(Car) Culture Shock: A First-Timer's Account of the Daytona 500

Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500
NASCAR is a form of motorsport that often gets a bad rap from some car enthusiasts. It’s easy to dismiss it as a dull overload of a marketing ad blitz, with cars simply running in circles (at Daytona, they refer to it as a tri-oval). I’d never really followed NASCAR closely and hadn’t watched a race on TV since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was alive, but I was curious. Why is it so popular? Perhaps something wasn’t translating well from first hand experience to broadcast. Time to open the mind and step out of my comfort zone, so I decided to venture out for my first NASCAR experience, the 2016 Daytona 500. 
This was only my second trip to Daytona, the first being just last month, when I met fellow hoon, Greg Kachadurian, at the Rolex 24. It seemed like The Great American Race was a great opportunity to contrast against the all night enduro.

Just arriving at the speedway, there were many more people; enough that seats had actually sold out. No surprise, with this being the first Daytona 500 since the track had undergone renovations. Getting to my seat, I was greeted by a friendly group of older gentleman. With the performance of country band Florida Georgia Line coming to a close, the USAF Thunderbirds took to the sky and made a few passes overhead as the teams lined up on pit road.

Actor Gerard Butler made an appearance to give the order for drivers to start their engines. It seemed like what someone’s idea of patriotism might look like. This was an adventure so far, even if I’d had to sit through a whole country music concert.

There was plenty of action with passing. This was in many ways a new form of motorsport for me, in person anyway, so of course the newness kept things interesting. Then around lap 35 (of 200), the young guy next to me, opposite from the older guys, actually started falling asleep! He had his radio headphones on and his head would just start to dip… until the line of cars would pass and then he’d wake up again, for about a minute, before slipping off back to sleep.

Soon enough, he was back awake and chowing down on pork rinds. But then around lap 45 or so, things calmed down. There weren’t any lead changes for a while, so I began to get antsy. At Rolex 24, I’d been able to walk around in the infield and sit up in the seats as well, so I decided to go and see if I could get down there, to capture some different angles with the new camera.

Wandering around, I happened to stumble on some display vehicles, including the Back to the Future Toyota Tacoma Concept, a Tundra monster truck as well as a restomod 1971 Corvette. The Corvette was owned by NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and had been built by himself and Chevrolet for SEMA a couple of years ago.

The car was gorgeous, but unfortunately a display rope ruined the “whole car” view. I still really liked the way this detail shot came out with both the new camera and lens. The paint was just beautiful in silver, which appeared grey in the dark area below the grandstands.

There were also a new C7 Corvette and an SS hanging sideways on displays, showing the factory upgrades.

Speaking of Corvettes, there were a few of the previous pace cars parked all around the ground floor where one could walk up and see them up close without a rope in the way.

Eventually, after I’d spoken to three different staff people, each closer to the infield than the last, I believed them that I was not allowed in the infield despite paying roughly four times the cost of the Rolex tickets, to then only sit in one place for the whole race. The ticket person explained that this was a “whole different animal” from Rolex 24. That was understandable with how popular NASCAR is and how huge the turnout was. Willing to make the best of the rest of the race, I went back to my seat in time to see most of the second half of the race.

Finger lickin’ Fender rippin’ good!

Dale Earnhardt Jr. being checked out after a run in with the wall.

Duct tape will fix anything.

Dale Earnhardt Jr wrecked, then Danica Patrick as well. Matt Kenseth, in the #20 car, seemed to stay out front for a very long time up until the end.

Martin Truex Jr, in the #78, had made a great run, starting all the way at the back, having been penalized for a non-compliant roof flap, and making it all the way out front at the last lap. He and Denny Hamlin were basically drag racing at the very end of that last lap. It could have very easily been Truex’s race.

Denny Hamlin (between the Sunoco and Toyota signs) begins his run toward the front.

A mere 0.010 seconds between first and second.

At the end, for the second time this year, I was able to capture an image of an extremely close finish. Last time, it was the Corvettes. This time, it would be a new record for the margin of victory at the Daytona 500, only 0.010 seconds between first and second. Denny Hamlin had won the 2016 Daytona 500 by the smallest of margins.

The celebratory burnout!

Looking back, I can see this as an entertaining motorsport, but at the same time, I see it as the American football of motorsports. I’d still consider myself more of a fan of endurance racing, but I can now see why people get into this. There was loads of excitement in the stands, more than I’d experienced at other series’ events, and very similar to what I’ve seen at football games. The fans really got into the race and at the end; a wall of people stood to cheer for Hamlin. At the same time, as with football, NASCAR is likely more interesting when you follow it and can be a little tedious if you don’t. That being said, it’s much easier to endure a 4-hour race than a 12 or a 24, so it was nice to not be so physically beat. Overall, I had a good time and was glad to have experienced the Daytona 500 and see some history in the making. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to afford going again, but it was something worth experiencing at least once.

Photos Copyright 2016 Hooniverse/Bryce Womeldurf
More images can be viewed in the Flickr album.

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  1. CruisinTime Avatar

    Watched Richard Petty and his Dodge win the 1974 race.My only visit to Daytona.

    1. Fred Talmadge Avatar
      Fred Talmadge

      Yea I’ve been to 2 NASCAR events, both at Sonoma. Think road racing with a bit more banging into each other.

  2. Greg Kachadurian Avatar
    Greg Kachadurian

    Great writeup. I grew up watching and loving NASCAR but haven’t really gone back since I went to my first ALMS race. It deserves some of the criticism it gets but there’s really nothing else quite as cool as being there.
    Also, your photography is on point as always 🙂

    1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      Thanks, Greg! I agree, there’s nothing that beats being there. I’d like to go to another ALMS race. I don’t think they’ve had one down here since around ’07 or ’08. I mostly have just attended the local Indy races in St Pete, but I’m trying to dip my toe in some other pools this year.

  3. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    The Daytona 500 scores highly on my “damn I live in the wrong country” list.
    Bryce- what’s your camera / lens setup? Love that Stingray shot.

    1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      Thank you. It’s with a Nikon D750 I picked up recently; and that shot (and the other non-zoom shots) were taken with a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. The zoom shots for this were with a cheaper 75-300mm Tamron crop sensor lens that I’ve had for a long time. Normally I might rent something a little longer, but I wasn’t sure of the access I’d have or how much room I’d have to move, so I stuck with what I had this time.

      1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

        Ah, well chosen. I’ve had the same D50 for nine years. I only use one lens, the Nikkor 20-200mm VR and I’m amazed by what it can do.
        This was 50 yards away, fast moving and on a badly floodlit track. Driver’s face is clear as day.

        1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

          I’ve mostly shot with a D90 for the past 6 years, while I learned. But the lack of low light capabilities were really becoming a problem. I can go much higher with the ISO on the 750 and generate less noise than the 90 would have produced.

          1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

            I never really venture beyond 800, but the vibration reduction is good for a couple of F Stops past where you’d expect to start having trouble with handheld shots. Mind you, I’d still like something for decent macro work in low light.

  4. mdharrell Avatar

    This is reminiscent of my first (and so far only) trip to a drift event a few months ago, without the Thunderbirds but with the opportunity to wander through the pits. I spent far more time in the pits than in the stands.
    And met the Drift Idiot, so there’s that.

    1. Bryce Womeldurf Avatar

      I miss drifting. It hasn’t happened locally around here from what I’ve seen the past few years. Or it just didn’t line up with my schedule. I may have to make a little trip for that this year.

  5. outback_ute Avatar

    Went to a race at Michigan a couple of years ago, well the Friday and Saturday at least because we went to the Motor Muster at the Henry Ford museum on the Sunday. Got the better deal of it anyway, plenty of Nascar and lower series exposure and the tickets for both days cost less than the infield pass (only sold for all 3 days) which was worth it even to see the different pit crews setting up, as well as a different view of the cars etc. I knew enough to get a seat high in the stands so you could see the whole track to follow moves developing and countermoves. Done it once and that is enough really, the racing is pretty one-dimensional compared to road racing.

  6. mve Avatar

    I’m going to a Cup race in Kansas in May, but won’t be getting quite the good shots that you did, Bryce. Nicely done. I will be doing a write-up, though, fo sho.

  7. ol shel Avatar
    ol shel

    In-person race spectating sucks it. To understand NASCAR and all oval racing, you need to watch it on TV.
    (And I used to be a snob who only liked road racing. If you like competitive racing and you value left turns as much as you do right ones, then oval racing is something you might want to give a second look. Denying yourself enjoyment of numerous, extremely competitive races series seems like a silly thing to do for the sake of elitism)
    Get to know the teams and drivers and who’s good at what sort of event. Watch closely, because there’s always lots of action. Enjoy the regional oddities and the homey commentating. Remember that this is the descendant of bootlegging. It’s a damn good time, and way more people should enjoy it.
    Unless drinking tea with your pinkie extended and hoping for a gap of less than 30 seconds between 1st and 2nd is your thing…

  8. Roody Avatar

    Aside from its roots, I feel like Americans like NASCAR because of how accessible it is. There’s coverage everywhere, widely recognized sponsors, and familiar faces in the drivers. If any other series had the same historic coverage as do events like the Daytona 500, maybe we’d be in a bit of a different situation with regard to the most watched races. But NASCAR definitely has its moments…it’s not my favorite series at all, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them four-wide in a corner at near 180-200 MPH…

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