I have never been a NASCAR fan. For a guy who loves sports, I knew more about curling than I did NASCAR. I could never understand why watching cars making hundreds of laps was so popular.
Then I attended the 2014 Daytona 500 in Jacksonville, Florida courtesy of Lowe’s and my life changed. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve watched each of the ensuing races in Phoenix and Las Vegas, intently. We interviewed 21-year old rookie Kyle Larson since then and my respect for him, and the sport, is through the roof.
The highlight of the trip? Meeting six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and Lowe’s driver Jimmie Johnson.
Prior to meeting Jimmie Johnson, I had no frame of reference for his level of success or how historically dominant he has been working alongside Crew Chief Chad Knaus.
It was only after someone aptly explained that Knaus is the Bill Belichick to Johnson’s Tom Brady (though they’ve been twice as successful in terms of championships) did I realize how much they’d accomplished as a team. Here’s Jimmie and I, laughing about our favorite recipes:
After I met and briefly interviewed Johnson, I was fortunate to be invited into the Lowe’s pit for the start of the race.
The thing that impressed me the most was the sound. When you’re standing in the pit, you hear this groaning sound in the distance, like a gathering thunderstorm, and then all of the sudden… BOOM! The entire field explodes right in front of you, a mix of colors and shapes that you can barely discern. Then, they’re gone again and the sound dissipates to a low hum.
Check out these video from my vantage point in the pit. They barely do the experience justice.
First at full speed:
Then in slow motion, like Juvenile:
Watching the pit crew operate was an absolute model of precision. If a pit stops takes longer than 8-12 seconds, the driver and the team are at a deficit, no matter how skilled the driver. Races and Cup standings are decided by hundredths of seconds.
Daytona International Speedway on race day is one of the coolest sporting venues I’ve ever seen. The track is 2.5 miles and is immense, and seems even bigger when it’s packed with people.
Even aside from the coolness of the pit and the intensity of everything going on at once, it was amazing to be in a venue with 140,000-plus people. The raw energy of that is a singular occurrence and is a surging, tangible force. I’ve experienced some electrified sporting events, and the only thing I can compare it to in terms of voltage was the famous Chicago Cubs “Bartman Game” in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.
One of the coolest features is the 29-acre Lake Lloyd in the middle of the infield. This year, the race was stopped after 38 laps and suspended for a nearly seven-hour rain delay. There was so much rain once it started, you couldn’t tell where the lake stopped and the track began.
Gauging by the celebrities I encountered, the Daytona 500 truly is the Super Bowl of NASCAR. Standing behind pit row, it was packed with humans. So much so that you could only walk in a single file line in the direction of your choosing, with about an inch between you heading your way and the person walking by you in the other direction.
I looked up and saw the tallest human being I’ve ever seen; it was none other than 7’2″ NBA Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore, aka the “A-Train,” who attended college at Jacksonville University.
Still reeling from seeing Gilmore, I turned around to face forward, and the first person I saw and brushed up against was none other than rap icon 50 Cent. As many a white guy has said before, I stuck out my hand and said, “What up, Fif?” He gave me a five and said, “What’s up?” Unfortunately, there wasn’t time for a photo opp, but believe me when I tell you 50 Cent is a big ass dude.
I was disappointed that I didn’t get a pic with either Gilmore or Curtis Jackson, but my feelings of inadequacy melted away when I scored a pic with Kaitlyn Farrington and her gold medal, fresh off securing it in a victory in the women’s snowboarding halfpipe event at the recently completed 2014 Sochi Olympics. I coyly asked her to share a selfie with me, which she quickly dubbed a “Sochi Selfie.” Then, I fell in love, guys. True story.
The Daytona 500 was an amazing experience and a landmark must-see event for any sports fan. Part of the reason it was so great were the fantastic “Ladies of Lowe’s” who planned and then executed a once in a lifetime weekend of experiences.
Special thanks to Kelly Connelly (for putting up with me), Tonya Raynor (for her awesomely dry sense of humor), Tara Gudger (for answering my infantile NASCAR questions all weekend and “helping me learn“) and Judy Riley (who mastered Instagram AND Twitter on the same weekend).