For NASCAR newbie, a Daytona education

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
8:01
AM ET
Jeff Gordon, Austin Dillon, Kasey KahneSam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsAustin Dillon, 33, was the adopted favorite following the consumption of breakfast.
I grew up on Long Island and have lived my entire adult life in Brooklyn. Most of my work entails writing about uniforms. I don’t hunt. I collect old pencil sharpeners. I subscribe to the New Yorker. I have a favorite adjective. I wear retro-styled eyeglasses and vintage clothing. I'm a card-carrying ACLU member. I've never owned a gun, ridden a motorcycle, served in the military, changed my own oil or done shots of Jägermeister. I own two cats.

Call me a geek. Call me twee. Call me a Brooklyn hipster Jew. By any name, one thing is clear: I don't fit the stereotypical profile of a NASCAR fan.

That probably explains why I've never cared about NASCAR, not even a little bit. NASCAR's weird like that. Everyone likes football and baseball -- or at least all types of people like them -- but NASCAR has always been more polarizing, a sport that divides up the country into people who get it and people who don't, sort of like red states versus blue states, or jocks against nerds. It's not just a sport -- it's more like a litmus test, or a state of mind. And that's a state I've never visited.

My friend John, a huge racing fan who lives in north Florida, has been on a personal mission to convert me. "Come down for the Daytona 500," he'll say. "Once you attend a race in person, you'll be hooked. You'll see!" He's been saying this for years, and for years my response has always been, "Sure, sounds great. Maybe next year."

This year, though, for reasons I can't fully explain, something clicked in my head, and I heard myself saying, "OK, you win -- I'm in."

And so began what I started referring to as the education of a NASCAR newbie. I thought it'd be good to get out of my comfort zone and see what NASCAR was all about. What better place to do that than at the Daytona 500, the sport's biggest event, often referred to as the Super Bowl of racing? And besides, while I might not fit every aspect of the NASCAR fan profile, I'm not completely hopeless, either. I love red meat and anything fried, I prefer Budweiser to microbrews, and I've always liked Lynyrd Skynyrd (well, except for "Freebird"). That should all count for something, right? And one advantage of being a vintage clothing geek is that I happen to have a cool old Gulf jacket that I figured would be the perfect thing to wear at the track.

So last weekend I headed down to Daytona to get my first taste of the NASCAR Kool-Aid. Here's how it went.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 6:52 p.m.: My flight from New York lands in Jacksonville. I turn on my phone and find over a dozen emails and texts from friends asking if I'm OK. Apparently, there's been a horrific accident at Daytona with more than 20 fans injured. "Welcome to NASCAR," I think to myself.

9:15 p.m.: I have dinner with John and his wife, Amy, who are letting me stay at their house. We talk about the accident at the track (John's parents were in attendance, although they weren't injured), and I tell them about a snarky article I remember reading years ago. The article was about sports etiquette -- the polite thing to do while playing football, the polite thing to do while playing basketball, and so on. The last section was called "Dangerous Sports" and went something like this: "The only polite thing to do while engaging in dangerous sports like auto racing, cliff diving, etc. is to die. That's what everyone's waiting around for, after all."

I ask John about this. Are NASCAR fans just waiting for the next crash, sort of like some NHL fans are always waiting for the next fight? Are there some fans who think of today's crash as the greatest thing ever and are hoping for something similar tomorrow?

"No way," he says. "Wrecks happen -- it's part of the sport. But nobody wants them to happen, and nobody's cheering for them. Personally, I think the best race is one with no crashes."

Sunday, Feb. 24, 8 a.m.: It's race day. Amy offers me a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast. While I eat, John hands me a list of the drivers in today's race. Most of the names are unfamiliar to me, but I notice that someone named Austin Dillon will be driving a Honey Nut Cheerios-sponsored Chevy. Seems like a sign. I officially decide that I'm now rooting for Austin Dillon.

9:40 a.m.: John and I prepare to head off to Daytona. Amy, who normally comes along to the race, is staying behind this year because she's eight months pregnant and is concerned about the high decibel levels at the track. "You can wear those noise-canceling headphones, but what am I supposed to do about the baby's ears?" she says. I briefly try to imagine some sort of belly-bump contraption that might be devised to solve this problem, but then John yanks me out the door, and we're off to the Super Bowl of racing.

11:25 a.m.: We arrive at Daytona International Speedway, where the very first thing we hear are the strains of "Freebird" coming out of someone's boombox. The race doesn't start for another two hours, so John leads me in a tour around the grounds, which is an absolute circus of fans, vendors, and country music bands.

In most ways it's a lot like any other sporting event. Instead of fans wearing jerseys, they're wearing their favorite drivers' jackets or caps. A few die-hards have drivers' car numbers shaved into their heads, and one guy has a number spray-painted onto his head, but that's pretty similar to what you'd see at an NFL game, right? The main difference is that there are more tattoos, mullets, Daisy Dukes, and checkered-flag motifs here. I don't quite look the part, but a few people nod approvingly at my Gulf jacket, which appears to be my passport to acceptability. Score one for vintage clothing geekery.

12:10 p.m.: We arrive at the driver merchandise area, where many of the drivers have trailers selling their official licensed gear. I'm hoping to buy an Austin Dillon cap, but he doesn't appear to have his own trailer -- dang. Instead we find the Kasey Kahne trailer, where John wants to buy a onesie to bring home to Amy. I insist on paying for it -- in part because I want to thank them for their hospitality, but also because I think it'll be amusing to see a NASCAR driver's name on my credit card statement.

1 p.m.: After wandering around a bit more, we enter the speedway, walk around to the frontstretch, and find our seats next to John's parents, who've already arrived. The place is huge, with a capacity of more than 167,000 (plus all the people parked on the infield), making this by far the largest sporting event I've ever attended. As we climb into our seats, I'm surprised by how much of the grandstand is made of wooden planks -- very old-school. I like it.

1:10 p.m.: John's parents and some of their friends have organized a pool -- contribute $10, pick a driver's name out of a hat. I figure I'm a lock to pick Austin Dillon's name, and he's a lock to win, so I reach in and am disappointed when I end up with Someone Who Isn't Austin Dillon. Then John picks, and somehow he chooses Austin Dillon. I offer to trade with him, and he readily agrees. Sucker.

1:15 p.m.: John gives me a set of noise-canceling headphones with a built-in AM/FM radio. "You're gonna want these," he says. "It gets pretty loud. Plus, you can use them to listen to the radio call of the race." As he explains to me, some fans get headphones with built-in scanners that allow them to hear the drivers as they communicate with their pit crews (I resist the urge to say, "What are they saying, 'I'm turning left again'?"), but those are way more expensive. The radio headphones should be fine for my virgin NASCAR experience.

1:27 p.m.: A pace car leads the drivers in a few preliminary laps around the track. Everyone's watching Danica Patrick, who made Daytona history earlier this week by becoming the first woman to qualify for the pole position, but I'm keeping an eye on Austin Dillon and his Honey Nut Cheerios car. "It's a good-looking car," John admits. I feel an odd sense of pride.

1:30 p.m.: The race officially begins. Jeff Gordon -- one of the few drivers I've heard of before -- settles into the lead, with Austin Dillon hovering around fifth or sixth.

As John had promised, it's loud. But it's not crazy loud. One thing about us retro-styled Brooklyn hipster types is that we tend to go to a lot of punk rock shows, and I've seen plenty of bands that were way, way louder than these cars. (Back in college, Hüsker Dü was so loud one night that I couldn't hear the dial tone on my own phone the next day. But I digress.) So I put aside the headphones and decide to experience the real sounds of the race.

One thing about the car noise, though: It's loud enough to cancel out any crowd noise. So there are no mass chants, no big rounds of applause, none of that sense of the crowd being a giant, collective organism that you get at other sporting events. Instead, it's just a lot of people politely watching a race.

1:49 p.m.: I've never invoked that cliché of NASCAR being just "cars going around in circles," but it's hard not to notice that the race mostly consists of, um, a single-file parade of cars going around in circles. There are no back-and-forth lead changes, no jockeying for position, no cars dipping down low and challenging to move up. This is the Super Bowl of racing?

"It's pretty uneventful right now," John agrees. "They're still getting a feel for the track. But it'll open up soon, you'll see." And sure enough, as if on cue…

1:51 p.m.: We have our first wreck -- a multi-car pile-up that unfolds right in front of where we're sitting. It's not a particularly violent crash, and nobody seems to be hurt, but you can feel that everyone in the crowd is thinking about what happened yesterday.

1:57 p.m.: After several minutes under the yellow flag, the drivers are given the green flag. Austin Dillon, who at one point had advanced all the way to second place, loses the draft and falls way back, out of the top 15.

1:59 p.m.: Another crash. This one takes out Kasey Kahne -- Amy's favorite driver -- along with Tony Stewart, who's John's favorite. A pity, but I figure it all bodes well for Austin Dillon.

2:27 p.m.: As the cars zip along the back stretch on the far side of the track, it occurs to me that from a distance they look like the AFX slot cars I had as a kid. I loved those slot cars -- I'd fuss over the track layouts, take apart the cars and put them back together, have races with my friends. I was totally into auto racing back then. I'd watch races on "Wide World of Sports," with Jackie Stewart broadcasting in that thick Scottish brogue and Chris Economaki reporting from down in the pits. I'd watch the Indy 500 and know all the drivers' names. Our family even had a board game called Formula 1. These are all happy memories.

How did I go from that childhood grounding in auto racing to feeling completely alienated from the sport? I can't explain it. It's like a circuit in my head got disconnected. And as I watch the cars at Daytona, I can't quite get it connected again.

2:35 p.m.: Austin Dillon has worked his way back up to 14th place.

2:47 p.m.: After more than an hour, the race is still mostly just a single-file line of cars, and I find my mind wandering. Like, at least the real Super Bowl has a snazzy halftime show. I take out my phone and furtively check the score of the Mets' spring training game.

2:53 p.m.: John, perhaps sensing that I'm bored, suggests that we go down to the catch fence at the edge of the track, which is maybe 125 feet from where we're sitting. "It's gonna be a lot louder there," he says. "Bring your headphones."

2:56 p.m.: We arrive down at the fence. The cars buzz by, and, sure enough, this is loud. Like, really loud, bleeding-eardrums loud. I slap on my phones and prepare for the cars to come by on the next lap. Now that the noise is tolerable, I can enjoy the exhaust-scented whoosh of the cars zipping by. It nearly blows the cap off my head, and a scattering of dust and debris hits my face, all of which is exhilarating. It's my favorite moment of the day so far. I linger for a bit longer so we can see the cars go by a few more times before returning to our seats.

3:31 p.m.: The unthinkable happens: There's another crash, and this time Austin Dillon's car is among the casualties. Ah well -- that's the way the Cheerio crumbles.

3:32 p.m.: It occurs to me that "That's the way the Cheerio crumbles" may be the least NASCAR-ish thought in the history of ever.

4 p.m.: I notice that Austin Dillon's car has been repaired and is back in the race. He's obviously not going to win, so why is he bothering? "You earn Sprint Cup points for every lap you complete," John explains. "So even after a car is in a wreck, they'll just patch it up in the garage and get it back out there for as many laps as they can." Ah, yes -- garbage time. A universal sports concept, apparently.

4:11 p.m.: We're coming up on nearly three hours, and most of the cars are still in a single-file line. There's no getting around it: I'm bored. "Is every race like this?" I ask John. "No," he says. "By now you usually see two 'grooves' on the track -- an upper groove and a lower groove -- and that's how you see a lot of passing and lead changes. But nobody has established the lower groove today. I don't really understand it."

In other words: My first NASCAR race has turned out to be a stinker. Oh well. Sometimes the real Super Bowl sucks, too.

4:27 p.m.: With about 15 laps to go, the lower groove is finally established, as the cars at the head of the pack form a two-by-two formation several rows deep. Now this feels exciting -- what took them so long?

4:34 p.m.: With six laps to go, Jimmy Johnson establishes a slight lead, but it looks like any of several drivers could challenge him with an inside move.

[+] EnlargePaul Lukas, Daytona
Courtesy of Paul LukasJohn, left, is a NASCAR veteran, but Paul still looks the part.
4:39 p.m.: With nobody making any kind of move to challenge him, Johnson wins. The crowd reaction is surprisingly muted -- no big cheer, no round of applause. Most people immediately begin filing out. It all feels a bit anticlimactic.

6:53 p.m.: We get back to John's house. I cue up ESPN.com on my laptop and see that racing fans are already complaining that the race was boring. This feels sort of like a validation -- like, real NASCAR fans felt the same way about the race that I did. I'm one of them!

Then I pull out my camera. When John and I were down at the catch fence, I'd handed the camera to a random fan and asked her to snap a photo of us, but I hadn't had a chance to look at it until now. I cue it up -- not bad. I look like I belonged there, silly headphones and all.

Maybe I'll go again next year. The Super Bowl never sucks two seasons in a row, right?

Paul Lukas' favorite adjective, in case you were wondering, is "autumnal," because he likes how the silent "n" suddenly gains a voice. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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