I lost my dream job near the end of March. The world feels like an even more apocalyptic version of the Hunger Games. Going outside is a dangerous task. The economy is in shambles.
Yet somehow, I’m staying positive through it all. I don’t like being negative. I always have something to look for, whether it’s a junior hockey game, a video game event with friends or a NASCAR race on the weekend. I almost feel like there’s not enough time in a day, and I love that.
In fact, regardless of all the turmoil, I still can say this is one of my all-time favorite years. If you told me a year ago that the only race I would attend in 2020 (after seeing more races in 2019 than ever before) was the Daytona 500, I’d be very, very confused. And with this pandemic not slowing down anytime soon, that’s what 2020 is shaping up to be – and through it all, I still consider 2020 to be a great year.
Thinking back, if this event was held just a few weeks later, I wouldn’t have had the chance to finally make it.
Alongside my love for hockey, racing has always been something so important to me – specifically NASCAR. I have always wanted to go to the Daytona 500, something I’ve never missed in my 23 years as a fan. And when the opportunity presented itself to travel with good friends Eric Beaudoin and Caitlin Patrick to the World Center of Racing, there wasn’t a chance that I was missing it.
I hadn’t been to a NASCAR Cup Series race since 2003, so you could guess how exciting it was to think I finally had a chance to visit my dream venue.
Thousands of dollars and months of planning later, I finally had the chance to make it out to Daytona Beach, Fla. It was everything I could have asked for – minus the break-ins nearby our safe-but-also-kind-of-scary-with-gunshot-sounds-nearby AirBnB. A city full of major racing fans, NASCAR stores everywhere you go and restaurants based about the sport we all love – you can’t go wrong. Oh, and the Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich lived up to the hype, but White Claw definitely did not.
But more importantly, I finally got to realize how incredible of a place Daytona is. You can’t appreciate the size of the track until you first arrive in the infield and make your way onto the front stretch. We had hot passes, and Eric was working for teams in two of the races, so we had an up-close look at everything going on. That opened up the experience in ways nothing else could. I’ve toured various tracks around Canada, but being at Daytona International Speedway was something I’ve never experienced before.
With the hot pass, we had access to the pit stops throughout the week. Getting to watch the duels between the pit stalls of champions such as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick was one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do at a sporting event. Of course, I’ve been up close to NASCAR Pinty’s drivers, but this was something special. Yeah, we got a little too close to the pit wall and was told to move aside, but we still got closer than the average fan.
Friday rolled around and we finally got to see a points-paying race at Daytona – and oh boy, it didn’t disappoint. I wanted to see two things that weekend: a flip and a close finish. We got both in the truck race, including one of the tightest finishes in the history of the truck series. We had grandstand seats for it, and getting to see the whole track was an amazing experience. The Xfinity race the next day fell a little flat, but it was cool seeing 2017 Pinty’s Series champion Alex Labbe leading late in the race (and we happened to sit beside some Oakville residents, too. What are the odds?).
Finally, Sunday rolled around. The real deal. With Donald Trump visiting the race, there was a weird air around the whole event. We got to the track early, around 7:30 AM, and after Eric Beaudoin finally grabbed his hot pass for the 500, we entered the track. Security was tight, but we were there early enough and brought next to nothing, so we were fine. We got to hang out and chat with drivers, media, etc. and truly take in the full experience. We spent a few hours on the front stretch, sitting and waiting for the festivities to kick off – all while having snipers pointing guns at us from above. You know, the usual. The security was something I’ve never seen at any event before, but with a full crowd forming in the stands, you can tell the whole thing was special.
When Trump finally arrived, I’ve never heard a louder sound from a crowd in my life. Love him or hate him, it was a spectacle on top of a spectacle. We weren’t too far off from the President, so guns were pointed towards us by Homeland Security agents. That whole experience is something I won’t forget.
Then came the actual race. It rained for a bit and delayed the start – something NASCAR truly had to dread. Having the President of the United States at the sport’s biggest event was enough to bring in mass attention (even if he left before a single lap was turned), so a rain delay wasn’t ideal. They eventually got the race started and it was like something out of a movie.
Until it poured rain again and we were stuck soaking for hours, with no real timetable to return.
The race eventually finished on Monday afternoon, and in the final laps, my favorite driver (at the time), Kyle Larson, had a chance to win. Of course, he screwed himself out of a good finish due to mistakes on track, but it was still shaping up to be an incredible finish between Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.
And then, it happened. The crash that made headlines around the world for days. Easily the most horrific impact I’ve ever seen in person. I can still hear the sound from that crash in my head today. People started screaming and crying from above the garage area where we watched the final few laps. We made our way down to the pits, and crew and media members were getting forced out of the pits. Early reports were dire. The car was blocked off. The No. 6 team was upset. The post-race celebration, once a sight to behold, was mute and over within minutes.
We spent the next hour at iHop across the street, waiting for a final word as to what happened to Newman. Fortuantely, we got word that he was alive – and walked out of the hopsital on his own just days later – but it was still full of uncertaintey. The fact he survived helped take a bit of the edge off everything and meant we were heading home still satisifed at what we saw. Remove the horrible accident and you have one of the closest finishes in Daytona 500 and one of the best stage races we’ve ever seen at a superspeedway. Can’t complain about that.
Away from the track, spending time at Daytona Beach was incredible, especially at night. We didn’t actually swim, and I don’t care for beaches, but pushing back against the quiet waves was… relaxing. For all the craziness at the track, it was nice to have a bit of a break away from the track in such a happy place.
I couldn’t have asked for much more from going to an event, other than someday hoping to go with my dad. It’s sad to think that I won’t likely get to go to a race again this season, especially with how jam-packed this summer was going to be. I miss that week in Daytona, and with everything going on in the world, 2020 has just been… weird. But regardless of everything going on in the world and especially with how our lives have changed for the worse, I’m staying positive, spending time writing hockey articles for fun and spending tons of time on iRacing. For as terrible of a year as 2020 has been, especially with losing my job, I’ve stayed happy.
And looking back at the Daytona 500 is a big reason why.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.