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(Car) Culture Shock: A First-Timer’s Account of the Daytona 500

By  February 25, 2016
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NASCAR is a form of motorsport that often gets a bad rap from some car enthusiasts. It’s easy to dismiss it as a dull overload of a marketing ad blitz, with cars simply running in circles (at Daytona, they refer to it as a tri-oval). I’d never really followed NASCAR closely and hadn’t watched a race on TV since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was alive, but I was curious. Why is it so popular? Perhaps something wasn’t translating well from first hand experience to broadcast. Time to open the mind and step out of my comfort zone, so I decided to venture out for my first NASCAR experience, the 2016 Daytona 500.

This was only my second trip to Daytona, the first being just last month, when I met fellow hoon, Greg Kachadurian, at the Rolex 24. It seemed like The Great American Race was a great opportunity to contrast against the all night enduro.

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Just arriving at the speedway, there were many more people; enough that seats had actually sold out. No surprise, with this being the first Daytona 500 since the track had undergone renovations. Getting to my seat, I was greeted by a friendly group of older gentleman. With the performance of country band Florida Georgia Line coming to a close, the USAF Thunderbirds took to the sky and made a few passes overhead as the teams lined up on pit road.

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Actor Gerard Butler made an appearance to give the order for drivers to start their engines. It seemed like what someone’s idea of patriotism might look like. This was an adventure so far, even if I’d had to sit through a whole country music concert.

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There was plenty of action with passing. This was in many ways a new form of motorsport for me, in person anyway, so of course the newness kept things interesting. Then around lap 35 (of 200), the young guy next to me, opposite from the older guys, actually started falling asleep! He had his radio headphones on and his head would just start to dip… until the line of cars would pass and then he’d wake up again, for about a minute, before slipping off back to sleep.

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Soon enough, he was back awake and chowing down on pork rinds. But then around lap 45 or so, things calmed down. There weren’t any lead changes for a while, so I began to get antsy. At Rolex 24, I’d been able to walk around in the infield and sit up in the seats as well, so I decided to go and see if I could get down there, to capture some different angles with the new camera.

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Wandering around, I happened to stumble on some display vehicles, including the Back to the Future Toyota Tacoma Concept, a Tundra monster truck as well as a restomod 1971 Corvette. The Corvette was owned by NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and had been built by himself and Chevrolet for SEMA a couple of years ago.

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The car was gorgeous, but unfortunately a display rope ruined the “whole car” view. I still really liked the way this detail shot came out with both the new camera and lens. The paint was just beautiful in silver, which appeared grey in the dark area below the grandstands.

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There were also a new C7 Corvette and an SS hanging sideways on displays, showing the factory upgrades.

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Speaking of Corvettes, there were a few of the previous pace cars parked all around the ground floor where one could walk up and see them up close without a rope in the way.

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Eventually, after I’d spoken to three different staff people, each closer to the infield than the last, I believed them that I was not allowed in the infield despite paying roughly four times the cost of the Rolex tickets, to then only sit in one place for the whole race. The ticket person explained that this was a “whole different animal” from Rolex 24. That was understandable with how popular NASCAR is and how huge the turnout was. Willing to make the best of the rest of the race, I went back to my seat in time to see most of the second half of the race.

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Finger lickin’ Fender rippin’ good!

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. being checked out after a run in with the wall.

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Duct tape will fix anything.

Dale Earnhardt Jr wrecked, then Danica Patrick as well. Matt Kenseth, in the #20 car, seemed to stay out front for a very long time up until the end.

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Martin Truex Jr, in the #78, had made a great run, starting all the way at the back, having been penalized for a non-compliant roof flap, and making it all the way out front at the last lap. He and Denny Hamlin were basically drag racing at the very end of that last lap. It could have very easily been Truex’s race.

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Denny Hamlin (between the Sunoco and Toyota signs) begins his run toward the front.

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A mere 0.010 seconds between first and second.

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At the end, for the second time this year, I was able to capture an image of an extremely close finish. Last time, it was the Corvettes. This time, it would be a new record for the margin of victory at the Daytona 500, only 0.010 seconds between first and second. Denny Hamlin had won the 2016 Daytona 500 by the smallest of margins.

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The celebratory burnout!

Looking back, I can see this as an entertaining motorsport, but at the same time, I see it as the American football of motorsports. I’d still consider myself more of a fan of endurance racing, but I can now see why people get into this. There was loads of excitement in the stands, more than I’d experienced at other series’ events, and very similar to what I’ve seen at football games. The fans really got into the race and at the end; a wall of people stood to cheer for Hamlin. At the same time, as with football, NASCAR is likely more interesting when you follow it and can be a little tedious if you don’t. That being said, it’s much easier to endure a 4-hour race than a 12 or a 24, so it was nice to not be so physically beat. Overall, I had a good time and was glad to have experienced the Daytona 500 and see some history in the making. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to afford going again, but it was something worth experiencing at least once.

View the full image set on Flickr

Text and photography by Bryce Womeldurf
Copyright 2016 HOONART/Bryce Womeldurf