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Put the Daytona 500 on your bucket list

There’s a Rolls Royce that tours the Daytona International Speedway infield. I’m not kidding. A midnight-blue Phantom, it rolls on immaculate tires amidst the grimy campfires and Christmas-light-bedecked RVs, a tiny no. 3 decorating its gleaming front grille. 

Should you catch sight of this specter while you’re wandering the infield at the modestly-named World Center of Racing, you won’t for a second believe you’re hallucinating, because a quarter-million-dollar car cruising through Redneck Nirvana will only be the fifth or sixth strangest thing you’ve seen that day. 

The Daytona 500 is this weekend. If you’re not a NASCAR fan, it’s likely the only reason you know it is because Fox carpet-bombed the Super Bowl with Daytona 500 hype. But even if you’re not a NASCAR fan—hell, especially if you’re not a NASCAR fan—please believe me when I tell you this:

The Daytona 500 is one of the great events on the American sports calendar, and you owe it to yourself as a sports fan to go to one of these, one year. Soon. 

Yeah, I know your objections: NASCAR is all weird and Southern and it’s just cars going around in circles. Folks, in our on-demand, algorithmically-determined world, we can surround ourselves with a perfectly bathwater-warm bubble of comfortable content. But that’s not how we grow. We grow by experiencing something different … and it doesn’t get much more different than the sunburn and speed of a NASCAR race. 

Welcome to the infield, one and all. (Photo by Yahoo Sports)

If I may, I’d like to offer a few reasons why the Daytona 500 needs to be at the top of your sports Bucket List:

It’s an easy ticket.

With all due respect to your financial situation: you’re not going to the Super Bowl, not without knowing Somebody, or throwing a few months’ rent at a ticket. Same thing for the Masters or the World Series. But Daytona? Friend, while they say it’s a sellout, this is a joint with 100,000 seats … you’re getting in if you want to get in. 

It’s not a game, it’s an experience

You don’t just “go” to the Daytona 500 like you “go” to a ballgame. It’s a full-day (or, preferably, a full-weekend) commitment. You live amongst your fellow fans, you eat amongst them, you possibly sleep (or at least nap) amongst them, and if you’re particularly brave you shower amongst them. It’s more akin to a campout than a sporting event. Again: don’t let that scare you.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Daytona is the perfect winter break

Right now, the NBA All-Star Weekend is taking place in Chicago, where it’s 1 — yes, one — degree. The temperature in Daytona is in the mid-70s. Where would you rather be?

Racing must be experienced live

Like hockey, the true impact of racing doesn’t translate through TV. Unlike hockey, the competitors are traveling upwards of 200 mph. You simply cannot believe this speed until you see it up close … and feel the shove of the draft that follows in the cars’ wake. 

The people-watching is unparalleled

Modesty, decency and a desire to hold onto my job prevent me from describing much of what I have seen in the Daytona infield, stands, and gutters that surround the track. But I will say that it is a remarkable collection of humanity that flows into Daytona International Speedway every year, country doctors to college professors, plumbers to Ph.D.s, an ever-more-diverse demographic stew.

Your new family. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The element of danger

Crashes in NASCAR are one of those strange high wires that the sport must constantly walk. Crashes have taken the lives of some of NASCAR’s finest, including at Daytona. And yet the truth is that crashes—or, at least, the anticipation of crashes—are part of what makes NASCAR so fascinating to watch, particularly if you’re not up on pit strategy or chess match-style passing techniques. This week has already seen some phenomenal crashes as drivers found the limits of their cars (and, in some cases, their talents) … expect to see a lot more of that on Sunday, like it or not. 

NASCAR stokes your righteous rage

Being a fan of a single driver is the best way to plug into the sport, but it can be tough to parachute in and attach yourself to one. It’s like walking into a family reunion where you know nobody and trying to strike up a conversation. Better plan: pick a handful of favorites (front runners, cool paint schemes, guys named “Kyle” or “Junior”) and work your way into the conversation by busting on NASCAR management. Everybody has an opinion on how they could run this whole series better. Offer up yours, because NASCAR fans love nothing more than to tell you how screwed up NASCAR is! 

There are challenges ahead for NASCAR, waves looming just offshore. NASCAR is struggling to stay relevant in a rapidly-changing sports landscape. The idea of sitting in one place and watching cars for four hours isn’t as palatable now as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. The drivers of yesteryear are gone; their replacements today aren’t connecting with fans to the same degree. The sport is propped up by a broadcast contract that’s going to run out soon, and attendance is reeling at most tracks on the circuit. 

But those are problems for others to solve. For you, I cannot stress this strongly enough: get to Daytona, raise a cup of your preferred beverage to the 40 drivers whipping around at brain-melting speeds, and come away with more memories than infections. Start making your plans right now … and if you can take your Rolls to the track, so much the better. 

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