Sunday, February 15, 2004

Why I love NASCAR

Florida Today

It's a visceral thing. The unique sound of a NASCAR Nextel Cup stock car at full song, especially on the massive 2.5-mile speedway at Daytona, where even the sound of one car can shake your eardrums, let alone the scream of all 43.

It's the raw power. The sheer speed.

It's human nature to want to go fast, and NASCAR meets that need. And because the stroke of nature that planted that seed deep in all of us only allowed it to flourish in a select few, we have to settle for living vicariously through the men and women who race and court danger, and yes, even death.

You can't write about racing without writing about death. It's there at every turn, every touch of fenders at 200 mph, every spinout and every engine that belches oil and goes up in smoke.

The sport can exact a terrible price. It came calling on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, when Dale Earnhardt was killed, just as it does whenever any race car driver dies - be it at a speed palace or a dusty, dingy Saturday night dirt track.

We don't revel in that, we don't welcome it, and contrary to prevailing opinion, we don't watch races to see cars wreck.

We love racing for the pomp and circumstance of a big NASCAR show such as the Daytona 500, when more than 200,000 people cram into the speedway, creating a palette of color and symphony of sound rivaled only by the speed-blurred rainbow and thunder of the 43-car field.

It's the frenetic activity in the garage and along pit road. It's the anticipation leading up to a big race. It's the outwardly calm demeanor and the deep eyes of the drivers and their crew chiefs in the pre-race driver's meeting. They are eyes - set in blank stares as if envisioning something 500 miles away - that scream of a deep inward need for time to be left alone with final thoughts and prayers.

They also are eyes that speak to the challenges and the dangers that lurk deep in the shadows of the speedway's concrete walls, and the momentary uncertainty and doubt that lives deep in everyone's heart. I've seen those eyes and will never forget them.

It's the drop of the green flag, the strategy, the drama of the race and the finish. It's the day-to-day rhythms of the sport. It's the soap opera as the personalities mesh and clash, make headlines and make amends.

And it's the cars, rocket ships capable of covering 300 feet - the length of a football field - in a second.

There isn't one among us who wouldn't want to climb into one of those beasts and enjoy the rush, the sensation of putting our foot to the floor and testing our courage. I know because I did it in the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

But it also is the aesthetic times that are special. It's strolling through the empty Daytona infield during preseason testing, finding a spot in the fourth turn, where the cars glued to the 31-degree banking roar by just over your head. Or an area near the backstretch that affords a view of the entire speedway.

It's times like those that I think back to being a kid raised in upstate New York, where everyone knew about Daytona Beach and the Daytona 500 and Petty, but never dreamed we'd ever get this close.

I wasn't fully exposed until I moved to Florida in 1985 and had the privilege of getting a tour and a trip around the speedway. That day settled it. I was hooked.

Since then, I've covered 16 of the last 17 Daytona 500s and a bunch of Pepsi 400s, watching the speedway become transformed from a dowdy bag lady of a racetrack to a palace. I've spent countless Sunday afternoons glued to the recliner watching the TV. I can honestly say I've enjoyed nearly every minute.

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