Commentary

This Sporting Life: Daytona

Updated: February 27, 2012, 3:05 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN

Monday, Feb. 27, 10:35 a.m. ET

Another wet morning here at Daytona International Speedway, the sky flat gray and sad. The weather's bad enough that the surf's good, maybe 3 feet rising to 4 or 5 depending on the set. The surfers bob in the tumult just north of the pier.

The Daytona 500 was postponed for the first time in its history Sunday. Thankfully, the Oscars came off without a hitch. Maybe it's telling that two of the biggest events on our postmodern national calendar reward excellence in the fields of sensational vanity and sensational distraction. How we love watching others loudly do what we cannot.

[+] EnlargeRainy Daytona
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesWith the duck boats busy giving tours in other cities, the rain delayed the scheduled entertainment.

Like the clockwork rise and fall of the moon and the stars, a ready-made hero will emerge from a vortex of fire and expensive debris in the last 400 yards to win the race. As one does every year. Yeehaw!, etc. I remind you that predictions any more specific than this are for suckers and sports writers. Especially at the 500.

So a couple of notebook additions only, as the Florida swing draws to a close.

I'm still not sure what the central narrative has been this race week. The press has been selling Danica Patrick, but I'm not buying. As a marketing matter, she's successful across all platforms. As a racer she needs to crash less.

Only matinee idol and keeper of the eternal Earnhardt flame Dale Jr. has managed as much face time downstage center.

He seems a real anachronism now. In the 10 years since I first began my NASCAR research, the drivers in general have become less Southern, more corporate, more camera-ready. They've raced from the cradle and have no life experience but racing. They're younger. They dip and spit less. They've never been anywhere but a racetrack. They seem inauthentic in the same way 21st century country music seems inauthentic.

But who out here could ever tell you what authentic is? Or was? Was stock car racing more real in 1950 or 1970 or 1990? Which was the authentic Petty? Which Allison or Earnhardt? As one generation succeeds the next, what part of this was ever any more real than what we see of it now?

[+] Enlargechocolate fountain
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhile we're waiting for the track to dry, more chocolate please.

This year's wrecks are real enough. Maybe that's the story. How the rulebook creates The Show. The 2012 version of the car is a little light in the hips, a little jittery in traffic, a little extra crashy. Never forget that the entertainment is a byproduct of the mechanical blueprint.

But technology, per se, is of little interest out here. This isn't Formula 1, and stock car racing's selling point has never been its cutting-edge science. (The car was always presented as the car you'd find in your driveway, even when it wasn't.) The new mechanical breakthrough with the greatest impact on NASCAR fans this year is probably the Chocolate Wonderfall at Golden Corral.

Of our national economic woes, evidence here and there. Fewer full-season sponsorships for the teams; some slack in souvenir and concession sales, maybe. Attendance holding.

Don't forget that the audience for risk has been fixed from the beginning of human time. What racing sells, what racing has always sold, is sex and death.

Which leads perhaps to this: Has anyone ever looked more awkward at a race track than Mitt Romney looked Sunday afternoon? He is torqued a few hundred pound-feet too tight to connect with the lascivious crowds here. He is introduced to a smattering of yawns, says that racing combines two of his favorite things, "cars and sport" -- which no one believes for even a second -- and hastens away.

Candidate Rick Santorum has instead sponsored a car. It will likely pull hard right all day -- two, three, four -- which is exactly the same joke I made 10 years ago when Liddy Dole ran a one-race sponsorship in the Busch series for exactly the same purpose. The theory being that if they'll buy the detergent and the beer and the buckshot because they see it painted on a car, maybe the voters will buy you, too.

Trouble is that politics still depends, in part, upon your left brain, and every racetrack everywhere is an absolute factory of right brain sensory overload. "Tax cuts may help grow the economy in certain circumstances," says Arthur Laffer to the left hemisphere of your brain. "Vrooooooooooom," replies the right.

[+] EnlargeMitt Romney
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesOsi Umenyiora, left, Mitt Romney, John Cena and Justin Tuck showed up for the race within the race.

Making sense of it all is thus senseless. It's nothing but guesswork and projection and loud noises. Still, it seems to me that we can read something of our own story between all these lines.

Once you bend the American century or the American Dream or the American frontier back on itself, maybe this is what you get: the impossible puzzle and lunatic deformities of the pioneer spirit redirected. Everything becomes its opposite, every assertion its contradiction. The only outlaws are corporate, and the renegades are all conformists. Close the loop, make everything a circuit of perpetual return and Manifest Destiny is remade as a brand strategy, a sales pitch. An ad platform. A hamster wheel.

Democracy is what you drink or drive; consumerism becomes citizenship; night terrors become foreign policy; self-doubt becomes a national political platform.

So the Great American Race is also the Great American Mystery, all of us locked at full throttle, the world a blur, going around again and again and again trying desperately to get back to where we started.

Sunday, Feb. 26, 3:42 p.m. ET

In the garage just now, hard rain still falling, you could feel all that prerace excitement curdle into something like resignation. Chances they'll get a whole 500 run today are slender.

Flyover adrenaline long spent, fans and crews and families are standing, sitting, lying and leaning on, against and across the floor, the toolboxes, the walls. They check their phones, they take more pictures, they talk in low voices and look past each other's shoulders hoping a driver hurries by. They play laptop solitaire and toggle through iTunes. They feed the kids cold cuts and cheese slices and juice boxes. They lean across the toolbox and argue spring rubbers. They check out girls. The girls check back. Life on hold. Waiting. Outside the rain sizzles on the pavement.

In Race Operations the radar shows a gap in the rain just big enough to dry the track. Then it will rain again. Then the red carpet starts.

In the beer garden, only sadness. Fans timed their highs to the 1 o'clock green flag. Now they've peaked too early, and hunker, spinning and sickly, under their ponchos and trash can liners.

The media center is running out of cookies. The drivers are hidden in their motor homes. The sky darkens.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 4:18 p.m. ET

The last 10 laps marred or marked by three big comic-book crashes, James Buescher, of whom you've never heard, is your Saturday race winner. He is launched. Touched now by fame, he'll pocket some percentage of Daytona prize money as well.

Tonight, too wired to sleep, still buzzing, he'll stare up at his ceiling and think about what happened. He'll see it all again frame by frame. He'll think about what came before and all that might yet come. He'll think about hard work and chance and reconcile neither. Next to him, his wife will sleep on.

Wide awake, he'll think the whole long history of this place without knowing what he's thinking, beginning, middle and end.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 3:36 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeRainy Daytona
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesWith the duck boats busy giving tours in other cities, the rain delayed the scheduled entertainment.

For the length of time her car lay etherized upon the operating table, Danica Patrick hunkered without comment in her hauler. On the tailgate of which the buzzard media gathered and circled, waiting word of her future. Her crew hammered at the car as if it had been stolen from them. Some number of her commercials came and went as the television broadcast wore on.

Eventually Ms. Patrick herself walked fast and glowering back to the car. She tugged on her helmet and climbed in through the window. They hitched up her safety net and she fired the car and chirped the tires on the way back to the track to finish her race.

She did what racers do. No more. No less. She was 48 laps down.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2:56 p.m. ET

As much attention and commercial time is lavished on the Danica Patrick franchise, it's easy to forget how many other women blazed her trail first. Back past pioneers like Shirley Muldowney and Janet Guthrie, the first and greatest among these might have been Louise Smith. She got her start right here in Daytona in 1949.

In the leather-helmet and Confederate-beauty-queen days of this sport, Smith was a racer, the real thing, fast and tough and determined. Long since inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, she was the First Lady of racing's Dark Ages.

To our shame, the vulture press too often forgets her.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m. ET

Smokey and Fireball remind me that the sport has always had nicknames, great nicknames. Tiny, Junior, Banjo, Coo Coo, Cotton, Silver Fox, Ironhead, Ironheart, The Intimidator, The King.

A year from now, or 10, what will anyone call Danica Patrick?

Saturday, Feb. 25, 1:02 p.m. ET

Another artifact under Daytona's bright Saturday sun is the black-and-gold race winner from 1962. Driven by Fireball Roberts, it's a Pontiac Catalina from the long-gone days when "stock car" meant stock car. Parked behind the bandstand on the walk to Victory Lane, it is a perfect jewel. An absolute scarab.

Built by legendary local tuner Smokey Yunick, the car is another little moment in the rushing history of American ingenuity. Short and low and improbably modest, it won the pole that year at 157 mph, led 144 laps and won going away. Some 58,000 people watched it do so from the stands.

Deep black along its flanks, its roof and door numbers are a subtle bronze metallic, like antique pink gold, trimmed in firehouse red. People see it, slow, stop, stand staring. It is the most beautiful car here.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 11:05 a.m. ET

Stopped a few minutes in the parking lot of the Streamline Hotel on the drive to the track this morning.

The Streamline is to NASCAR what Independence Hall is to the United States, or the bulrushes were to Moses -- the place of the founding. This was back in 1948 at a meeting of racers, whiskey drinkers and cigar smokers convened by Big Bill France.

NASCAR's fortunes and those of the Streamline Hotel have diverged in the years since. The marquee out front still welcomes guests and race fans, but the place looks run out and hard used, even for Daytona Beach. Chalky paint in four shades of blue can't hide the years or the sun damage or the neglect, and the walls bleed rust from every air conditioner. The windows are rimmed with salt.

But the lines of the place are authentic to its name, and it's worth a quick look in your hurry somewhere else. A picturesque American exercise in the streamline moderne architecture of its period, it might even be worth preserving. These folks think so.

Smarter and faster than public consciousness and fund-raising however, would be to simply put the bite on the France family for whatever it takes to save the place. They owe it to their own history, and to ours.

Friday, Feb. 24, 10:25 a.m. ET

At 6 o'clock Friday morning it's all seagulls and solitary walkers on Daytona's famous speed beach. The birds flap and squawk and the rhythm of the surf washes in and out across the hardpack as dawn boils up behind the clouds. The boardwalk attractions are still dark. The palms rattle, dry as paper. And I'm still not sure what the big story of this 500 weekend will be.

There's no central narrative this year except the changes to the cars. No real arc of interpersonal drama, no rising conflict that's Aristotelian or Chekhovian or even Hatfield/McCoyian. The papers and the dot-coms will try to sell you Danica Patrick, because there's not much else to sell. She's more interesting than a four-color PowerPoint table of suspension settings, certainly, but I'm not sure she'll be a factor for 2012. She's still tentative and too thoughtful and doesn't have the hang of sliding and banging these ponderous cars around. Once she gets it, if she gets it, the sky's the limit. But for now, if not gathered up by another big kaboom, she'll likely run in the middle.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sells page views too, but mostly on the strength of his appeal to focus groups. He's as smart and charming a young man as I've ever met out here, but how hot he burns to win a race has always been an open question. He remains instead the cool and melancholy avatar of his father's legend. His Confederate sharpshooter-at-Chancellorsville beard adds a note of solemn poetry this season.

[+] Enlargechocolate fountain
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhile we're waiting for the track to dry, more chocolate please.

Then there's Gordon and Johnson and the Busch brothers; Stewart and Harvick and Kenseth and Edwards and Biffle and two dozen others who could win this thing. Racers all, every one, no matter how slick or airless or corporatized NASCAR's traveling medicine show has become. And all backed by some sort of factory-quality speed, by accomplished crews and engine builders and designers and fabricators and the kind of fancy magic that can only be made by the industrial application of money.

Sports predictions are the universal sucker bet. This is especially so in auto racing, where the technology and the cash and the bad hand of chance play equal parts. Who knows who might win it. That's why we watch.

Out here machinery is show business, and in service of racier racing, the bosses changed up the tech package this year. Now the constant Rube Goldberg recalculation of fuel injection and restrictor plate and spoiler angle and grill opening and water temperature and suspension tuning has everyone flummoxed. Everything you touch affects everything else -- push down here and something pops over there -- in new and unexpected ways. All at once the cars are light in the tail and skittish at almost every angle of attack. A harsh word or a hard look at the quarter panel of the car in front of you can send it spinning.

To the extent possible, NASCAR recalibrated all of this in the interest of entertainment to break up not only the traditional mass-draft formations of years past, but the more recent two-by-two bumper car pairings as well. The result of this experiment will be made public Sunday. Forecasts I've heard around the tool box call for showers of debris and a partly crashy afternoon.

That same evening back down highway 415, they'll play the NBA All-Star Game, so mid-Florida feels like the center of something this week. On live local TV last night, I saw President Barack Obama deplane in Orlando for a fundraiser. Then I watched the downstate Heat beat the Knicks.

I mention this because in the 10 years since I first came out here to write a book, NASCAR has spent a lot of time and money and burned up a fortune's worth of public goodwill to make itself more diverse. I can't say yet if that effort has succeeded or failed. It's not obvious, which might be a kind of partial answer. But I need more time to talk to folks and to take it all in. It's an important part of what I've come back to see.

Still, whether the colors in question are black and white or red, white and blue, or merely green, the Great American Race remains the Great American Metaphor. All of us racing in circles as fast as we can, going nowhere, chasing a buck.

By 10 the sun's high and hot and the safety recording plays again and again and again at the go-kart track. The skinny kid opens the Ferris wheel as the cop pedals past on his bicycle. The wind shakes the trees. The pelicans light on the pilings and wait for the tourists.

Thursday, Feb. 23, 7:40 p.m. ET

They run the trucks out at dusk. Last practice under the lights, they make a bright river of noise. It's easy to forget how beautiful this all can be. The fans pour down out of the stands.

In the west the sky flares red and raises a crescent blade of moon. Behind me in the east, the stars rise and the sky is already black across the whole ocean. All you hear is the persistence of the water on the sand.

Thursday, Feb. 23, 5:35 p.m. ET

In that second Duel 150, Kenny Wallace slid into his pit on what sounded like seven cylinders. Some kind of balky fuel pump or bad injector software. The crew pounded on the parts of the car they could reach, but you could feel the seconds ticking by.

Reality show or not, Wallace is out. Bill Elliott, too, out. Such is the unsentimental calculus of the Daytona 500. Michael Waltrip's out as well, and that first race put Danica Patrick hard into the wall. Hard. There isn't enough left of her primary car to fill a milk crate. So a tough day for the telegenic.

The reality out here is unrelenting. Your Q rating can't save you.

No matter how many focus groups or corporate makeovers the sport commissions, the essential truth of the thing remains unimproved: There are a million ways to lose, and only one way to win.

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2:54 p.m. ET

By 1 o'clock the sun's a hot insult and the fans crowd what shade they can find. Cup crews roll their cars through inspection. Truck practice comes and goes and Matt Kenseth gives a press conference and Danica Patrick hustles across the garage apron wearing the expression of a woman on her way to an audit. Fans whoop and holler and the old truths unspool themselves in all the old ways.

The vibe in advance of these twin 150s is purposeful, and the mechanics and the tuners and the car chiefs hustle down the ranks and rows of garages and pit boxes with a serious step. Last chance to make The Show. Woe to the bystander without his head on a swivel -- they'll roll that car right over you. Reporters chase each other chasing stories as their notebooks swell in the damp, and the TV crews record the TV crews recording it all.

In the media center the Krispy Kreme donuts are no more than a rumor before they're gone altogether. Fan-zone beer is at early flood stage as a tribute act hacks its way through the Cheap Trick catalog. High above the racket and ambition, the gulls and the buzzards wheel and pitch in their circles.

Thursday, Feb. 23, 12:10 p.m. ET

Past the scalpers and the crab shacks and the anchor store bankruptcies, past the rent-to-owns and the beauty schools and the auto detailers, the immensity of the track and its apparatus still overwhelm. There's no stick-and-ball analog. Not Wembley. Not Cowboys Stadium. The only thing like it anywhere is Indy.

Drove in this morning beneath a damp uncertain sky and through clots of off-hour traffic, the irony rich for those who choose it -- bumper to bumper stop-and-go on the way to watch cars set loose to do as they please.

As always, what strikes your senses first is the sound, that Dawn of the Apocalypse noise. Just half a dozen cars at morning practice enough to call down the end of days. If you stand very still, it's not a thing heard. Even half a mile away it rises in you as a buzzing of the bones.

The smell coming off the garages hasn't changed. Grease and solvent and sweat and exhaust and gas and rubber just beginning to warm. By two it'll heat to a high stink. As you stand staring, chances are good that someone from corporate hospitality will walk past trailing a sharp wake of pure Shalimar.

In many ways, there's no place stranger than a race track. Or more magnificent. Or more useless. Back for the first time in a decade, I move through it warily -- as if the thing dropped here whole from the sky, or rose in a morning from the sand pits and scrub.

Thursday, Feb. 23, 7:50 a.m. ET

I arrived in Daytona Beach very late last night. A hard rain washed the gutters and scoured the track and emptied the streets and through the flap and rattle of the wipers the whole place looked deserted. The streaming grandstands rose into the dark and disappeared and the boulevard gleamed and the traffic lights bucked and swung in the wind.

The same tropical wind lifts the gulls and shakes the water down out of the palms this morning. Hot today, they say, with a gray start and then sun. It'll be double-tough to pick the right setup for the 150s later. That's where the Thursday news happens, the dual Duel qualifiers, with some of your antique favorites trying to win their way into the big money go-round Sunday. Among them: Bill Elliott, Mike and Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney and Michael Waltrip.

I'm not sure what the central narrative for the 500 is this week, this year, but "Young Guns vs. Old Heads" is always a safe bet. As is the "State of the State of Dale Earnhardt Jr." footnoted by Oedipus and Dr. Freud. Another evergreen is "Drafting The Revised Aero Package." New for 2012 will be the glorious "Story of Fuel Injection," which begins at "not a carburetor" and ends half a sentence later with "still uses a restrictor plate."

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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