Fast Words, Still Images Story and photos by Dwight Drum Web work by Larsen & Drum
So Much Track, So Much History
Most drivers will tell you the first time they saw the 2.5 mile tri-oval track at Daytona was from the stands. Some were babies at that time and don't remember that huge first impression. Many say their first big moment other than the obvious size of the track from approach was the first time driving through turn four tunnel into the infield. It played large in their memory. A new wider tunnel under turn one enables haulers to freely come and go during practice or races, but the smaller tube-like original tunnel still creates a unique sensation.
It still means a lot to Richard Petty.
"Really, I grew up with Daytona," Richard Petty said. "I was fortunate enough to win some races there, and I grew with it. When you win Daytona you win it all year long whether you ran any more races or not. I was able to win races and win championships, I was still winning some Daytona races and it just grew together.
"So I think the history of Daytona, and Richard Petty kind of go side-by-side."
Once inside, the long and wide track is visually dominant. The 180 acre infield including 29-acre Lake Lloyd would be ample room for dozens of short tracks that thrill fans across the USA. Improvements to the infield and exterior have been constant over the decades since the sandy soil of Daytona in 1959 was piled high to give topography to the bold track endeavor.
The infield FanZone, visual garage area and media center have consumed many stacks of dollars in recent years making the racing experience at Daytona even more memorable. A priority emphasis has been on fan-friendly accommodations to bring them closer to their sport.
All the costly improvements have taken place while the revered track itself has not had a new surface in many years like many NASCAR tracks have undergone recently.
The big track - that's what rookies remember next about Daytona. The tri-oval may appear long and smooth from high in the stands or from a favorite couch but in reality it's only long. The high-bank weathered track is actually a fast avenue with bumps. Rookies notice and feel the age of the track on the first lap.
Another dominant trait Daytona brings out of rookie drivers is the ability and need to throttle a race car wide open. All drivers start at short tracks and work up so they are accustomed to getting on and off the throttle. With the top speed comes the ride over the bumps in the asphalt.
Why a Bumpy Track?
One reason: It costs mega tons of money for tons of new track. Another reason: The track still works. Even though the surface is bumpy it's well-maintained.
All tracks get lumpy and bumpy with age. The hot sun, rain, snow and temperature changes cause that just as it wears on public roads. Even though asphalt tracks are generally about two inches thicker than highwaya the track will get bumps.
Track maintenance will fix breaks and pot holes like right now, but they don't take out the bumps until the whole surface is repaved. Nothing on the surface will interfere with a 200 mph race car but repaving has to done right and timed right - the best month in the proper season.
A newly repaved track today should last longer than in the past because they use crushed granite in the asphalt with computer designed track configuration. But In time, Mother Nature still wins. No track remains smooth as weather variations strain the asphalt. Incidentally, most veteran drivers prefer seasoned tracks as green tracks create new learning curves and change dynamics. They would rather race the old track they know. New surfaces level the playing field for all drivers giving less experienced drivers a better chance at winning. Working the track is often knowing where and how bumps affect a race car.
Kevin Harvick knows the track but still didn't feel all the history until he won the Daytona 500. "It's hard to explain the magnitude of the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick said. "It was something I really didn't understand I think until I won the race."
A Feel for Tracks:
Actually riding in a race car isn't the norm unless one purchases a ride with an organization like the Richard Petty Driving Experience, but technology has come a long way to help a fan feel the experience. When watching a NASCAR driver via onboard HD cameras on TV, the speed seems quite real. A fan sees and almost feels the speed. When watching a NASCAR race at trackside a fan sees and hears speed. If close to the catch fence they also feel the "motor wind" as the cars collectively create a breeze when they zoom by. Big screens show current action as well as repeating cautions and crashes. Fans can also listen, watch and follow their favorite driver with NEXTEL'S FanView wireless device while in the stands. Fans are close to actually riding in a race car.
But virtual riding is no substitute for actual riding.
This reporter was fortunate to squeeze into a race car as a passenger twice thanks to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, RDPE and two Cup drivers, Denny Hamlin in 06 and Greg Biffle in 07. Although it wasn't race time inside an RPDE car on a high-banked mile track at Walt Disney World with Hamlin and Biffle at the wheel, it was an extraordinary and thrilling.
They both swiftly got the car up to speed and roared down the straightaway to the corner. From the very start feeling the G's increase as the car climbed up to the wall was incredible. Both Hamlin and Biffle's concentration while driving were obvious, but they acted more like they were at a picnic than on the job. They made 140 mph seem easy and routine, but a couple of the best stock car drivers in the world will bring that to any track, any day.
So when this reporter had the opportunity to ride on the 40 foot wide asphalt surface of DIS and feel the 18 to 31 degree banking in a fast pace car, sneakered feet moved very fast to get in line.
Daytona media manager Andrew Booth had a dual role that morning as a pace car driver. It was my good fortune to get a front seat ride with the veteran press reporter. First thoughts upon strapping into the seat could have been apprehensive. Scissors, staplers, even airplanes work upside down - race cars don't - and neither do pace cars. That reality in friction and gravity flittered through my mind briefly at the start of acceleration. But thrill overcame apprehension.
When the pace car climbed the steep curves at 120 mph, the stands began to blur as the bumps rocked the car around a fast path. It was all elation to take a ride around Daytona at high speeds with no traffic around. Knowing too that race cars go about 80 mph faster with traffic inches away creates humbling after-thoughts.
Daytona has many ways to help one know humility. So much track, so much history.
Thank you, Daytona.
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