Daytona 500, 2003
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Daytona 500, 2003

So, you’re a race fan. You watch all kinds of racing on TV. You surf the web reading numerous forums about racing. You talk racing with your buddies 24-7. You frequent the local short track and even take a road trip to a big race once or twice a year.

And every Sunday, while watching the action you see hundreds, maybe thousands of people in the garage area before, during, and after the race just hanging out, enjoying the scene, getting autographs from their favorite drivers and the occasional celebrity, and sometimes making a fool of themselves on live TV when the cameras are focused on interviewing a driver (I’m talking about those people you see in the background waving into the camera or talking on their cell phones, “Dude, do you see me? I’m on TV with Dale Junior!!!”). And I’m sure you’ve said to yourself, “Look at all those people. How can THEY get into the pits and I can’t? Man, if I could get access like that, it would be an awesome experience being right in the middle of the action”. Well friends, I’m here to tell ya, being in the pits during a big race ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Yeah, it’s fun (sort of) to be at Ground Zero during one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, but in many ways you are better off in the grandstands or even at home, watching from the comfort of your living room. Because believe me, if there is one thing missing from being in the pit area, it’s comfort. And a good view. And instant replay. And good food. And being able to see all the action on the track.

I know, I know. I can hear you saying, “What are you whining about? I would walk across hot coals barefooted if it meant I could have pit access for the Daytona 500”. But access to the pits and garage area isn’t as great as it may seem. And when the weather, new rules, and poor visibility work against you, it’s not as much fun as you would think. Don’t get me wrong – it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be in the one place that thousands of die-hard race fans would love to be in. It’s very cool to see the sport from a true inside view. For a hard core racing fan it can be the ultimate experience. But it’s not always like that at every event, and the 2003 Daytona 500 was one event I would have rather stayed home to watch.

Before I describe what my day in the pits was like, let me tell you that I have been to hundreds of auto races of many types. I’ve been to races all over the country during all four seasons. From dirt tracks to frozen lakes to the fastest superspeedways anywhere, I’ve attended many racing events. But few races were as disappointing as the 2003 Daytona 500.

This was for a few reasons: (1) NASCAR made some significant rule changes for the 2003 season regarding access to the garage and pit area. The biggest change was the separation of pit passes into “cold” and “hot” passes. In the past teams, sponsors, track promoters, and race officials had access to a seemingly unlimited supply of pit passes. This created a problem for drivers and teams due to the massive number of people in the garage area. To address complaints from teams NASCAR split the pit passes into two groups. People holding a “hot” pass had access to the garage and pit area at all times with no restrictions. Those holding a “cold” pass were required to leave the garage and pit area 30 minutes before an event (practice, qualifying, or race) and would not be allowed back in until 10 minutes after an event ended. It may not sound like a major restriction, but it does keep you from places like Victory Lane the moment a winning driver pulls in or from the pit stalls while pit stops are occurring. In other words a “cold” pass keeps you from the excitement that makes racing so much fun.

(2) The weather was terrible. If you watched the race you know what I mean. From the infield it was cool, hot, wet, windy, and super humid. Yes, all 250,000 fans had to deal with the weather too but in the infield there aren’t too many places to hide out and stay dry.

(3) The view of the racing action from the infield of a super-speedway like Daytona is extremely limited. It’s not like a short track or drag strip where you can see almost the entire track from anywhere.

At Daytona, if you stand in or near pit lane, your view of the track is only of a portion of the tri-oval, about 4-5 seconds of racing action. Unless you can see one of the jumbo video screens from where you are standing you miss most of what’s happening on the track. By comparison, if you are in the grandstands sitting in the tri-oval you can see from Turn 3 all the way to Turn 1, over a lap.

OK, OK, so how crummy was my day at Daytona? Here’s a timeline to give you an idea:

6:00AM- Kissimmee,FL. Alarm clock goes off. Temperature is 68 degrees and humidity is 150% and rising. On race day, the sooner you hit the road, the better, if only to avoid the traffic mess caused by 250,000 people all going to the same place you are.

7:30AM- Interstate 4 inOrlando. The first “big one” of the day completely shuts down I-4 East, which is the main route to Daytona Beach. I guess some NASCAR fans love wrecks so much they’ve got to start their own. We waste over an hour in this jam up.

9:10AM- 18 miles from the track. Traffic is dead stopped. We crawl along for over an hour – I could have walked to Daytona quicker. While we sit there, a short phone call confirms it – no “Hot Passes” for us today.

10:30AM- Somewhere near the track. All the parking areas that are somewhat close to the track want $20 and more for parking. I’m sorry but for $20 I’d better get a free car wash or half-off pizza and beer along with a parking spot. I decide to park in the city’s Park & Ride lot and get bussed to the track. It was free and the smartest thing I did all day.

11:15AM- Roaming around the Fan Fair. After seeing the traveling circus that is the mass of corporate displays, sound stages, demonstrations, and souvenir sales we decide to head into the pits. We had been hearing about hard-core security checks due to the fact the nation was on Level Orange terror alert. I’ve learned over the years that if you make the security staff’s job easier, you get past them quicker. I expect they will search me and my backpack thoroughly. Instead, the six security guards at the Turn 4 tunnel entrance look at my ID and my pit pass and let me go. I could have had 20 lbs of plastic explosives in that backpack for all they knew. So much for our national terror alert system.

As we walk in, a very attractive blonde girl is walking in with her friend. She’s tall, tan, and wearing a black halter top with very low cut black pants. In years past, she would have been accosted by the drunk and crazed infield inhabitants. But in 2003, the only thing she gets pestered with is an offer of a ride by a couple of dorky rednecks in a beat up Ford truck with Lynard Skynard playing on the stereo. To me this scene is the perfect juxtaposition of the modern world of NASCAR: Beautiful women attracted to the same scene that was once the sole domain of stereotypical American beer-drinking redneck. Social anthropologists would have a field day here.

11:30AM- In the garage area. The hour or so before the start of a race is social time for NASCAR people. All the teams have cooks who create gourmet meals for their crews, team members, sponsors, and whoever else is hanging out with them. I don’t see too many hot dogs and chips being eaten. The fans in the stands might be chowing on $6.00 hamburgers, but the teams eat very well. I have a BBQ chicken sandwich ($6.50) and a sports drink ($3.00). I need a better hook up with a team if only to get a decent meal.

12:15PM- Sitting on the pit lane wall during driver introduction. In many ways this is the best part of pit access at a NASCAR race. You are totally immersed in the scene. Everyone who is anyone in the world of NASCAR is milling around near you. Drivers, crew chiefs, celebrities, team owners, live TV cameras- it’s all here. The guys from the country band Brooks & Dunn are a few feet away. John Travolta, the Grand Marshal of the race, is nearby, as are all your favorite and not-so-favorite drivers. We miss seeing Mariah Carey, though. Must have been getting coiffed prior to her singing of the national anthem.

12:30PM- Getting the boot from pit lane. It’s 30 minutes to race time and we get kicked out of the pit lane. Time to find someplace to watch the race.

After the race starts, we find a place along the front straight where we can see the cars enter Turn One. Our view includes about 20% of the track. Good thing we have scanners so we can listen to play-by-play of the race and team communications. As the rain starts for the first time we run over to infield bathrooms and take cover under the eaves. We were hot and sweaty before the rain, now we’re wet too. But the rain stops, the sun and ten jet driers come out, and we find an abandoned picnic bench to rest on while we wait for the restart. A little more scouting finds us a better viewing spot at the exit of pit road close to one of those massive TV monitors in the infield. Yeah, it’s also a parking area for tour buses and we’ve got to snort diesel fumes, but at least the scanner’s headphones drown out most of the idling engine clatter. And now we can watch the race on TV and catch a glimpse of the cars on the track for a few seconds.

It’s not too long until it begins to rain again, and this time it seems permanent. As we wander around the infield (we’re soaked by now so threre’s no sense in running for cover) we see a few drivers have changed into street clothes. When we see pole sitter Jeff Green driving out of the track in his Chevy Tahoe, we know the day is over.

We schlep it back to the bus drop-off area for the ride back to the parking lot. Getting out of Daytona and onto I-95 South – no way I was going to take I-4 back – was quick and painless. Two hours later we’re sitting at the bar at Chili’s having fajitas and beer. Although the 2003 Daytona 500 was a big disappointment in my book it won’t sway me from going again if I have the chance. I love racing, especially NASCAR, and I realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to experience racing from such a unique perspective.

In a perfect world every race would run the full distance and be held in perfect weather. You would be able to see all the action from an ideal position. Alas, that’s not a realistic scenario. So in many ways watching a race from home, complete with your favorite chair and good food in the fridge, is a better choice for race fans. And if you attend an event the view from the grandstands is always superior. So don’t be too envious of the people you see in the garage area. Chances are you will enjoy the race more than they will.

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