Updated: Jul 26, 2018
It’s safe to say that those who know me well would have taken odds that I was not going to be “in my happy place” during my first Daytona International Speedway Coke Zero 400.
I'm sure they thought if going meant surviving staggeringly hot temps, pushing my way through throngs of eagerly eager NASCAR fans for a chance to stand in line for what seemed like days just to buy an ice cold drink, then working my way through the crowds of equally-sweaty, rambunctious car enthusiasts to get to the garages for a quick glimpse of the 40 impeccably detailed cars who were about to be driven to pieces (all done while fighting a sinus infection, no less), chances are, I was going to bail and head to the nearest mall.
Yet, there I was, killin’ it!
Lanny and I have visited Daytona annually for the past 16 years and it now feels like home. The call of the Atlantic begins for me around April, and by summer I’m packed and ready to head east. There’s just something about the crashing waves and the laid-back atmosphere of the Ormond Beach region that brings me back to center every time.
In all of those visits, we had not seen a race at the speedway, the area’s claim-to-fame. It was on our bucket list and we were determined to experience it in order to see what all the fuss was about.
What I knew about NASCAR racing before that day would have easily fit on the back of a postage stamp, but I’m a pretty quick study and I was up for the challenge.
What I learned about NASCAR racing ON that day was worth every drop of sweat my poor coughing, hacking, wheezing, sneezing body could muster:
* There is no limit to the number of tattoos some people can cram onto an average-size body
* The distance from the parking lot to the nearest lady’s room is not in any way directly proportioned to my immediate need to use the toilet
* Plastic, inflatable pools, complete with floating rubber ducky, are apparently necessary for having a successful tailgate party
* People from across the pond don’t mind asking to share the lid of the trash can you laid dibs on to use as a table for your cold French fries
* It is not in your best interest to attempt the bank/slope of the racetrack with a head full of sinus medication and a beer
* Don’t don your headset before anyone else does or you’ll put it on the wrong way and, gawd-forbid, you will be outed for this being your first race. (When in Rome, wait…)
* If the inebriated fellow in the next row yells instructions loud enough to his favored driver, it will make no difference at all in the race’s outcome
* Racers tape is more effective than Duct Tape apparently, and if it can patch together a crashed car, I need it in my pink tool kit, next to my flowered hammer
* Those who thought they knew me, were wrong: I could get used to this
Why is that? Was it the incredible patriotism? The respect shown for the military? The excitement of the race to the finish line? The adrenaline rush of the crashes? Was it being part of something so new, so raw, to me? Let’s face it, there’s only so much that television can relay; no matter how clear the sound or how high the definition, there’s no comparison to the “real-time” event.
There’s always the “Mom” part of me that’s never far away and having seen the drivers walk out with their toddlers in tow before the race ripped at my heartstrings with each mind-boggling crash. Knowing that the families were there, witnessing the flames, the smoke and the mangled metal took away what little breath I had reserved in my already struggling lungs.
I was warned about the roar of the NASCAR engines and while it was definitely a vibrational, energizing part of the thrill, it paled by comparison to the sound of the flyover by two F-22’s from the 43rd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base prior to the race. The power and might they displayed was something that I will not soon forget.
In an eight-lap double overtime, it was 22-year-old Eric Jones from Byron, Michigan who took home his first career checkered flag, racing his No. 20 Toyota toward the finish line with a 0.125 second margin over Martin Truex Jr. Only 20 of the 40 cars finished the scheduled 160 (plus eight) laps around the 2.5-mile speedway.
I was physically exhausted and mentally fried, but I had survived my first multi-smash-up NASCAR race. We took my sniffling, coughing, wheezing body back to our condo, where I swore I’d stay under the covers with a bottle of Nyquil and a case of Kleenex for the rest of the week, but Magic Kingdom was calling my name and I had a princess or two who were counting on me to add to their experience.
Now, about that magic...
By Tuesday, I felt better and what could be a better cure-all than inking-in a little enchantment into your schedule? Disney World and our vacationing family were only an hour from us, so there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see the fantasy land that Uncle Walt built through the eyes of a four-year-old and her now-teenage sister.
It really doesn’t matter how bad you feel, or that you realize you can’t breathe and your head feels like it’s been overstuffed with cotton— once a pint-sized, little blonde dynamo runs down Main Street USA towards you with her arms open, you feel like a shiny new penny, ready to take on all the wonders Magic Kingdom has to offer.
There’s just something about holding the hand of a trusting child and watching their eyes light up at the sight of Cinderella, or seeing their smiling faces as they whirl around in brightly colored cups on the Mad Tea Party ride, that renews the spirit like nothing else. Being a true believer in all things magical is exactly what a memorable childhood should be about; there will be plenty of time later to face the harsh realities of life in the days ahead.
For now, their lives should be filled with candy stores, ice cream parlors and Mickey and Minnie. And there should be a princess around every corner. Whether you just turned four (going on 12 or so, like Cryslynn; aka “Bean”) or you're 13 like big sister Caylee, it never hurts to dabble in fantasy. Innocence gets lost all too quickly.
Let. Them. Be. Little.
We had endured the l-o-n-g lines and the heat. We had taken every opportunity to catch cooler, indoor activity and had taken advantage of the Jungle Cruise's relaxing river ride. We had traveled the globe via It’s a Small World and survived the swashbucklers of the Pirates of the Caribbean. We lived on Gatorade and smiles; and it was worth every bead of July sweat we shed.
By day’s end, I was feeling like I had been hit by a rogue log from Splash Mountain. I had been Disneyed to near-death.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
After all, how many times do you get to witness the wonder of a True Believer as she touches the sparkly scales of a REAL mermaid?
The next day was spent on the beach and in the pool. Having caved and called my doctor back home for some pharmaceutical intervention, I was armed with steroids and allergy medication and ready to tackle the sand.
Looking back, it was one of our best vacations, so far. From Daytona to Orlando, we left very few stones unturned. I hope I never lose my enthusiasm for life. It’s very easy for Baby Boomers, I feel, to let their universe shrink — to see their best days as being behind them. But if we are realistic, every single day gives us another chance to experience something new.
Yes, going to Disney World and to the races is not exactly inexpensive. I’m not so naïve as to think everyone can just drop everything and head to the nearest amusement park or speedway to have the exact same adventure. But life really is what you make of it. Some of my greatest memories come from times when I barely had two nickels to rub together.
Years ago, I gave a fantastic pool party that will go down in my memory bank as one of my favorite deposits. Why? Because I didn’t have a pool! I just didn’t think that minor detail should stop me from having a pool party!
My friend Rebecca and I took on the joint venture. We invited a dozen or so of our closest friends; bought individual inflatable pools; had a couple of beaches made from bags of sand we bought from Lowe’s; blasted Jimmy Buffet all over the neighborhood; fired up the grill for hot dogs and served fruity mixed drinks, complete with those tacky little paper umbrellas. “Drive-out” cost? Probably $75, tops. (Long live Dollar General!)
Many of my brave attendees still remind me of how much fun that was. Of course, I do hear, “Only you would give a pool party with no pool…” I’ll take that!
While I’m not going to sign up to replace Danica Patrick anytime soon, I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed the race. Maybe it was the Josh Turner concert prior to the race that served as my cool drink of water; maybe it’s the fact that I’m never going to be one who wants to miss out on anything life has to offer; or maybe it was the overabundance of cough medicine in my system, but whatever…
Race cars and magical kingdoms go hand in hand when it comes to making memories that last a lifetime. And plastic pools work just as well in the back yard as they do when inflated next to an expensive RV in the parking lot of Daytona International Speedway.
It simply all depends on the perspective of the swimmer…
The only thing I think about is winning...races and the championship. It's like hunting and fishing. You want to catch the most fish or shoot the most ducks, with the least shells. You don't want to be standing there with a whole pile of shells on the ground and one duck. Dale Earnhardt
Driving a race car is like dancing with a chainsaw. Cale Yarborough
It's basically the same, just darker, discussing the difference between night racing and daytime racing. Alan Kulwicki
Well, there’s one thing: they can’t order me to stop dreaming. Cinderella