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A Guide to the Daytona 500: Notes From a NASCAR Neophyte

BY Andrea Gompf | PUBLISHED: Wednesday, March 6th, 2013
A Guide to the Daytona 500: Notes From a NASCAR Neophyte

Twitter: @AndreaGompf

Like the World Showcase at Epcot, Daytona Beach feels like a facsimile of a real place – it is at once familiar and strange. Driving past a blur of weathered storefronts with names like “Buck’s Gun Rack” and “Sky King Fireworks of Daytona” in late February, I contemplated the grand total of things I knew about the city, which boiled down to three items:
1. Spring Break
2. Bike Week
3. The Daytona 500

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I was in town for the latter, riding in a van filled with “influencers” who had been invited by NASCAR to fly down and receive an immersion experience that they hoped would make new fans out of us. It seems the sport has a bad case of the Mitt Romney Blues; with a fan base that is predominantly white and over 50, it’s struggling to remain relevant in a country whose demographics increasingly reflect a shifting landscape. Judging from the others along for the trip – who represented outlets like MTV, Complex, Black Enterprise, and Beats by Dre, among others – NASCAR has it’s eye on millennials. Millennials who are brown and have heard of Klout.

I knew virtually nothing about racing, but the prospect of some Florida sun coupled with my fondness for trashy bars was enough to get me on board. I began making plans. Plans to spend all day tailgating with grizzled old men. Plans to wear nothing but jorts and an American flag terror eagle side-boob tank top. Plans to liberally use the contraction “y’all.”

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LIVE TO RIDE/RIDE TO LIVE

But two days before the trip I received a detailed itinerary that took some air out of my redneck reveries. Our schedules were booked from 6am to 8pm in 20 minute increments; the requested dress code was “business casual.” Not sure what to expect, I packed the tank top anyway and was on my way.

What followed was a two day blur of meet and greets, interviews, races, car crashes, Bud Light Limes, and celebrity sightings that rested somewhere between Spring Break 2.0 and an 8th grade field trip. Here is an account of my learnings/observations based on the limited notes I took on my phone and what I kind of remember about stuff that happened a week ago while I was tipsy.

If you’re into super profesh journalism you can probably stop reading here.

HISTORY

First of all, I didn’t even know that NASCAR was an acronym. You’d think that the ALL CAPS would’ve tipped me off, but I just interpreted that as a cue to read the word very loudly in my head. (In case it’s not obvious yet, I did very minimal research in preparation for this trip). Anyway, if you, like me, never once thought to look at the NASCAR Wikipedia page, allow me to inform you that NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

Which brings me to point #2: wtf is a stock car? Back in the 1920s when stock car racing began, the name was fairly literal – it meant a car that had not been altered from its original factory build. During the Prohibition, bootleggers in the Appalachian South used these cars to distribute moonshine, outmaneuver the police, and, eventually, race one another – leading to the birth of the sport. So basically, NASCAR was spawned by undereducated Southern white men from modest backgrounds…which explains the bulk of its fan base, as well as the stereotypes that surround it today. THE MORE YOU KNOW.


My question going into this weekend – and one that still remains – is whether that fan base and culture can be changed from the top down. But more on this later.

CARS

Today, stock cars are built specifically for the race track, but they’re required to meet a strict set of regulations set by NASCAR, so teams can’t modify them all willy nilly. Over the course of our two days in Daytona we met lots of engineers, crew chiefs, and assorted pit crew members who inundated us with technical details about the cars  - explaining which adjustments make them more aerodynamic, improve the transmission and disc brakes, etc. I absorbed only a fraction of this information because:

a) I don’t care about the inner workings of vehicles, and
b) I was more concerned with the car exteriors, which sported a look I like to call “Mom Car.”

Just a thought: if you’re trying to make NASCAR appealing to millennials, maybe the cars shouldn’t look like the sedans suburban parents use to drive their middle schoolers to the mall.

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With that said, driving in a stock car is a different story altogether. In what was perhaps the highlight of the entire weekend, we were given the opportunity to ride in a pace car (pictured above) with driver Kevin Harvick, who hurtled us around the track at 150 mph. Twice.

Lance Rios of Being Latino took a short video of our passenger experience, where wisps of my Daytona Humidity Hair make a brief cameo. Thankfully you can’t hear me hysterically laughing and saying “OH MY GOD” over and over because I basically sounded like that video of Miley Cyrus after she smoked Salvia –  which I imagine feels a lot like going 150 mph around a bend so steeply sloped it’s nearly vertical.

Anyway, once you’ve rocketed around the Daytona International Speedway in a Mom Whip it’s virtually impossible not to feel invested in the race, so if NASCAR wants new fans it should probably just give out pace car rides to everyone. Marketing problems solved.

DRIVERS

We met a lot of drivers on this trip, and 98% of the time I had no idea who they were. Usually, it’s easy to tell if someone is famous, even when they look unremarkable – there is the tell-tale bearing of someone accustomed to being watched, the measured charisma, the retinue of handlers. Not so at NASCAR, where the drivers had a candid good ol’ boy vibe that made them indistinguishable from the pit crew members to the untrained eye. Seriously, without a uniform to tip me off, NONE of the usual context clues were helpful. Except for Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick, who stood out like sore thumbs.

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Adding to my confusion was how freely everyone spoke in the presence of our group of journalists and bloggers. Mostly, the off-the-cuff comments were charming – like when driver Darrell Wallace Jr. advised us to “stay ratchet and stay stank” – but we also witnessed how they could go very, very wrong. One night at dinner when the conversation turned to diversity, a writer in our group confessed that a white driver had casually dropped the n-word during an interview earlier that day. Immediately, the NASCAR rep we were dining with pressed him for details, I assumed in an effort to do damage control. After all, we had been invited to Daytona for the express purpose of showcasing and promoting diversity in the sport. Surely the last thing they wanted was for a reporter on their goodwill tour to publish a story that could undermine their outreach efforts.

A few days later, however, NASCAR made the incident a national news story by rooting out the driver who made the comment (Jeremy Clements) and indefinitely suspending him. They also released a statement regarding the offense – though they declined to specify what exactly Clements said, and did not mention that it was racial in nature. Soon enough, reporters ferreted out the details, and what began as an anecdote shared over dinner got splashed all over the national news.

This incident perfectly encapsulates the difficult position NASCAR finds itself in, as an organization whose management and larger community do not necessarily see eye to eye. While the association has taken many steps to open up its fan base, including developing a Drive for Diversity program to recruit minority drivers, taking races to areas with more diverse populations, and inviting people like me down to cover the experience, it must still contend with the existing culture – a culture that is slow to change. At the turnstile, non-white faces are few and far between. The same is true on the track; unlike other professional athletes, drivers can continue to compete well into their 50s, which means getting new faces in the game is a challenge.

Still, NASCAR’s efforts – and the way it handled the Clements incident  - continue to send a clear message that it is determined to transform its image and more than willing to make an example of anyone who does not align with that objective.

How quickly its drivers, pit crew and current fan base get on board remains to be seen. 50 Cent seems optimistic though, so there’s that. And if they invite Sofia Vergara next year it’s a whole new game.

BRANDZ A MAKE HER DANCE

For a sport with such a blue collar image, racing is surprisingly expensive. To compete you need at least one car (and the best financed teams have 3-4 back up cars in case of crashes during the season), fuel, gear, tools, giant transport trucks, and a 30 person team of pit crew members and engineers. To defray these costs, drivers need sponsors. A dizzying amount of sponsors. Brand logos are splashed across every surface imaginable inside the track; they cluster on cars, driver uniforms, haulers, team gear, fan outfits and float overhead on blimps. After a few hours – and a few beers – I started feeling like I was trapped inside a magic eye book.

Interestingly, many of these brands are a counterintuitive fit for a sport whose hallmarks are speed, aggression, and danger. Case in point: Quicken Loans. If I had to think of the opposite of daredevil racing it would probably be personal finance software, so I’m not sure how this partnership came about. I mean, there was a conspicuous lack of NASCAR groupies – who are known as “pit lizards” – in the vicinity of the Quicken Loans tent. Not hating, just stating. Look at how dejected the pit crew looked:

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While the heavy sponsor presence mostly made me feel cross-eyed, it occasionally resulted in outfits too amazing for words. Consider driver Austin Dillon below, sporting a dashing head to toe Honey Nut Cheerios onesie. I’d like to have this outfit adapted into a set of footie pajamas, so if anyone knows of a seamstress who does that kind of thing kindly email me their contact info immediately. I can’t wait until the day Goya Foods gets in on this action and sponsors a driver. FULL BODY GOYA SUITS 4EVER.

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All jokes aside, I saw almost no brands at the track that catered to younger/multicultural audiences – but I suppose that makes sense given NASCAR’s current fan base. The cost of sponsoring a driver for a full season starts at $20 million a year, so it’s a big investment to make. Still, the day Apple or Patrón or Ciroc gets in on the sponsorship game will be a big deal. Then again, apparently the NRA is sponsoring NASCAR’s Texas Sprint Cup event in April – which will be called the “NRA 500” – sooooo we may never get to see a stock car covered in little Apple logos….

LIFESTYLE

Prior to February 24, 2013, I thought I knew what the basic elements of tailgating were: a cooler of beers, a portable grill, a couple of folding chairs, and some hours to kill before a game. I WAS SO, SO WRONG. THAT KIND OF TAILGATING IS AMATEUR HOUR. A COOLER OF BEER IS BUSH LEAGUE.

At Daytona, I learned that tailgating is actually when you create a shockingly elaborate RV city-state that is so large you need golf carts to traverse it.

Truth be told, I would have happily skipped the race altogether and spent my entire trip exploring the infield where the RVs were parked (aka Tailgate Town) because it was among the more fascinating sports scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Here is a list of things I observed during my two brief jailbreaks from our group tour, when I escaped Pit Row to go hang with the fans:

    - An RV so big it had compartments to house normal-sized cars within it.

    - Numerous giant plasma screen TVs set up outside the trailers for multi-media race viewing.

    - A homemade stage with a pole in the center. Presumably for strippers?

    - Many, many banquet tents with full-bar set ups.

    - People doing this:

    - A full-on wrestling ring.

    - A giant trampoline.

    - At least four confederate flags.

    - Cutting edge fashions:

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I could have stayed there forever, or at least until the chicken biscuits ran out.

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On Sunday, after 10 hours, 200 laps, 5 (ish) beers, 87 iPhone photos, 4 (unused) interviews, and 1 James Franco/T.I. sighting, the same van that picked me up from the airport ferried our exhausted group out of the speedway and back to the hotel. I ordered room service and watched the Oscars – a form of cultural consumption that felt familiar and comforting after my whirlwind fish-out-of-water weekend.

But when I was back within the confines of my Brooklyn apartment browsing Netflix for a pre-bedtime movie, I felt an overwhelming urge to watch Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Not sure what that means, but I think it means I need to get a Zipcar account, and I need to rev my engine. I need to grab a hold of that line between speed and chaos, and I need to wrestle it to the ground like a demon cobra.

And I have NASCAR to thank for that glorious sentiment.

Thanks NASCAR.




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