• JP

What's it like at the Daytona 500?

Daytona is such a huge deal to me as a fan, to be able to say that I have been on the same grounds where some of the most iconic moments in NASCAR history, took place. It is called "The Great American Race", for good reason!

I brought up the idea of going with Kurt (my uncle), and he said that he would drive me there with his camping trailer, if I paid for race tickets and a camping spot. I started my first job at a local grocery store during summer break in 2017, to make it happen. It was hard work, but worth every penny. They say that you appreciate things more, if you worked for them, and that was certainly true in this case. I asked around, seeing if anyone had odd jobs around the house they needed done, to raise more cash when I wasn't working at the grocery store. I had never wanted something quite as bad as I wanted this trip to the 500.

Race Tickets, Fan-Zone, or (Pre-Race) Passes, and the Camping Spot all together were going to cost over 1,680 dollars. Since we were making a two-day drive to get there, I figured it was worth investing in a good camping spot. We ended up purchasing a two-day "Geico Horseshoe" camp-site. The "horseshoe" is a nickname for a section of the infield road-course that sports-cars use when Daytona hosts the Rolex 24-hour race prior to Speed-weeks.

On the first day of our drive Thursday, we made it from Tulsa, to an RV park in Pell City Alabama, called "Lakeside Landing" in just over 10 hours. We got to Lakeside pretty close to 7:00 pm. Lakeside has a sweet view of "Coosa River" that runs by Interstate 20 just a few miles East of Birmingham, AL. Soon as we checked in, and got setup, Kurt got out the tv, and put the "Can-Am Duel at Daytona" on. The Duel, is two 150 mile races that set the starting lineup for Sunday's big Daytona 500.

The morning after the duel races, we saddled up, and visited our first destination; Talladega. We were going to drive by Talladega Super-speedway at I-20 on our way, so we decided to stop by, and tour the biggest track in NASCAR. Talladega is about 30 minutes away from Lakeside.

They have all kinds of awesome race cars, and other motorsports artifacts/memorabilia on display inside of the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame building outside of the speedway. So much motorsports history, all in one place. Back in the day, Bobby Allison, in his red Coors Light Ford, was able to come back from being 2 laps behind, to winning the race in the very car that is on display. Richard Petty's ride that he won his sixth NASCAR Championship with was there, The first car to ever break the 200 mile per hour barrier stands proud, and of course, the classic "Ricky Bobby" number 26 car that was used when the movie "Talladega Nights" with Will Farrell, was being filmed, right here in Talladega. They even have Dale Earnhardt Sr's first tour bus!

Almost as soon as we arrived, we heard "Attention please, the next tour is loading out front right now!" It was only a few extra bucks to ride in a bus with a tour guide, and look around inside of the massive speedway; definitely worth it. We drove through the gates, into the turn 4 tunnel, and got to behold, what Dega', is all about. The banking (tilt) in the corners is INSANELY tall. These pictures do not do it justice, until you have actually been inside of the speedway, and looked at the banks for yourself. Talladega's corners are 33 degrees steep, which means that they tower five stories high in the air! As we were on the apron in turn 3, the tour guide said "Let me give you a taste of just how much banking this is .." He then drove the bus upward to just below the double-yellow line, and let the bus tilt to the side, 25 degrees for a few seconds. He didn't even go all the way up to the racing surface, and I felt like I was going to fall to the other side of the bus! Touring Talladega was a very fun, and thrilling experience. I can't wait to go to an actual race-weekend at Talladega someday! It is pretty darn close to the top of my bucket list!

The International Motorsports Hall Of Fame no longer has a gift shop, so as we stopped for gas at a Sunoco gas station leaving Talladega County, I picked up my first souvenir of the weekend; a gray shirt that says "Southern lightning, It's Dega' Baby!"

From Talladega, AL, we kept driving for the next 9 hours straight to Daytona; only stopping for fuel.

Our camping spot in the World Center Of Racing wouldn't be open until the next day (Saturday), at 6:00 am, so we stayed at a local campground a few blocks from Daytona, called "Brown's - Speed-weeks Campground" Friday Night. It only cost us $40 for the night.

We arrived during the closing laps of the Camping World Truck series season opening race.

Saturday morning, was go-time. Soon as we woke up, we packed the generator, all of our supplies, and headed to the infield gate, to claim our spot in the infield. It's so exciting going through the infield tunnel for the first time.

It (without a doubt) would have been much cheaper to just stay at Brown's Campground all weekend, but for my first 500, I wanted it to be an unforgettable experience. It was so much fun waking up, and being able to see the stadium seats right out of our window, and the high-banked turns surrounding us. We could see the "Daytona" lettering on the wall just barely over the other RV's from our spot.

The atmosphere of a NASCAR weekend is like no other! Fans with their lawn chairs setup on top of RV's to watch the race, Barbecue grills, outdoor games, country music, and the smell of race-fuel during practice!

I enjoyed every second of it! It never gets old hearing them thunder around the corner, and then seeing those beautiful machines fly by. One of my favorite spots to watch the racing from, is from the docks running alongside Lake Lloyd in the infield. It is so awesome watching the paint schemes of the cars reflecting on the water surface as they race, and watching the waves ripple from the vibration of the motors; as well as feeling the vibration in your feet through the ground!

You never truly understand the sheer size of this speedway, until you try to walk from one side to the other! Before I discovered the infield shuttle bus stop a few rows over from us, I had to walk from our camp-spot on the turns 1-2 side of the racetrack, down Lake Lloyd, and then make a left, and go about another quarter-mile to the Fan-Zone.

Beforehand, we had already bought Fan-Zone admission wristbands for Sunday, but not Saturday. Tip: anytime you're going to Daytona, Fan-Zone is a MUST. There is a "Fan-deck" above the garages with a sweet, 360 view of the racing. You can even see them racing down the backstretch over the RV's by Lake Lloyd from up there! I spent a lot of time up there throughout the day, watching Xfinity Series Qualifying, Cup Final Practice, as well as the Powershares QQQ 300 Xfinity Series Race that day.

I went back and forth between the Fan-Zone deck, and the dock at Lake Lloyd A LOT. Definitely got my exercise in for the day. I went to several different locations in the infield, to see all of the different perspectives of the race. Standing up close to the fence in the corners, was another favorite. It is SO loud from the infield fences in the corners! even when just one car passes by, the noise level is intensified by the acoustics of being right below the banks. The cars echo as they are coming towards you, and the anticipation is the best!

Once there was under 20 laps to go, I hustled back to the Fan-Zone as quickly as I could, to get some shots of the finish. Turns out, I would have plenty of time to spare. They had to do five overtime attempts (formerly known as GWC - Green White Checkered) for wrecks! The drivers got pretty antsy in the closing laps. Every time they would throw the green, the drivers knew, it was all, or nothing! The drivers were being so aggressive; all take, and no give. I was starting to question if they would ever make it to the white-flag in one piece!

By the fifth overtime attempt, people that were standing right by the rail, started leaving, opening up a great place for me to get pictures from. The race was so wild coming to the Checkers! The 'ISM Vision' television screens were buzzing, and fans in the grandstands were standing, and cheering as loud as they could! It was a dead-heat between Tyler Reddick (number 9), and Elliott Sadler (number 1). I probably still could have got a well-focused shot, if I zoomed in closer, but I wanted to get all the action behind them too. This shot below is one of my personal favorite pictures I captured, the entire weekend! Tyler won by .0004 seconds at the line! This is officially, 'the closest finish in NASCAR National Series history' according to the NASCAR.com report of the race.

I was surprised that officials let fans into the Victory Lane celebration without a special VIP Access Pass of some kind. It was a first-come-first-serve basis as far as getting a seat. Soon as I got the picture of the finish, and Tyler doing some burnouts, I skadadled straight over to Victory Lane. I wasn't the first one there by no means, but I got there in time to get a decent seat with a view of the winner, Tyler Reddick celebrating his victory.

Sunday, was the biggest day of the weekend. You could just feel it in the air, that it was definitely Daytona 500 day. The Fan-Zone was PACKED. There was a line for Everything! Food, Souvenirs, Drinks, Restrooms, the showers, everything was jam-packed! Texas, and Kansas get pretty packed on Race-day, but not quite like this!

The mornings are a beautiful sight in Daytona. The fog covers the bottom of the hotels/buildings in the distance, where you can just see the tops sticking up into the sky on the horizon.

You almost can't talk about this event, without mentioning, or hearing the name 'Earnhardt' in the conversation somewhere. So much history behind that name both here, and at Talladega.

It is so cool that they filmed the NASCAR on FOX 'Pre-Race Show' at the stadium concourse, where us racing fans can just walk up, and get an up-close look behind the scenes, and see the famously-known broadcasters in person! I have been hearing their voices on tv for years, but seeing them in person, is quite different. It's so exciting to see.

From left to right: Chris Myers (Long-time sportscaster), Jeff Gordon (4-time NASCAR Champion), Darrell Waltrip (1989 Daytona 500 Champion)

Driver Introductions started shortly after the Rascal Flats Pre-Race Concert, which meant that it was almost time, for the command. (to fire engines)

Throughout the weekend, the US Air Force 'Thunderbirds' Stunt Team flew over Daytona quite frequently, to practice the flyover/stunt show that they are known for performing after the National Anthem on race-day. I was never able to capture them practicing, because you never expect it, and by the time you could hear it, they're already gone! I was able to capture them during the pre-race festivities. Soon as I heard "Please rise, and remove your hats", as the National Anthem got underway, I scrambled for my camera bag, and got my camera in focus, and ready to shoot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr was the honorary Grand Marshall, and said 'the most famous words in motorsports' a few moments later. "Drivers, Start, Your, ENGINES!" He knew how to get the crowd going wild, that's for sure. Any time Jr is in the house, you can bet the fans will go crazy.

Once engines were fired, it was go-time.

Crews were high-fifing their driver, and wishing them the best of luck as they drove out of the pits, to start getting lined-up, for the start. Our grandstand seats were in Section 397, almost to the pit exit down past the start/finish line.

Alex Bowman in the Nationwide Insurance 88 won the 'Pole' award during Qualifying the previous week, and Denny Hamlin (FedEx number 11) lined up alongside Bowman in the number 2 starting spot. The drivers had gone through 3 practice sessions, Pole Qualifying, two Gatorade Duel races on Thursday, and they were ready to get the 2018 season underway.

The pace car peeled off onto pit row, and Alex Bowman got a really good start on Denny. Usually the inside lane is the preferred lane for the start, but Alex picked the top, and made it work with the help of a good push from Chase Elliott behind him.

Daytona International Speedway is so huge, that it takes the cars 45 seconds per lap! Even at 200 mile-per-hour, breakneck speeds, it takes them 3/4 of a minute to make it around the 2.5 mile beast.

Right by Daytona International Speedway, is the Daytona Municipal Airport. I captured the pack racing through turn one, just as an airplane was coming in for a landing at the airport in the distance. This picture is probably my personal favorite shot from Daytona 500 day.

I have always loved to capture the pit crews at work during pit stops. One of the most unique things to watch when you attend a live NASCAR event, is the athleticism, and talent of every crew member during a NASCAR pit stop. Everyone has to be in sync, do their jobs perfectly, as fast as they possibly can, to get the job done, and get the car back out there before everyone else. Races are often won, (or lost) right here on pit row. The tiniest fraction of a second, can be the difference between coming out of the pits in 1st place, 10th, or 27th!

The pit crews had their work cut out for them, with all of the wrecks, spins, and mishaps that happened out there on the track.

Once Bowman (88) gave up command of the lead early, Ryan Blaney (number 12) led a good portion of the race. Ryan won Stage 2, and was leading with just a handful of laps left. Ryan Blaney looked like the man that was going to win this thing, until he tapped Kurt Busch wrong in the middle of turn 2, & sent several cars to the pits for repair. It only takes the slightest touch in the wrong spot, to 'upset' these cars, and make them lose control. There was a crash at the end, which resulted in an overtime attempt.

What happened on the final restart, everyone is still buzzing about to this day! Aric Almirola in the Smithfield Foods number 10, had just made a big move from Richard Petty Motorsports, to a new, bigger team at Stewart-Haas Racing for 2018. Everyone was a little skeptical rather he would perform under the pressure, or not. Aric got the lead from Hamlin on the restart, but Austin Dillon had other plans. Austin tried to bump-draft twice going down the backstretch, but the 2nd time, went wrong.

Almirola spins up the track, while Austin keeps going. NASCAR kept the race green; no caution flag; I'm glad for that though. Almirola probably wishes that the caution would have flown, but us fans absolutely HATE it when races end under the caution/yellow flag. (I know I sure do, anyway.)

Austin Dillon went on to win the 60th annual running of the Great American Race!

Do you think Austin Dillon's 'move' on Aric Almirola for the win, dirty pool? Or just an expected part of racing? Let me know in the comments!

Austin won the 500 in the number 3 car for his Grandfather's (Richard Childress Racing) team, that was also occupied by Dale Earnhardt Sr in Victory Lane, 20 years prior to this race!

Monday morning is always a sad day for us fans; because that's the day that we have to pack up, and leave until next time :(

I will never forget my first Daytona 500! I hope this is just my first of many! Definitely planning on coming back here someday!