Many NASCAR fans have a list of tracks that they must go to, and the debate will always rage on about which tracks are the best and which are the worst.
Since July of 2004, my "must go to" track has been the Daytona International Speedway.
Under the lights at 180 mph for three or four hours is my kind of race, and it happening on the 4th of July with fireworks is my idea of a good time. Spending that time in a place where people enjoy racing as much as I do, and that camp out and party up and down Speedway Boulevard is a great deal.
Parking lots and sidewalks as far as the eye can see are packed with people who bleed NASCAR and don’t mind if a total stranger wonders over to hang out.
This really is as the commercial states: My, your, our NASCAR.
For the seventh time, including the 2008 Daytona 500, I packed my bags and readied for another trip and date with Daytona.
This year was special, though, as the trip marked my one-year anniversary of joining Bleacher Report. Two hundred eight articles and 2,320 comments later, I think I’ve gotten good use out of the site.
It was also special because I had some pretty exciting things lined up at the track, and not just the normal run for cover when the thunder and lightening hit.
This year, my week leading up to Daytona was not filled with Pina Coladas in my hand and Bohemian sand between my toes.
Instead, I had to stick with the family for the annual trip to Disney before Dad and I ditched Mickey Mouse for Earnhardt’s House.
However, the Crandall family doesn’t do things the easy way, and this trip would be no different. Instead of buying plane tickets, my dad is more likely to get a speeding ticket.
That’s right, my parents drive to Florida…from New Jersey. And this year, I had no choice but to tag along.
Twenty-four hours after the checkered flag flew in New Hampshire, my Monday was filled with packing, cleaning the house ,and making sure my iPod was fully charged. A road trip with my family could drive anyone to drink, so I was going prepared.
Tuesday was all about relaxing before hoping in the car and taking off.
But there were still bags to be packed, since I’m never on top of things, and I had to send my puppy to be cared for as I went off to visit her namesake. Yes, I named my puppy Daytona.
Finally at 10 p.m., the car was loaded and we were finally on our way. See, not only is my family crazy enough to drive to Florida, but they are crazy enough to do it in the middle of the night like fleeing bandits.
As we got deeper into the ride, my thoughts turned to things I could have forgotten and what lay ahead on the trip and on the track.
And, of course, I connected everything around me to NASCAR, from signs that would lead to other tracks to the way my father was driving. That reminded me more of a quote from “Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail” movie where Madea proclaims “Call the po-po, I ain’t scared of the po-po.”
At 4 a.m. during a fueling stop, I decided that I needed some donuts from the attached store. I was sorely disappointed to find no Krispy Kreme donuts as advertised here in Emporia, Va.
I think Elliott Sadler should use his status to get that changed.
I instead settled for a ham and cheese sandwich, and it was quite a sight in the parking lot as my sister, her friend, and I all tried to open that damn package. We did everything but throw it on the ground and stomp on it.
Now, back on the road, I would be able to enjoy my mid-morning snack, but soon discovered another problem: No mayonnaise. How am I supposed to each a sandwich with no mayo?
Seriously Elliott, time for you and I to have a talk.
Wednesday was a short day on the road, as everyone was exhausted. After stopping for breakfast, during which I admit I pulled out my laptop in the Denny’s parking lot because I couldn’t take not being connected to the world anymore. I needed to know what was going on in cyber world. My e-mail, Facebook and Bleacher Report were all checked, but there was no time for Twitter, and then we were back on the road for a little more time before stopping for the night.
Savannah, Ga., became the stop, as I finally was able to see something other than pavement and cars in front of me.
Once we checked into the hotel, the family and friends ran for the pool, and I ran for the couch and a pillow. Fully intent on sleeping, but I quickly discovered that was not going to happen.
After having a phone conversation with one of our fellow writers, I spent the next few hours responding to e-mails, Facebook and Twitter conversations and posting a new article before finally crashing at midnight.
Daytona was getting closer and closer.
Thursday: The final day on the road and cars were finally on the track, but Dad and I wouldn’t be heading for the track until Friday, unfortunately.
But we set off and finally reached Florida and headed for our house on the outskirts of Disney. It was truly painful driving past the track and not taking the exist.
Upon reaching the house minutes later, I ran for the TV to watch practice and opened my laptop. However, just like the first few days, things did not go as planned for me.
There were only 10 channels on the TV, and not included in those channels were ESPN and Speed channel.
That was the final straw.
“There are cars on the track and I can’t watch,” I walked around sulking. “How am I expected to stay here?”
After continually losing my Internet connection on top of that, I was thankful enough to have another fellow Bleacher Report writer texting me all the happenings on the track.
At 3 a.m., our conversations finally ended up my losing consciousness and drifting into stockcar dreamland.
Friday was an exciting day for me. Not only would I be at the track, but there was an exciting event I had planned was scheduled for the day.
I had been contacted by ESPN offering me a tour of their TV compound. I would be able to get a behind the scenes look of how they put on all the Nationwide and half of the Sprint Cup Series races.
And if I was lucky and the timing worked out, I might be able to meet ESPN pit reporter Jamie Little, whom I have written articles and interviewed in the past.
Approaching the track that morning, I could feel a change in myself. My stress and everything else that is normally running through my mind disappeared. All I cared about, and all I live for, are cars on the track, and this weekend I wouldn’t have to deal with hour pre-race shows or a million commercials to see them.
That didn’t make it surprising when reaching the hotel that I dropped my bag and walked out the door and down to the track.
I wasn’t playing around.
Nationwide qualifying was coming, and I planned on not missing any part of it. When Dad and I reached the gates, the black cloud that had followed me from Jersey was still hanging around. I gave the man my ticket to scan (they were the print at home ones) and waited for him to scan it and give it back.
I had to wait a while because, surprise, it wouldn’t read the bar code. Dad’s worked, but mine was not letting me get passed the gate. Sorry Dad, but I’m going in before you, so hand over that good ticket.
After having the ticket collector Calvary come out in full force to fix the problem—I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was, because after the ticket was scanned I was listening more to the cars engines and not his voice—I finally was on my way.
Walking toward the start-finish line, Kyle Busch roared past, leaving pit road for his qualifying laps. After seeing the first few cars run, I ducked back outside to get a ticket for the fanzone in the infield.
My plan was to park myself on top of the Sprint Cup garage area and observe from there.
Walking through the turn three tunnel, I knew I was officially at my home away from home and loving every minute of it.
For the next few hours, I split my time between Nationwide Series qualifying on the track and looking below me at the Sprint Cup cars, crews, and equipment that paraded passed me.
Standing there and enjoying the Daytona sun, fellow Bleacher Report writer and professional photographer David Yeazell and I met up for some racing talk and snapped a few photos.
Before I knew it, we were leaving the garage area and headed for the media center, where I got a glimpse of the professionals I long to be like and join in that room.
Back outside, though, is where it was all happening: ESPN’s Alan Bestwick, David Newton, and Shannon Spake all walked past me, as did Daytona International Speedway President Robin Bragg and Miss Sprint Cup, who signed autographs and took pictures with the fans that approached her.
David and I separated after that, as he went to prepare for Sprint Cup qualifying and I went to watch the end of Nationwide Qualifying, only to have it start thundering, lightening and down pouring.
Cup qualifying was rained out, but that didn’t slow me down. Before the Nationwide Subway Jalapeno 250, it was time for my tour of ESPN, so David was called to come tag along and snap some shots.
Andy Hall of ESPN picked Dad, David, and myself up in a golf cart, which did wonders for my ego at this point already, and drove us to the TV compound.
As we began the tour, I couldn’t find the words to express what was in front of me or ask any questions. I knew that it would be complex, but to see miles and miles of cables all laid out awestruck me.
It was too crowded to step into, but Andy brought us to the trailer that Tim Brewer does his segments on the cut-away car. He expressed how many people don’t believe that the studio that Brewer is in is actually a trailer that goes from race to race.
Don’t expect it to be just that simple, though. Inside that trailer are many parts and pieces that when they are packed up and moved to the next race, they must be set back up in the exact same place they were taken down from.
The reason for this is that when Brewer gets ready to explain something on the air, he may only have 15 seconds or so to get that necessary piece and get ready. He needs to know where that piece will be located.
The tour ended with a visit to the production trailer, which is filled with TV screens for every camera stationed around the track. The producer sits right in the middle of it all and has the final say of what gets put on the broadcast and what the race fans see at home.
Once again, I just starred in amazement.
Before leaving the trailer, Andy spoke of something that really peaked my interest. In a separate room, they record the radio transmissions from all 43 cars throughout the race, and so when something needs to be played or it gets to that “he said what?” moment, then everyone can go to the tale of the tape.
Unfortunately, because of the mid-day rain, it pushed the ESPN schedule back and I was unable to meet Jamie Little. She needed to stay inside the track for her pit road assignments and prepare for the race, which was just an hour and a half away.
Once the tour concluded, we all went our separate ways, and my way was to the infield and the stage for driver introductions. What I thought was a perfect viewing spot, right in the middle and front row, turned into a nightmare when photographers climbed a platform right in from of me to take pictures.
Great, the backs of people’s legs were the only thing I could see. But I wasn’t leaving until every driver had been announced and I was told to leave.
That time came after seeing Joey Logano, who is much taller in person than I imagined him to be, and hearing Busch—who looked like he didn’t want to be there to begin with—being booed by the fans. I left the track area and picked a seat four rows up from the start-finish line.
What I had come so far for, and what I had so many mishaps on the way to, was finally going green in Daytona.
Clint Bowyer dominated the night, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s bad luck followed him to another track and another race. And the double-file restarts appeared to be a big success.
The only exciting part of the night was a fight in the stands. Although, I personally wouldn’t consider it a fight, since they seemed to be just yelling at each other like 12-year-old girls who couldn’t decide who got to date the popular kid.
Then, there was the Jr. basher in the next row that was so drunk I didn’t bother correcting his ignorance.
Just laps from the finish with Bowyer having things well in hand, things took a turn for the worst for me. Yes, again!
After 11 hours on my feet, in the sun, dodging the rain, and sweating what felt like the equivalent of my body weight, it all caught up with me. My head started to pound as hard as the cars battled, and my stomach turned as fast as the tires propelling those cars.
All I wanted was the race to end, no matter who ended up winning, and I wanted to go to sleep. A last lap crash gave Bowyer the well-deserved win, and I headed for the hotel.
Climbing into bed, after raiding the hotel ice cream machine, feet stiff and face burnt, I reveled in it all. There was no place and no other way I wanted to feel.
One race down, one more to go.
After all the excitement and busy day Friday, I decided that Saturday was the perfect day to hide from the heat and try to get some work done. I wanted to save all my energy for race time.
Walking to the track that night, I couldn’t help but wonder what was ahead. Restrictor plate races are some of the best in NASCAR and are my personal favorites.
Busch was the defending winner and always a factor, so would he be a force to reckon with? And Tony Stewart, the polesitter, was becoming a familiar face in the front this year, so how would he fair? Then there was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who excels on restrictor plate tracks and really needed a turnaround.
The 2009 Coke Zero 400 will be one that I will never forget for various reasons.
The incredible racing, all the fan actions throughout the night, and one Hell of a finish. It was an eventful trip, and one that I will most likely be making for years to come.
Next year’s countdown is under way.
Daytona will always be my home away from home. Except there is one thing I need to change.
“I need to stop having these feelings,” I tell Dad on our way back to the hotel. “Every time I get a feeling in my stomach when we come to this race, Jr. crashes. I had the feeling in 2007, and he was in the Big One, and today I had the feeling again, and again he was wrecked. So, these need to stop.”
On Sunday, I was back in Disney with the family, who wanted to drag me to Gator Land. Oh, Hell no. I’m not going anywhere that with one wrong step I become lunch.
But being at the house with screaming kids, barely any Internet connection, and no sports channels was worse. I wouldn’t be able to survive the remaining week. I would rather be in New Jersey.
I’m out of here, someone book me a plane ticket…
Photo Credit: David Yeazell during the ESPN tour.
Quote of the weekend courtesy of a woman I met in the Sprint FanZone when talking about the quality of her lunch: "We don't come here for the food."