Is this a good idea?
A few months back, my brother called to see if we would be interested in going to the NASCAR race with him at Daytona international Speedway in July; his company was the hood sponsor for the car, so he could snag us some hot passes and we’d be treated like NASCAR VIPs for the day.
For the uninitiated, some clarification:
Hood sponsor = the main sponsor of the car for that race; their logo goes on the hood of the car, the biggest and most visible piece of marketing real estate.
Hot passes = all access, watch from wherever you want to, see the guys working on the cars in the garage, be on pit row during the race, help out during the pit stops (just kidding), etc. Pretty sweet deal.
Who could resist?
OK, I am not actually a huge NASCAR fan, but there is a certain boy in my house who watches the race every weekend and talks NASCAR with his grandmother (a woman of many talents and interests), the only relative he has who can converse with him intelligently on such matters. I knew how much an experience like this would mean to him.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
Four days before our big trip out West.
Boogity, boogity, boogity.
Of course, the easy thing to say is that we already had a pretty full July ahead and I didn’t see how we could make it work, but those kind of excuses are for sissy moms. So the same week that we went to the Braves game in Atlanta and then made a quick trip to the coast to visit Mom for the 4th of July, Will, Jack, and I headed to Florida. The race was on July 5th, so we spent the night of the 4th in Jacksonville with my brother PC and his sweet family.
The day of the race, PC, two of his daughters, my boys and I headed to Daytona from Jacksonville, planning to be there about five or six hours before the race start time. When you are a one-time NASCAR VIP, you need to soak it all up.
Let the Madness Begin!
Once we got to Daytona, the first stop was at the credentials truck to get our passes. Then we met up with the rest of the sponsor group who would be sharing the experience for the day and drove to the racetrack. It’s hard to convey how huge the Daytona International Speedway is in person. The track itself is 2.5 miles long, second only to Talladega Superspeedway in length. There’s a lake in the infield, for Pete’s sake.
We went up to our suite on the backstretch, ate and received some cool sponsor swag; then we loaded up on our VIP golf carts and zoomed off to the garage area. It took ten or fifteen minutes just to get over there, and I hung on for dear life as we sped through the tunnel under the racetrack and came up in the infield, hitting each speed bump with relish. From lavishly-appointed RVs to converted-school-bus campers and bottom-rung tents, these were the die-hard fans who spent the whole weekend here and made it into a huge tailgating party. Many of them were lounging in inflatable baby pools to combat the heat while they watched their satellite TVs.
The distant thunderstorm we had noticed approaching while we were up high in the suite was getting closer, and we hoped nothing would come of it (spoiler alert: it did).
Kinda Soggy Pre-Race Festivities
We walked around the garage, but most of the cars were already going through inspection, so there was not much to see. It was cool just to be there. I don’t know very much about racing, but a few years ago we took Jack (our resident NASCAR fan) to a race in Charlotte for his birthday, and I bought pit road passes along with our tickets so that Jack could see the cars up close before the race began.
I remember looking through the fence while we were on pit road and seeing all of the people milling about the garage and the inspection area, but our passes did not allow us access. Now here we were, on the other side of the fence, with people looking in on us. It felt pretty special. And it was fun to listen to Jack rattle on about everything that was going on. I may have been clueless, but he certainly wasn’t.
We also had a few guys who were in charge of the race day experience for us leading the group, and they were great to answer any questions we had.
After looking around a bit, watching inspection and getting out of the way as teams pushed their cars around, we went to the hauler (big 18-wheeler that carries the racecar and all of the mechanical equipment) to meet our driver.
He was this cute little boy about 22 years old, and this was his first time ever to come to Daytona, let alone race there. So young! He was a tiny little angel baby; hard to believe he was about to go mess with these experienced drivers on the racetrack in just a few hours.
The Drivers’ Meeting
After meeting our driver, tiny baby Brett Moffitt, it was time to think about the drivers’ meeting. All of the drivers for tonight’s race would be there and maybe we could get some autographs as they headed into the building where the meeting was held.
Leading up to the race, Jack had talked a lot about trying to get Jeff Gordon’s autograph. Jeff is Jack’s favorite driver, and he is about to retire, so this is his last year to race. We have tried to get enough autographs at various sporting events over the years for me to know that a) there is no way to know exactly where to stand to give yourself the best opportunity, so you just make an educated guess and hope for the best, and b) when your star comes by, they are usually going fast and you have to be politely bold in asking them to stop what they’re doing and sign or pose for a picture. Most people are pretty nice about it, but they sign all the time, and I’m sure it gets old.
So we huddle up and Jack has to decide: does he want to go in to the meeting room and get a front row viewing spot of all of the drivers coming in (you are literally feet away from the drivers; it’s pretty cool), or would he rather stay outside and try to get some autographs, potentially missing the drivers’ meeting and not seeing Jeff Gordon at all. There were several different entrances to the building, so waiting at one of them was a gamble. But Jack knew exactly what he wanted to do: wait outside and hope to get Jeff’s autograph. As a parent, I was torn; I wanted to honor his decision, but I was afraid that we would stand outside, not see anybody, and miss the meeting, which is one of the highlights of having a hot pass. So my brother and I both talked to Jack, making sure that he was clear on what he might be giving up by staying out.
Jack stood firm; he was a 12-year-old who knew his mind.
So PC took his girls and Will and headed into the meeting room, and Jack and I stayed out with Dan, one of the group leaders. We stood in one place for a while, and then Dan decided to change strategies and we moved a little closer to the building. He tried to get us a spot inside the building in a hall, but the security guy wouldn’t let us stay there, so we headed back out.
Then we started to see drivers approach. We were in this little alley with maybe 20 or 30 other people and a handful of reporters.
There was only two or three other people there who were looking for autographs. We were either in the sweetest spot ever or we had completely struck out.
Turned out to be pretty sweet.
The drivers weren’t in their fire suits yet, just street clothes, so I had no idea who any of them were. In fact, one time I thought I heard someone say that this guy passing by was Marcus Ambrose and so I gave Jack a little prod and said, “There’s Marcus, go ask him for his autograph,” and Jack said, “No, that’s not! That’s not even a driver.” Who knew? Well, Jack, for one. And probably everyone else there except me.
Then, there was a big uproar beyond the gate and I looked and it was Jeff Gordon. I started jumping up and down (cool Mom points galore) and yelled/whispered, “Jack! Jack! There’s Jeff!” And in a minute, there he was in person, signing a hero card for Jack. Jack didn’t say a word, which is uncharacteristic. I don’t think any of us could actually believe it! We didn’t have much time to celebrate as Brad Keslowski showed up, then Dale Earnhardt, Jr, then someone else and someone else…I’m not going to lie, I totally teared up. I knew how much it meant to Jack, and I was so thankful that he had gotten all of these awesome autographs. I mean, what were the odds? It was crazy. My phone kept buzzing so I looked down and it was PC saying that Jeff was already in the meeting, I called him back and said, “He got him! I even got a picture!” PC was afraid that we had missed him, so he was excited for us. I looked at Dan as Jack kept getting signatures and he said, “You don’t normally get this many. I think this is a personal best.” Dan was excited for Jack too.
After another minute or two, the deluge was over, and we figured we had gotten all of the autographs we could get. We didn’t want to miss the meeting, so we headed in. We were so far back in the back, we couldn’t really see anybody, but that was ok. All Jack did the whole time was look down at his Jeff Gordon hero card.
After the meeting, the rain began to fall in earnest. We put on our ponchos, went to the driver introductions, walked out on the track and signed the start/finish line (fun tradition).
Then we went back to the suite to wait out the rain.
It was a long wait.
The race was supposed to start at 7:30. At 9:30, it was still raining and Jack was asking if we would come back on Monday if they postponed the race. Originally, I was planning on driving home to South Carolina on Monday, and really did not want to come back to Daytona to watch the race. We kept waiting. We dozed. The kids ate all of the complimentary pita chips available. Around 10:30, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle and the jet dryer trucks started to do their work, slowly drying the track.
Around 10:45 or 11:00, they said they were going to try to start the race at 11:45. We were so tired, but the news gave us a little shot of energy.
We loaded up in the golf arts again and went back over to the pits to see the flurry of activity before the race.
It was surreal to be walking around on pit road as the drivers are in the cars and the crews are making last minute preparations.
Finally they made us leave pit road and we headed to our car’s pit area. Dan handed out earphones so we could listen to the chatter between the drivers and their spotters and these cool little Fanvision devices with screens for watching the race. I mean, we were right there. It was so cool. Everyone should experience at least one NASCAR race in their life. The sound of all those engines: you feel it in your chest, louder than any concert you’ve ever been to. I took a seven-second video – put on headphones and turn your volume all the way up; even then, you cannot duplicate the sound and the energy. And the cars go around the track so fast (I’m not sure why this was a surprise), they are a blur. I kep trying to take cool action shots of them, and it was a complete fail. I’d have to take a lesson in race photography, I think, in order to get a decent shot.
Eventually we went back to the suite to watch the end of the race. It ended in pretty scary fashion, with a terrible wreck that sent debris into the spectator area. Thankfully no one was hurt. We got back to PC’s house in Jacksonville around 4:00 am, completely worn out.
Jack said it was the best day ever.