Louder, Faster, Completely in Control: Three Days at Daytona
Navigating the crowds, the hierarchies, and just the immense size of the Speedway while the Daytona 500 roared around the track.
Photo by Rusty Wilder
"Daytona is Daytona because it defies description," boomed a baritone voice through the speaker system.
My assistant and I were lost in the Daytona International Speedway's 180-acre infield. We were deep in the sprawling campgrounds just south of a large, perfectly rectangular lake with boats on it, all within the racetrack's perimeter. This region of the infield was where fans parked and partied in buses, RVs, and travel trailers in the days leading up to the Daytona 500. Some of them had been here a week, and the resultant pop-up village was a baffling, haphazard medina of humongous live-aboard vehicles, grilling setups, cornhole games, improvised saloons, and chain-link fence. It seemed to have no end.
Despite our having discourteously declined his handle of Fireball, a friendly fan with a sunburn that would have been fatal to someone sober was trying to help us figure out where the fuck we'd parked. "I'll tell you something," he said, and gestured broadly. "This place—this place is impossible."
He may have meant the labyrinthine temporary settlement of trailers and buses. He may have meant the enclosing Speedway, so immense its architects were obligated to take into account Earth's curvature. He may have meant Earth, for containing such things.
Why hadn't I listened to John Cena? At the Speedway Media Center, hours or perhaps a lifetime ago, Cena had warned the assembled press that Daytona "transcends a race, an entity, business itself." Now, footsore and sun-sick in its vastness, I believed. How naively I'd jotted down that prophecy, which came on the heels of Cena's forceful assertion that "America can hang with anyone who wants to make a supercar."
It took us a long time to get out, but we did make some new pals along the way.
I don't love the word "redneck." While I happen to like—even date, betimes—rednecks themselves, the word redneck is frequently used as a pejorative to dismiss underprivileged people. If you are as sensitive as I about this, please skip the following paragraph.
The Daytona 500 "is like redneck Mardi Gras," according to Kyle, a twentysomething, second-generation NASCAR fan. "You got rich rednecks, poor rednecks, rednecks who don't ever leave their houses the rest of the year. All of them out here partying."
"Partying together," I prompted optimistically.
"Partying," Kyle said, "at the same event."
The Daytona International Speedway seats 101,000 and can accommodate many more on the infield. As with most assemblies of this size, there is hierarchy. Badging my way blithely across sundry strata of midway, grandstand, infield, and even the track itself, I noticed differences in socio-economic class expressed geographically: the depth of scrutiny to which a given gate's security staff subjected my credentials corresponded to how skinny and chic the inhabitants of the zone beyond would be.
I spent most of the race ensconced very comfortably among the elite, in the Speedway grandstand's Rolex 24 Lounge. The Lounge is a soundproofed, air-conditioned luxury oasis, admission to which requires money, connections, or the good graces of a powerful sponsor eager to curry favor with your readership. Lounge access, like every other form of access within the Daytona universe, came in the form of a specially endorsed laminate on a lanyard.
There were a lot of lanyards at Daytona. Almost everyone had a pouch dangling from his or her neck. I first noticed the lanyards on my way to the track the Saturday before the 500. In Florida, people walking alongside busy roads are a common sight. This isn't a classist knock; it's just something I noticed while living in Florida. As I approached the Speedway, however, more and more of the pedestrians wore laminates, sometimes bundles of them, hanging from lanyards. Some of the laminates were tastefully small; some were as big as a laptop.
There were also men of various ages and races arrayed along the roads around the Speedway holding signs that read, with no variation, "I Need Tickets." Despite the signs, these men seemed in fact to be selling tickets.
The Daytona 500 crowd was mixed in terms of gender but overwhelmingly white. There were a few confederate flags, but not many. The U.S. flag predominated to the point of omnipresence. If I had to guess, I'd say a higher percentage of attendees were churchgoers than in some segments of the public. There was a lot of talk of faith. When pop-country juggernaut Florida Georgia Line rolled through their hit "How We Roll" in a pre-race concert, they delicately obviated one line, "Pray on them Sundays," to avoid reminding us we were spending our Sabbath in a temple of Mercury.
Earlier that morning, riding a tram between one end of the grandstand and the other, I heard a lady behind me tell her companion, "Cheryl hasn't texted back. She's probably still in church."
"We should all be in church," a nearby security guard volunteered.
"I know!" the passenger replied. "It doesn't feel right. We all gotta say extra prayers tonight."
"I pray for all the drivers to be safe," the security guard said.
While I doubt anyone wished the drivers ill, there was a widespread, ghoulish fascination with the possibility, and then the results, of crashes. People repeatedly remarked how dangerous the sport and this specific course were. Pre-race hype videos prominently featured accidents, and during the race itself the crowd came alive with excitement when cars slid and the possibility of a pile-up loomed.
Exactly a year before, a day before the 2015 Daytona 500, the driver Kyle Busch hit a concrete wall head-on, pulverizing his legs. The Daytona 500 is the first race of the regular season; after missing four months, Busch returned and won the cup.
Sunday morning, I found myself trailing the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Team as they walked through the midway. Their uniform pants were improbably tight, so tight their wearers seemed almost to be the victims of a tailor's prank; so tight that I found my awe warring with sympathy. That afternoon, in the moments before the flags dropped, the Thunderbirds and their tight, tight pants soared overhead in military jets, excreting long streaks of festive chemtrail. The actor Gerard Butler urged the drivers to start their engines with all the excitement of a wedding guest unexpectedly called upon to offer a toast.
Though accompanied by an enthusiastic fan—a North Carolina boy I brought as a sort of native guide and a strong back to carry my specialized sports-reporting equipment—I had never before been to a NASCAR event or paid it much attention on TV. I was braced for boredom, but aside from the discomfort of the broiling sun, witnessing the race live was compelling and enjoyable.
The cars tend to cluster in a pack, two or three across, which means they go by your seat all at once in a single compact formation. The drivers jockey for position within the pack, so on each pass the large, loud shape they collectively comprise has tweaked and reconfigured itself, presenting a variation on the previous form. These changes are crucial: on a pass, one car having edged farther toward the group's front will prompt a section of the crowd to jump up and applaud.
Even if you are not deeply invested in the fortunes of a particular driver, watching the pack-blob internally reorder itself at 200 miles an hour is fascinating. It's like seeing a flock of birds twist in flight, or living pen strokes of a complex kanji subtly shifting the larger signification.
Wandering the grandstand's lowest level mid-race, I met Molly and her friend Johnny Angel, who'd driven up at from Sarasota at 6 AM. It can be fairly said that Molly's colorful coiffure and well-curated collection of punk pins distinguished her from the other fans in attendance. This was her first NASCAR event, and she expressed enthusiasm for the race's "brutal noise."
"When the cars go by," she said, "it feels like you're being warped into the future. I scream 'Blood on the Altar of Satan!' when they go past us."
Everyone warned me about the noise, but I found it attractive rather than objectionable. When the pack is far off, it's a morbid drone, like a platoon of Tuvan throat-singers. The moan descends in pitch and amplifies exponentially as the cars come nearer. The sound of the pack's direct passage is immense: a dragon's sigh or the wheeze of hell's accordion. The mechanical howl, ocean-deep and horizon-wide, slops over you in cascade. It's as if a bucket of bedlam, overfilled, tipped, and sloshed itself empty across your eardrums. This sonic cycle, from spooky church-organ hum to cataclysmic eruption and back, begins to feel meditative. Only when a driver spins out or, more often, when several take simultaneous pit breaks does the shape become atomized and the roar of pack-passage separate into discrete engine sounds.
The pit crews swarming the cars reintroduce a human element, breaking the trance of abstraction that sets in watching these brightly painted metal boxes go around. Nine years ago, the average pit stop was 13 seconds; it's now down to nine or 10.
In the strange, tense pre-race calm of Sunday I spoke with Mike Lepp, the athletic performance director for Joe Gibbs Racing. He oversees the training and coordination of the pit crews responsible for maintaining the Camrys piloted by Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez, wunderkind Erik Jones, and eventual 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.
Refueling and changing tires on the cars is its own specialized sub-sport. "Everything in sports is data-driven now," Lepp told me, explaining that he analyzes frame-by-frame video of his own crews and others' in an endless quest to optimize pit crew speed, trying to shave fractions of seconds through more efficient kinetics. For the crews, "we hire college athletes, maybe somebody who didn't make the pro draft. A few ex-NFL guys, but there's a window, same as any sport: 20, 24 to 38. It's all about movement: acceleration, deceleration, rapid changes in direction. We look for a range of sizes with different focuses. Your jack man's gotta be bigger. You want strength athletes to lift a 75-pound tire or an 85-pound gas can—defensive linemen. For tire changers you need smaller guys with the hand speed to hit five lug nuts in a second."
The cars, which have a uniform body shape mandated by NASCAR, are checked pre-race by a team of inspectors via rulers, lasers, and fitted templates lowered onto the car to detect even the mildest topological deviation. Especially as the aerodynamics of the cars make passing on the track more difficult, time advantages gained in the pit lane can win races.
Behind the pit stop stations and fronting on the infield, the garages in which the cars are prepared have picture windows where fans can watch the work underway. Below the windows are the sort of metal sliding slots one sees most often beneath a partition of plexiglas in paranoid corner stores; in this case, the slots let fans pass merchandise or photos in to be signed and slid back out.
For those whose laminates let them near enough, every aspect of the race is transparent. Not only are the drivers celebrities; their non-racing family members do media appearances and have their own devoted fan followings. Saturday afternoon on the Speedway's midway, a rapturous crowd welcomed Samantha Busch, wife of the spectacularly injured and spectacularly recovered Kyle.
Samantha looks in real life the way most people look only in carefully angled and filtered pics. She has that same everywoman down-to-earth anti-celeb thing that people either love or despise Jennifer Lawrence for, but which may also be the least terrible way to exist sanely within the horrendous headfuck of contemporary fame.
"All these people follow you on Instagram, on Twitter," the midway MC said. "I've lost weight using some of those healthy recipes you've been posting on your website. What's it like to be Samantha?"
"Well, we're very open," she said.
A man next to me wore a shirt that read, "Land of the Free/Home of the Brave. It's Not Corny for Me. I Feel it in My Heart. I Feel it in My Chest."
"Kyle and I are each other's rocks. He'll come home from the track and change a poopy diaper," Samantha said, drawing titillated whoops from her fans. Samantha and Kyle's nine-month-old kid, I learned, loves riding in racecars. "The faster and the louder, the better!"
She stepped down off the podium to take selfies with fans and sign their merch. Next up was 19-year-old driver Erik Jones. He looked like a high-schooler but was incredibly polished, modest, patient, and well-spoken. Watching him being interviewed was drug-like, as pleasantly reassuring as gazing into the dancing flames of a cozy hearth.
My phone beeped. A Floridian friend, hearing that I was at the Speedway, had texted me: "Y'all ride the new fancy escalators every which way?" The Speedway's sky-scraping grandstands, the square footage of which far exceeds any number a mere humanities major like myself could hope to reckon, were over the past few years rebuilt and expanded to the tune of $400,000,000; this was the first post-reconstruction Daytona 500. The grandstands were magnificent. There are indeed lots of escalators, which I'm led to understand was not true pre-renovation. There are now 1,900 bathrooms; I found those I visited exquisite.
Throughout my time in and around Daytona, a squad of public relations execs and handlers associated with the car manufacturer Toyota demonstrated fanatical interest in my happiness and satisfaction. While it was very flattering, I'm not sure this is strictly representative of the average attendee's experience. It's broadly germane in that there's a lot of PR around NASCAR: tracks, individual drivers, race teams, sponsors, and (often) owners each have their own dedicated reps and firms. Many of the Toyota reps who haunted my hotel and strived to smooth my passage through the Speedway preached the gospel of the Toyota Injector, a museum of Toyota-related hype centered around Toyota building some of its vehicles in the U.S. The Toyota Injector occupied a fat slice of the new grandstands, as did the Injectors of Chevy, Ford, and a local hospital.
Over the years, NASCAR's sponsors have waxed and waned with the economy, ranging from prestige lifestyle brands to dollar stores. While the recent grandstand rebuild and the high-end "injectors" underwritten by (mostly) megacorps seemed proof of solid financial footing, I couldn't help catching occasional murmurs of concern over public perceptions of the sport and, accordingly, how its fortunes might fare at the mercy of the generation to come.
A beneficiary of the grandstand renovation, Daytona International Speedway's midway was more upscale and hospitable than most, with a lot of free sponsor-themed activities including a giant plinko game played with brand-name tires and various forms of remote-control racing. At one RC car course, where the operator used a hockey stick like a croupier's rake, I watched 17-year-old Justin Marshall run the table; none of the other competitors could even get close to him.
Justin was from Punta Gorda, a few hours away. "I've been playing this track for a couple of days now," he said, "so I've had a chance to figure it out." This was his second Daytona 500. When asked whether he aspired to drive a racecar, he expressed general willingness, but explained that his real passion was engineering. He was eager to see how passing would be affected by the new "aero package," an automotive body modification tailored to tweak the cars' "downforce."
I don't mean to lay too much on Justin's shoulders—he's only a very smart kid, not a harbinger of anything—but speaking to him and hearing the confident sophistication with which he approached NASCAR's technical side, I wondered whether this was a glimpse down the road: racing, yes, but also the continually accelerating meta-sport of refining and efficientizing the sport itself. This is what's left to do: ironing out ever-tinier kinks, flaws so small only a laser could detect them; smoothing the passage of cars around the track, of fans into the grandstands—the data-driven striving by endless decreasing increments towards an idealized, frictionless future. It will likely still be loud.