The experience of a lifetime at the Daytona 500

Bags packed. Check. Race bag with sunscreen, hat and towel. Check. Scanner with headsets. Check and check. Tickets to the Daytona 500? Oh yeah! We’ve got ‘em.

For every NASCAR fan, this is the ONLY season that matters. Racing season. I was fortunate enough to be amongst the crowd at the 58 th annual running of the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of auto racing. Our journey to Daytona started in January when my dad sent me a text message asking for my information to renew my NASCAR license. We travel to local tracks across the south with a modified team almost every weekend during race season, and go with them to Bowman Gray Stadium during the summer. We’ve made racing a family affair and enjoy seeing each other every weekend doing something we both love.

At Christmas my dad told me he would pay to renew my license, so I was expecting a call or text for my license number. I did NOT expect “would you be interested” and “going to the Daytona 500” to be in the next message from him. He also invited my boyfriend along for the ride. Neither of us had seen the Daytona 500 in person, only on TV.

We left on our trip Friday morning before the race and traveled to Savannah, Georgia for the night. My dad thought it would ease the long drive and would give us an opportunity to explore the beautiful downtown area. After arriving that afternoon, we walked to the best burger joint in Savannah, chowed down on fried green tomatoes, drank beverages made there, and enjoyed a breezy walk by the river. That night we put on our walking shoes and went on a ghost pub tour. We heard real ghost stories about some of the most haunted places in Savannah, enjoyed our first pickle back, key lime pie shots, and the famous Savannah flu shot.

Saturday came quickly, bringing on a headache from the night before. We repacked our bags and headed to Daytona, stopping at IHOP for some much needed breakfast.

Daddy decided to drive out to Daytona Beach since I had never been before. Like other beaches, children played in the sand, adults sunbathed, but driving on the beach was something I’d never done.

We rolled up our pant legs, walked along the beach, and collected small shells. This was the beach that made Daytona what it is. Men and women gathered along the beach to watch racing before NASCAR was in existence. It’s what prompted the building of Daytona International Speedway. Even though it was a beach that looked like any other beach along the east coast, I couldn’t help but feel like I was some place truly special as the sand squished between my toes.

After grabbing dinner around the corner at a sports bar and talking to Jack the Parrot, we headed to the motel for the night. My boyfriend and I laid on the bed and went thru radio frequencies, programing my scanner for the race. I wanted to make sure we were prepared. We turned in early knowing the next day would have lots of walking involved.

Everyone got up around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, put on our layers of clothing, checked to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind, and stuffed our luggage back in the car. We swung thru McDonald’s drive-thru to get some breakfast before driving to the track. For those of you who are unaware, McDonald’s does not serve sausage gravy biscuits in Florida, which is very disturbing.

After getting parked, we made our way across the street and into the gate where all the festivities were taking place. We made our way to the Ford section where they had fans spinning a prize wheel, giving out key chains, bags and tool kits, along with IRacing and a huge display of vehicles. Since my dad and boyfriend work on the pit crew for the modified team, they decided to try their hand at a pit stop, but fell short due to faulty equipment.

Further down was the Busch tent, filled with, of course, beer, race cars, and another pit stop challenge. My boyfriend stepped up, did the challenge in less than 11 seconds and was given a nice Busch hat that he wore proudly around the track for the rest of the day.

We filled out forms to get free t-shirts, watched Richard Petty judge a bacon eating contest, drank free Monster, watched people spinning out doing Toyota test drives, and saw many amazing things walking thru Daytona Rising.

I asked if we could walk down to Daytona USA so I could see Dale Earnhardt’s statue. I didn’t watch racing much when he was alive, but I wanted to see the statue, knowing what he meant to the sport. My boyfriend told me the statue stood across from where he hit the wall and was killed 15 years before. It made my heart flutter a little at that scary feeling.

Finally, we all decided we would walk back and enter the gate into the speedway. Anticipation of the race had set in. We rode the new escalator up into the stadium and went to find our seats. Seated right across from the pit road exit, we were in perfect view of the front stretch and a big screen to watch the action.

The prerace ceremonies were like none other, complete with a concert featuring Florida Georgia Line and a fly over during the national anthem. The command came for drivers to start their engines. We listened to race control on our scanners as they took their pace laps, counting down lap by lap to the green flag. As the pace car pulled onto pit lane and the cars came to the start finish line, it finally started to sink in. I’m at the Daytona 500!

As the cars took the green flag, tears streamed down my face. I was so overcome with emotion. I’m at the Daytona 500! I turned and looked at my boyfriend and my dad, both with big smiles. They both laughed at me, seeing the emotion on my face, and my cheeks, so overwhelmed with joy and amazement.

Lap by lap, the cars raced around the 2.5-mile track, engines screaming, fans on their feet. We listened to the spotters instructing the drivers where to go. We heard drivers curse their pit crews for messing up on pit stops. We heard calm voices across the scanner after a crash. As the race came to a finish, everyone was on their feet as the first and second place cars took the checked flag within inches of each other. The new Daytona 500 Champion did donuts thru the grass and the wonderful scent of burnt rubber filled the air.

As the crowd flooded out of the speedway, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that our adventurous weekend had come to an end. We settled in for the long ride home, talking about what a great experience we had and how I cried at my first Daytona 50 0. We found NASCAR haulers to draft with on I-95. I bet we’ll be back again. !