Last year’s Daytona 500 was a big bust for me because of epic rain, but this year was going to be a different story. This time I had Hot Passes and intended to have the experience of a lifetime. The skies were overcast but I was undeterred. Even if the race was delayed or postponed, I was going to be in the middle of all the action on pit road and couldn’t care less. My nephew was being dragged around and being force-fed the experience, but I’m sure he’ll thank me in years to come. (Gulp!) The NASCAR community refers to this race as its Super Bowl and they aren’t kidding around. It was fence-to-wall with crews, relatives, famous people, media people, gold diggers and some very lucky fans. Although still learning about NASCAR at the time, I definitely owned the fan category. So much so that I didn’t know which pit box to stand by. After the race started, Police swept through checking credentials and almost magically, more than half of the crowd had disappeared.
What’s a Hot Pass?
This wasn’t my first time on pit row because we attended truck race on Friday night, to test out this whole Hot Pass business. There was a dearth of information online so let me tell you what I now know. For NASCAR events, there are a number of access passes. The ultimate is the ‘Hard Card’ which is for employees and those permanently attached to race teams (owners, crew, spouses, etc.). For pit and garage access, there are ‘Cold’ and ‘Hot’ passes. Cold Pass holders can go to the pit and garages before the race, but as soon as the race starts, you must skedaddle from the area. A Hot Pass on the other hand, means that you can stay and move around with almost no restriction, except for safety (obviously). Daytona International Speedway has more than enough staff on hand to keep pass holders in line. In addition to a healthy Police presence to send you on your way, if needs be. You also need to have photo ID to prove that your identity (driver’s license, passport, etc.) and that applies to minors too, who must always be accompanied by an adult. Thus my nephew had to go wherever I went, which was everywhere. Hey, I wanted to take it all in.
We were hanging out at the infield when “the big one” happened and I wanted to see what was going to happen in the garage. Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Brad Keselowski, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick were all involved in the crash. We flashed our credentials and quickly settled opposite Harvick and Stewart’s garages where the crews were hard at work. Those guys were amazing. They gathered around the car like an emergency room’s trauma team. We couldn’t get too close for safety reasons but the sounds of metal being struck and whirring tools filled the atmosphere. In the meantime, the race restarted and this seemed to spur the men on even more. Some of the other cars only needed smaller repairs and returned to the race, but these two teams were still working…hard. Then I saw Tony Stewart’s face as he was staring at his broken race car and it gave me pause.
Since his career began in 1999, he hasn’t won the Daytona 500. He’s been successful during the summer Coke Zero 400 race, but not this one. This race is his white whale and I didn’t fully realize it until that very moment. Behind his determination was a storm of rage, despair, disappointment and confusion. He had won the Nationwide DRIVE4COPD 300 the day before. How could this be happening to him? How could it be slipping away again? No, no. He has to get back out there. There’s still a chance. As long as he’s in the race, there’s a chance that he just might be able to win. There has to be. He can’t give up. There are people depending on him. Focus, work and get it done. We’ve got to get the car going. We can’t give up. I can’t give up.
Crew Chief Steve Addington stood tall in doorway and oversaw the 14’s resurrection. With a new front-end in place and after a lot of serious wrench work, the Gen 6 Chevrolet’s engine started and then roared on its way back to the race. The exhausted crew cleared up their workspace and then hustled back to the pit area because their day wasn’t close to being over. Tony was going to leave it all on the asphalt and they would have to do the same. I don’t know if the crew felt it but I sure did. Unfortunately all that effort led to a paltry 41st place.
Although his team Stewart-Haas Racing had overall success because Danica Patrick had won the pole and incredible amount of attention, they weren’t winning anything. None of them and it was taking a toll on him. The press weren’t even calling him out for his frustrated and sometimes violent outbursts, which I don’t quite agree with. They apparently understood that he had gone from losing the white whale to just about everything. That is until last weekend at Dover International Speedway when he won the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks and reestablished his relevance in the sport. As we’re heading into the summer segment of the Sprint Cup Series, he’s secured a wild card position for The Chase but what about the Daytona 500? The NASCAR circus is coming back to the Daytona International Speedway and maybe Tony will be doing a victory burnout for the Coke Zero 400 again? Still, it’s not the crown jewel and I hope that he doesn’t give up. Hopefully, he’ll come back next year with renewed vigour to finally get that Harley J. Earl trophy. If fortune smiles upon me once again, I’ll be standing behind the 14’s pit box to see him do it.
Special thanks to Mrs. Diana Milner of NASCAR for making this all possible for me.