The Start of Something Big

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The 50th running of the Daytona 500 is a good time to remember how vital fans have been to NASCAR's success, and Speedweeks, the fortnight of races leading up to the 500, is a great time for fans to soak up the NASCAR experience. "The sport was built on access to its stars, but it's become more difficult for the average fan to get access," says Dave Hickson, president of the Official NASCAR Members Club, a fan organization. Here, some of the ONMC's members share how they make that connection at Daytona.

What makes Daytona special is that it's the mecca of NASCAR and the race draws fans from all over the nation. There's not a fan out there who would disagree that Daytona is the biggest race. I go to 13 or 14 races a year, but Daytona is the only time my friends and I can get together in one place.

There are three things that I always do when I go to Daytona. On the Thursday night before the race my friends and I always meet at Froggy's. On Friday my other group of friends always meets at Tijuana Flats, a Mexican restaurant outside Turn 1. And on Sunday, no matter when the race ends, we always meet outside the gates in front of the statue of Bill and Anne France to talk about the race.

I've attended every Daytona 500 since 1990, and one of my most thrilling moments was meeting Rusty Wallace in a Mexican restaurant. It was just after the race in 1991. He was having dinner with his publicist when I approached him, and he was nice enough to sign autographs and talk to us. He talked a little about the race outcome and what he happened to see during the race. I'd been following him since 1984, and he was my idol; so that's my coolest memory.

I have more than 80 NASCAR jackets and 500 die-cast cars. Whenever I get to Daytona, my big priority is to look for new cars because of driver changes, etc. So this year I'll be looking for a new Dale Earnhardt Jr. car.Michael Murphy, Lake Villa, Ill.

I've been to Daytona four times since 1999. It's the most phenomenal sports experience you can have. It starts in the early morning with a rock band, the fans start to come in and the cars warm up. It's a tradition to make sure my son and I stand on the finish line and take a picture. My son always signs his name.

The most exciting 10 minutes of my life was in 1999 in the pits the morning of the race. I first met Dale Earnhardt, then I turned around and met Rick Hendrick, then I turned around and met Jeff Gordon. They were all so genuine and so kind. They understood the role of a fan and of a sponsor. (I worked for the company that makes the NASCAR Heat video game.) They looked you in the eye, and you felt they genuinely cared about you.Tom Dusenberry, Marblehead, Mass.

Daytona is just a fabulous place to be during a race. It's the commonality of people, and people are what makes the racing. It's the tailgate parties and meeting the drivers, everything combined. When I'm tailgating, I just wander. People are so friendly. I say, "How are you doing? I'm from northwest Indiana," and go from there. Before you know it, you're playing beanbags or just talking racing. I've made lasting friends that way.Jim Colema, Griffith, Ind.

I've been going to the Daytona 500 since 1985, and I like to see all the pomp and color and excitement at getting another racing season started. My favorite moments were attending Jeff Gordon's first race [1993] and the first one that he won ['97].

I taught driver's ed to Gordon when he attended Tri-West Hendricks High School in Indiana. It was great. He was a good student as well as a good driver. I really didn't teach him all that much, but I tell him I taught him everything he knows. He was always there and always on time. Even though he was already racing he still needed the certificate to get a better rate on his car insurance.

I now drive a morning bus route and drop off two kids at the house where Jeff grew up. And, of course, my bus number is 24.Larry Sparks, Pittsboro, Ind.

You would never think I was a NASCAR fan -- I'm a suburban housewife who lives on a golf course. I became a fan when a high school buddy of mine gave me a ticket to an Atlanta race in 2005. I knew absolutely nothing. My son bought me a program and told me to pick a driver and follow him throughout the race. I picked Casey Mears and had an absolute blast. Now I've been to 20 races in two years.

I went to the Daytona 500 last year. It was unbelievable, the granddaddy of all races. I can't think of another sporting event where there are 168,000 seats but you can't find a place to sit if you don't have a ticket. I was working at the race [for the ONMC], and I didn't have a ticket, so I ended up watching the race from the infield with a guy who had an $850,000 camper.

Before I started going to races, I thought NASCAR was a Southern redneck sport, but you go there and realize it's completely the opposite. This guy had his own chef and personal assistant, served us cocktails and drove us around in a convertible Mercedes. Nancy Hanson, Victoria, Minn.

I've been to Daytona just once, in 2005. Everyone had told us we'd be disappointed because the track is so big and we wouldn't be able to see the race, but we were blown away. We went down to the track to see the cars go around and the speed was just awesome. We had won garage passes through the club, and it was like being kids in a candy store. I walked around with my mouth wide open.

I'm going again this year and looking forward to a whole weekend of racing. We'll hit the racing museums and the flea markets, where I hear you can get a lot of great souvenirs.

My best advice is to leave early for good parking. In 2005 we were staying in St. Augustine and got up at 3:30 a.m. so we could be on line when the lot opened at four. If you want to park close to the track, you have to get there no later than 5 a.m. We went to the Cracker Barrel when it opened at five, and it was packed!Charlotte Basham, Bluefield, W.Va.

Daytona is unique among all sports. NASCAR has a combination of a Mardi Gras and a Super Bowl to begin and end the season. The fans celebrate the launch as much as the championship. A NASCAR fan is dormant for 11-plus weeks, and Daytona is a chance for him or her to break out of hibernation. A trip to Daytona is about the lifestyle, the family, the friends and the vacation as much as it is about the racing and your favorite driver winning. Off the track, the Richard Petty Driving Experience [part of the Daytona 500 Experience] is the holy grail -- every fan should do it. To drive a stock car around the track at 150 miles per hour is incredible.Dave Hickson, Charlotte

If you go to the Daytona 500, make sure to get down into the Fanzone to see what's going on in the garage. You can get next to the garage and watch the drivers. They also will have bands playing.

We rent an RV and stay at the west lot outside Turn 1. We have a lot of fun and get together with a group of friends to cook out. On our RV we put up some flags, a blow-up helmet and a blow-up car. We've also got some banners. My favorite driver is Dale Jr., and my wife likes Kevin Harvick. When we go this year, I'll be looking to pick up a few things with Dale's new number. That's the risk you run, I guess. The best thing is getting down on pit road before the race starts and seeing the drivers up close. When you bump into drivers, they're just like normal people, which is one of the things I love about the sport.Larry Hall, Port St. Lucie, Fla.

My first trip to Daytona was in 2003, and I'm planning to go again this year. The best thing about Speedweeks is all of the daily activities, including autograph sessions with drivers. I always go to the simulators at the Daytona 500 Experience. I race a couple of races, do a track tour and go back to the simulators; that is my daily routine.

Kevin Harvick is the driver I favor, as well as all Richard Childress Racing drivers; I've met some of them in California. The experience was nice -- to say hi, shake their hands and wish them luck in the race. It would be nice to meet them in their environment and not in a fan environment.

I once saw Michael Waltrip out having dinner. I told his waitress to give me his bill when he was done. After he finished eating, he came over and told me I did not have to do that but thanks for picking up the tab. Before I knew it, he had his Sharpie out and autographed the shirt I was wearing. It so happened to be the one I bought the year before in Daytona when Waltrip won the race. The shirt has been saved with my NASCAR collection of die-cast cars and memorabilia.Steve Benoit, La Habra Heights, Calif.

I'm originally from Indiana and worked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when I was younger. This year will be my first trip to Daytona. I'll be attending with my twin grandsons, Jackson and Chandler. We celebrated their fourth birthdays at the Brickyard 400 last year and couldn't pass up the chance to help commemorate Daytona's 50th.

Tony Stewart is my favorite driver. I'm a school principal in Utah now, but I once taught at the same high school in Indiana as Tony's father, Nelson. I've followed Tony's career from when he was driving in the IRL series.

When we get to Daytona, I can just imagine my grandsons' going, Wow! And I think I'll be just like them. Warren Shenk, Springville, Utah

I started coming to Daytona in the late '80s, and the most remarkable thing is the number of women who come to the races. I think the number of women has tripled since then, which makes me very excited. I've been to the Daytona 500 10 times -- four as a spectator and six times as a timing and scoring official.

The wackiest thing I've seen at a race was when Sterling Marlin got out of his car to fix it when the race was red-flagged [in 2002]. He was on the backstretch where there's a blind spot, so maybe he thought no one could see, but the TV cameras caught him. I don't blame him for trying!

As an official, I sit in race control, which is right above the start-finish line. I don't think it gets any better than that for location. But as a spectator, I don't think there's a bad seat at the track, because you're not just seeing a race, you're part of an experience. At the beginning of the season there are so many expectations, and everyone's hopes are so high. Debbie Norman, Charlotte

When i was seven or eight, I went to Daytona for the first time. It was 1963. That was the cat's meow superspeedway back then; it was the biggest track I'd ever seen. Since then, I've been to about 10 500s. One year my dad and I camped out and watched the race from the infield. As soon as the race was over, we went onto the track. My dad was talking to Tiny Lund. I had noticed his car had been running loose, so I said, "Mr. Tiny, your back end was really shaking through the turns." He patted me on the head and said, "Darlin', more than my back end was shakin'." I was so embarrassed because everybody laughed.

It was like that then, though. Fans used to be able to go onto the track after the races and just talk with the drivers and owners. I was a fan in the days when Cotton Owens, Bud Moore and Joe Weatherly were racing. Then Richard Petty came along with his beautiful smile and started winning all the races, and the girls all went crazy over him. I told my dad I was going to grow up and marry Richard.

Now, I'm a big Kasey Kahne fan. He's a good, wholesome kid who has all the qualities of the old-time drivers. They just wanted to go fast and win, and that's what he wants too.Cathy Mosteller, Travelers Rest, S.C.

Every nascar Sprint Cup race from Daytona to Homestead counts for the same amount of points, but the amount of excitement, anticipation and prestige that falls on the Daytona 500 is unmatched by any other event on the schedule. A win at Daytona can not only make a season, but it also can define a career.

When I first get to Daytona, I go to the garage area and walk around. Doing that reminds me why I love NASCAR so much: the personalities, the speed and the power. There is nothing in sports comparable to the energy of the competitors on Sunday morning before the green flag waves on the Daytona 500.Matt Dusenberry, High Point, N.C.