For NASCAR, It All Starts with Famed Daytona
Just the name alone packs a punch, conveying so much more than simply a position on a map. It's one of those locales that has a certain mythical element connected to it, that at its mere mention brings a million feelings, images, or emotions to mind. Maybe it's the memory of all the things that have happened there, both good and bad. Maybe it's the sheer scale of the place, everything oversized and overwhelming. Maybe it's something as simple as the ominous long vowel sound in the middle syllable, which allows its verbalization to be stretched out to almost dramatic lengths.
Love it or hate it, there's no denying its presence or its significance, or its position as one of those unique American destinations -- alongside the likes of Augusta, Williamsport, or Lake Placid -- whose entire identity is wrapped up in the sports facility located within its city limits. But really, we're not talking about a city here. This isn't about Daytona Beach, Fla., that somewhat time-forgotten seaside town where waves break in front of hotels straight out of an Annette Funicello movie. No, this is about Daytona, an entity unto itself, a place so embedded in popular culture that Dodge and even Ferrari had cars named after it, a world capital of speed and danger and daring.
Now, let's not kid ourselves -- Preseason Thunder is far from the most glamorous event on the NASCAR calendar. The cars are often painted primer gray, bear numbers like "14X," and they drone on around the big track for hours on end. The goal isn't to win, but to gather information essential to winning a month from now. And yet, there's something strangely welcome about this occasion, which has been absent the past two years because of the recession. No, not all of those concerns have abated; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As ticket sales and sponsorship figures from late last year indicated, the economic worries are still very real. From a stock-car racing perspective, the recovery may never be complete. But the return of Daytona testing, in all its mundane, sun-splashed glory, seems like a small step back toward normal.
There are still all kinds of unknowns, from the new track surface at Daytona International Speedway to the new ethanol-blended fuel to trial balloons and innuendo over potential changes to the points system or the Chase. None of that, though, alters the essential meaning of Daytona and the significance it holds to a sport that, beginning Thursday, will fixate on the place for a full month. It wasn't the first, it's not the biggest, it isn't necessarily the best race track on the circuit. For years, it wasn't even the season opener -- as difficult as it is to believe now, Daytona didn't assume that perch until 1982, with Riverside International Raceway in Southern California serving as the premier division's jumping-off point for the decade prior. But for NASCAR, it all starts with Daytona, and has since founder Bill France had it carved out of a cypress swamp 52 years ago.
The track just has a hold on people, particularly those who turn wrenches or steering wheels for a living, or are enthralled by those who do. Five decades ago they called it the Big D, and it sat alongside Volusia Avenue, near where General Electric was marshaling its engineers for work on the space program at Cape Canaveral. Today it's just Daytona, and the address is International Speedway Boulevard, and it's surrounded by acres of office parks and commercial developments that that were drawn to the speedway like moths to an incandescent bulb. But the appeal to those in the industry remains constant. "It was out of this world," former driver Cotton Owens said of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. "It's the track we all love," Alan Gustafson, Jeff Gordon's crew chief, said in advance of testing this week.
No question, the place has a dark side. The names of men like Billy Wade, Bruce Jacobi, Neil Bonnett, Rodney Orr, and Dale Earnhardt stand as a testament to the fact that the quest for speed is not without its human costs. At times Daytona has been too big, too fast, too much for tires to handle, too unpredictable for aerodynamic packages to harness. Even now, with head-and-neck restraining devices and soft walls and next-generation cars and all the other modern safety systems at the sport's disposal, it is still a place that has to be handled with extreme care. The fondness that so many competitors have for Daytona is often mixed with a fearsome respect.
But that won't change the anticipation mechanics will feel when they gather outside the garage gates early Thursday morning, or the giddiness fans will feel when they see their favorite drivers make their first laps of 2011, or the sense of rebirth the entire industry experiences as wheels start turning again. It's late January, and the sky is leaden, and even in much of the South there's still snow on the ground. What a welcome time to turn eyes to central Florida, to think of sunnier times and warmer weather, and watch cars circle a 2.5-mile ribbon of black that's equal parts asphalt, monument and legend. It's time for the sport to shake off the frost and begin anew, which means a trip to only one place. It's time to go back to Daytona.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.