“I genuinely can’t believe I’m here.” Those words kept running through my head as I was walking across the footbridge over Speedway Boulevard, heading to the track for the first time. The same words kept running through my head as we sat down to watch Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, and again – even louder this time – on Sunday as the field came to the green flag for the 64th Daytona 500. I’ve watched every Daytona 500 since 2002, but finally had a chance to actually attend the race in my 20th year of watching it. Here is a bit about my experience:
Myself and a couple friends (Thomas & Caitlin) had talked about going to the race for a few months. Caitlin’s grandparents are huge NASCAR fans and they go to the race every year, and Thomas & Caitlin talked about wanting to give it a try too – knowing that I’d of course be interested. I didn’t really think they were serious to be honest, but sure enough they were, and we managed to get some of the few remaining seats straight from Daytona’s site in mid-November. Thankfully we bought just early enough, because re-sale prices for tickets were apparently insane. A few months later we booked a hotel in Palm Coast (about 30 minutes north of Daytona Beach to avoid insane upcharges & crowds), and a rental car and we were all set!
Fast Forward to the Friday before race weekend and we were on our way. We got a very nice Dodge Charger from the rental place – a very appropriate car that I absolutely loved driving – and drove the 12 or so hours from Maryland to Daytona. The next morning, we met up with Caitlin’s grandparents who gave us two free tickets to the Xfinity Series race that day! We hadn’t initially planned on going to that race, but figured why not? We went to the track, managed to buy a third ticket, and got to watch the Xfinity race, which was an awesome unexpected surprise!
We had general admission seats, so we were allowed to sit anywhere not in the tri-oval. We went all the way down to the section closest to turn four and watched from there, about 30 rows up. The view from those seats was pretty solid, though I definitely wish they had a video board on that side of the track, as it’s of course pretty hard to see to the backstretch.
Since it was general admission and not particularly crowded we were able to move around at our own leisure, so we spent a few laps in the first row. It was fun for a few laps, but I would NOT want to watch a whole race from there – you just can’t see enough, especially without a video board where we were. We were all pulling for AJ Allmendinger, so we were of course a little bummed he didn’t quite get it done, but it was a really fun race either way, and I would absolutely recommend anyone who makes the trip to the 500 in the future to try to get out to the Xfinity race as well!
The day of the 500 we got there at about 9:00 and tailgated a bit after aggressively overpaying for parking close to the track (seriously, if you plan on going to the 500 someday, research the parking situation more than we did, I was really bad about that). We drank a few beers, went to the Wawa across from the track a few times (which was surreal as a native Marylander…going to a Wawa in Florida), migrated to and from the merch stands, and just all around had a great day leading up to the race!
We went into the track about an hour before the green flag and got to our seats, three sections away from the entrance to turn one, 33 rows up. They were great seats, with the added benefit of being in the shade after about 30 laps – much needed as we’d all gotten sunburnt the day before…
The race itself was honestly kind of a blur to me. It was just such a surreal experience for me to even be there that I was just kind of taking in all the sights and sounds rather than really closely tracking how all my favorite drivers were doing like I normally would while watching a race. The Daytona 500 had been #1 on my sports bucket list for years, and I was actually there! I was tracking Bubba Wallace closely, and that was about it. Outside of that, I was just chilling quite frankly – just enjoying myself, and taking it all in.
Well, as he often does on Superspeedways, Bubba was right there at the end, and ALMOST got it done. When he made the move to the inside of Cindric I just yelled “BUBBA” and about lost my mind, but as we know he only barely came up short. Normally I’d have been heartbroken if one of my favorite drivers got that close and didn’t quite get it done, but…I just smiled. Partly because I was proud of Bubba either way as he’d run a great race, and also partly because the finish was fantastic, but mostly just because I was there. I managed to make it to my holy grail of sporting events, and got to see a great one at that, even if my guy didn’t win. It also doesn’t hurt that I rather like Austin Cindric too, so that at least made it easier to swallow.
After the race we met up with Caitlin’s grandparents again and ate dinner at a restaurant across the street from the track (Bahama Breeze – I got Jerk Chicken and a Pina Colada for the record). There was an hour and a half wait, but we figured our options were either wait there and at least get some good food at the end, or wait in traffic for just as long and get nothing. It was the right choice, as by the time we finished up, all of the traffic had cleared out, and we were able to zip out of town easily – I’d recommend a post-race meal to anyone who plans on going in the future to avoid sitting in traffic. One more 12 hour drive the next day, and we were back.
The race itself was an absolute blast, as was the majority of the trip. Now… that’s not to say there wasn’t at least a tinge of unpleasantness in places. Despite NASCAR’s efforts to distance themselves from all of it, there was a lot of “Let’s Go Brandon” stuff, a lot of Biden stuff, and a lot of misplaced politics. A lot of people outside of the track shilling this weirdo political merch to try and make a buck. Nobody being overly aggressive about it, or shouting about it inside the track, but it was there. It’s not like we didn’t expect it, of course we did – we knew where we were.
We did our best to not let it affect the trip, but when some dude outside the track is shouting things like “Biden sucks, Kamala swallows”, or “F*** Joe and that H**” in front of passing children while trying to sell his bootleg shirts, it’s equal parts jarring and annoying – and seeing some people inside the track actually wearing the shirts was just… a bit sad really. However, I think most people’s thoughts on the matter could be best summed up with the words of a woman we heard talking to one of the vendors: “I just don’t want you to embarrass yourself.” I’m sorry ma’am, that ship has sailed for them. They are an embarrassment to themselves, and the sport – and hopefully NASCAR continues their efforts to mute that kind of vitriol.
Like I said at the start, it wasn’t just me who made the trip solo – I would never do something like this by myself. Two of my best friends in the world came with me, Thomas and Caitlin. Neither of them were really NASCAR fans in any conventional sense, but they both had a great time at the track – and are both newly minted Bubba Wallace fans. Here’s what they had to say about it:
Caitlin: “As someone who grew up around NASCAR but stepped away due to the culture surrounding the sport, I must say I was pleasantly surprised to see efforts towards inclusivity being made at the Daytona 500. This was my first time attending, and I look forward to going to more races knowing the sport is becoming more accessible for everyone.”
Thomas: “As someone who once asked Walker ‘Do they listen to the radio while they drive? It seems pretty boring going in circles all the time.’ I’ve come to gain a lot of respect and likeness for the sport, and the Daytona 500 was a perfect example of prime NASCAR racing. The fast paced craziness of the race, mixed with such an insane passion for the sport from all the people around me that weekend made me see the sport in a new and exciting light that I’m very eager to keep enjoying for years to come.”
Other than my grandfather, I’ve never really had anyone in my life to talk NASCAR with on a regular basis. Nobody else in my family was really interested, and neither were any of my friends – I grew up in Maryland after all, not exactly the heart of the motorsports world. It was just something that I kind of had to enjoy myself. It means the absolute world to me that Thomas and Caitlin were able to come down and experience this with me, and I’m so glad they had a good time – and that they both seem eager to continue following the sport. We’ll see you at Dover in May!
To wrap up my thoughts on the Daytona 500 weekend, all I can say is this: I’ll be back. I don’t know exactly when, but I am absolutely going to make this trip again. It was an otherworldly experience for me, and one that I think every NASCAR fan should try to have as well.