Daytona 500 – Daytona Beach, FL
You hear it from NASCAR fans all the time: “NASCAR is America’s most popular sport.” While it crushes other sports in attendance-per-event statistics (200,000 – 300,000 per race), NASCAR currently sits 4th as America’s favorite sport according to a recent Harris poll. Still, it’s more popular than the NBA, NHL, men’s soccer, college basketball, and golf. If you’re not from the American South, you might want to let that set in for a minute.
Stock car racing in the United States has its origins in bootlegging during Prohibition, when drivers ran bootleg whiskey made primarily in the Appalachian region of the United States. Bootleggers typically used small, fast vehicles to deliver their products in order to better evade the police. Many of the drivers would modify their cars for speed and handling, as well as increased cargo capacity. Eventually, many of them came to love the fast-paced driving down twisty mountain roads.
Although the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 dried up some of their business, Southerners had developed a taste for moonshine by then. Being the entrepreneurs that they were, a number of the drivers continued “runnin’ shine”, this time evading the “revenuers” who were attempting to tax their operations. The cars continued to improve, and by the late 1940s, races featuring these cars were being run for pride and profit. These races were popular entertainment in the rural Southern United States, and usually involved modified cars; Street vehicles that were lightened and reinforced.
Meanwhile, Daytona Beach became known as the place to set world land speed records during that time, with eight consecutive world records set between 1927 and 1935. After a historic race between Ransom Olds and Alexander Winton in 1903, the beach became a mecca for racing enthusiasts and 15 records were set on what became the Daytona Beach road course between 1905 and 1935. Daytona Beach had become synonymous with fast cars. Drivers raced on a 4.1-mile course, consisting of a 1.5–2.0-mile stretch of beach as one straightaway, and a narrow blacktop beachfront highway (State Road A1A) as the other. The two straights were connected by two tight, deeply rutted and sand covered turns at each end.
Mechanic William France, Sr. moved to Daytona Beach, Florida in 1935 to escape the Great Depression. He was familiar with the history of the area from the land speed record attempts, and eventually took over running the course in 1938. France had the notion that people would enjoy watching “stock cars” race. Drivers were frequently victimized by unscrupulous promoters who would leave events with all the money before drivers were paid. In 1947, he decided this racing would not grow without a formal sanctioning organization, standardized rules, regular schedule, and an organized championship. On December 14, 1947 France began talks with other influential racers and promoters at the Ebony Bar at the Streamline Hotel at Daytona Beach, Florida, that ended with the formation of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) on February 21, 1948. The Daytona 500 itself is a direct descendant of the shorter races on the beach, with the first 500 being held at the Daytona International Speedway in 1959, a short 11 years after the formation of NASCAR.
Since that time, NASCAR has developed from a regional American sport into a national and international powerhouse. NASCAR is one of the most viewed professional sports in terms of television ratings in the United States, and often ranks only behind professional football in number of viewers. Internationally, NASCAR races are broadcast in over 150 countries. NASCAR also holds 17 of the top 20 attended single-day sporting events in the world, and claims 75 million fans who purchase over $3 billion in annual licensed product sales.
Which brings us back to our popularity debate. While the popularity of NASCAR may not be up to the level that many fans and NASCAR officials claim that it is (the 2012 “prime time” Daytona 500 garnered a 7.7 overnight rating, down from last year’s 8.2 rating and significantly lower than the 2011 NBA Finals Game Six 15.0 rating), it’s still generates considerable buzz – both positive and negative. Just check with social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll see how polarizing NASCAR can be. Americans seem to either love, or love to hate NASCAR. As everyone knows though, even a good amount of the haters are still drawn in enough to watch parts of a race.
With that in mind, we headed to Daytona International Speedway on Sunday to see why this sport not only attracts some of the biggest crowds in person, but also why this sport is so polarizing among Americans.
After rain-soaked 24 hours pushed the start of the race to Monday night at 7:00 PM (of course we would decide to go on the first postponed Daytona 500, right?), we found that many fans were thrilled to be seeing the Daytona 500 under the lights for the first time. Their excitement was also met with harsh criticism on Twitter, where many were less than enthused with NASCAR invading their TV during prime watching hours.
Walking up to the Speedway was almost an event unto itself. The roar of the engines and the rumbling vibrations could be heard and felt miles away it seemed. We looked at each other and smiled a bit upon first hearing it, our giddy anticipation taking over after hearing the cars warm up. It’s easy to see why this sport captures the hearts of fans when they see an even in-person. The sights, sounds, and feeling of the cars on the track is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. And of course the crashes, destruction, and risk associated with racing plays into our human nature and love of excitement and danger. The crowds always perked up when anyone came close to crashing, and let out collective sighs and gasps when anything actually transpired.
(It’s hard not to get excited when the race cars drive by you like this:)
And what a crash-filled race it turned out to be. The race featured 10 cautions, including a wild crash from Juan Pablo Montoya into a jet dryer that not only saw an enormous explosion and subsequent fire, but also a 2+ hour delay. Danica Patrick was also involved in an early wreck, but managed to get her car back out on the track and back into the action.
While Jackie loved the speed of the cars and the excitement of the race, it sort of wore off for me after seeing the same thing for multiple laps in a row. Even knowing many of the nuances of stock car racing (drafting, outer vs. inner lanes, teamwork, pit strategy, etc.) it still didn’t quite “click” for me. I can most definitely say that seeing a race in person is worthwhile, and much more exciting than watching it on TV, but I wasn’t converted into a NASCAR fan during this Daytona 500.
But what I did see clearly for the first time was why NASCAR can be so polarizing.
To us, NASCAR is the most brash representation of America. It’s in your face, it’s fast, and it’s uncompromising. It’s complete consumption, with the cars ripping through gas, engines, and parts, and car bodies during practice and races. It’s free market capitalism in it’s most pure form. Cars and drivers are covered front to back, head to toe with advertisements. Fans are brand and driver loyal, buying every bit of clothing they can with their favorite car/driver on it. It’s big business, with cars often spending a quarter of a million dollars during a single race. It’s loud, aggressive, and unabashedly brazen. It’s the best of our country, and the worst of our country rolled into one.
NASCAR is what people love about America, and also what people love to hate about America.