit’s vast infield, I’m sitting on the edge of my bus seat trying to get a better look at the arena.
A few minutes later, standing in pit lane right where the crews would wait for a car to come in for a tyre change, I have to shield my eyes from the bright Florida sun as I scan the track for the stock cars I can hear doing laps.
The arena is bigger than I thought it would be, the stands taller, the pit lane longer, and the sound of the cars roaring around the circuit sweeter than I imagined, especially when the drivers apply the power coming out of the corner on to the long front straight and the engines start to really growl.
It was inevitable Daytona Beach would become a mecca for motorsport in the US because drivers have been putting themselves and their cars to the test in this ocean-side settlement since the first automobiles replaced the horse and cart.
Just a couple of kilometres along International Speedway Drive from Daytona’s front gate there’s a wide stretch of hard-packed sand beside the Atlantic Ocean where those early racers would test their skill in impromptu contests as far back as 1902.
The Daytona International Speedway – a 4km high-speed tri-oval track with banked sides that slope to a steep 31 degrees on the bends – was completed in 1959.
The first Daytona 500 was run that same year and was won by NASCAR patriarch Lee Petty, who took the 804km race by just a few centimetres.
Every year around President’s Day, the NASCAR circus descends on Daytona Beach for the ‘‘ great American race’’. And what an awesome event it is, with 250,000 fans crowded into the stands.
The 40 shining stock cars, each one propelled by a monster engine that sounds like a military jet, roar around the track jostling for position and running nose to tail with only a few centimetres between bumpers.
While only the best drivers can negotiate the track on race day, anyone can do a few laps on Daytona’s hallowed asphalt when the circuit isn’t being used for testing.
I was lucky enough to do two ‘‘ hot laps’’ in one of Daytona’s pace cars – the official vehicles that control racing