Believe it or not, the hot ticket that day was not a ticket to the race itself. It was entrance to the driver's meeting where each driver and his crew chief must attend, or face the penalty of being pushed to the back of the starting line, to go over the rules of the day's race. Earlier in the morning, a NASCAR executive said since it's an event everyone wants to attend, it would be tough to get into. I believed him; I just didn't think it would be ten times more intense than what he described.
To get into the driver's meeting, you had to enter the media center. This was something I had done 25 times that week without any problem. When I got up to the door, there was a large gentleman, who pointed out to the security guard the people he wanted in. I somehow got caught up in his group of people and was minding my own business trying to get into the media center, when this guy stopped my forward progress by putting his hand into my chest and telling the security guard, "I don't know him."
After his people got in I showed my credentials and was allowed entrance into the media center.
I would come to find out later that the gentleman who momentarily denied me access was the president of the Daytona Motor Speedway. I swallowed that pill a little easier after learning that. Hey, it's his yard, his rules.
After working my way into the meeting with a NASCAR representative, which was not an easy or quick process mind you, we made our way up to the front of the meeting room. The interesting thing is that I had just as hard a time getting in as Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. did. Every CEO or the next highest ranking official of almost every sponsor attends this meeting and along with them come family and friends and family and friends of the family and friends. There's media. Military and local government dignitaries and more celebrities and athletes than you could shake a stick at.
That list included actor Nicholas Cage, Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., singer and American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, manager of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals Tony LaRussa, and counrty singers Big & Rich. And they, along with all of the CEO's and business executives, are all announced by the meeting's MC and applauded by those of us in attendance. At one point it started to feel like the State of the Union where they get up and clap for every other word the President utters.
After that was out of the way , the cool part began. This is when they went over the rules, and there were plenty of them. Now, to the typical viewer, the rules probably seem easy. Hit the gas and keep turning left for 200 laps. But there's nothing simple about it. There are a number of flags, regulations, lights, speed limit, and yellow lines that the drivers have to be aware of at, seemingly, all times. If they infringe upon any of these rules, cross lines they shouldn't or speed in areas they're not supposed to they could be sent to the back of the track. There's nothing simple or easy about it.
That's the one thing I took away from my time at the Daytona 500 last week. This isn't something anybody can do and the next time you hear someone say: "There's nothing to that sport. It's just driving fast and going left. Anybody could do it," I suggest you tell them they have no clue about what's involved in driving one of these cars.
Not only are you traveling at upwards of 200 MPH, but you're doing so in an extremely confined and restricted space inside the car, no side view mirrors--you only know who's around you by your spotter telling you in your ear, you're mere centimeters away from each other at times and that track is not the smoothest surface in the world, and oh, by the way, there's a list of rules the length of my arm you have to follow and be aware of.
I was fortunate enough to see the start of the race less than 400 feet away from the start/finish line. I got to watch an hour of it before I had to leave and catch my flight back to New York, which, since I was flying on JetBlue, could have turned into whole other ordeal. So, unfortunately I didn't get to see the end of the race, which included a neck and neck finish and a driver crossing the finish line upside down and on fire .
I certainly feel like any other race experience I might attend won't live up to this one. As Dean Kessel from Sprint Nextel told me: "This is your first race? The Daytona 500. You are going to be spoiled."
Because of the access NASCAR provided, I probably am spoiled. I can say that I did everything I could possibly do in a weekend at Daytona, except see one of the greatest finishes in the history of the race. And NASCAR had actually set me up with a seat at the finish line, so I would have had one of the best views in the house. It's too bad I had to split early.