Baseball has the crack of the bat. Football, the collisions of helmets and pads. But NASCAR—NASCAR has THE rumble.
The noise isn’t to much. Loud sits in your ears, pushes uncomfortably on your ear drums. The rumble goes beyond that. It burrows deep into your brain, bounces around the grey matter between your ear holes until it’s impossible to tell if the cacophony of 100 percent American Ethanol engines is invading your mind or emanating from it.
Here at the high cathedral of Daytona International Speedway during the 61st running of the Daytona 500, there’s no way to escape the rumble.
Not that anyone’s trying. The racetrack has been busy all week for Daytona Speedweeks, a series of races and time trials that precede the big race. Nearly the entire time, the 180-acre infield—the size of 15 standard stadiums—is completely full. Large campers, some crafted from the front ends of semi-trucks, others obviously crafted by hand, line up one after another. Each has its own unique front lawn: a travelled and functional assembly of porches, patios, lawn chairs, Lay-Z-Boys, swimming pools, televisions. Anyone near the center who hopes to get a good view of the back straight also builds wooden decks on top of their vehicles, hoping to get just a few inches higher than their neighbours.
Further out, closer to the edge of the track, trucks are similarly lined up. But these trucks have names on their sides, like Penske and Go Fas Racing. The teams’ trucks have just about everything the drivers could need, including an entire spare car in case anything goes wrong before Sunday afternoon. Springs of every size and weight, sway bars, flips, toggles and steering wheels—every corner is full. What little space is left is filled with team members, who sit and stare at computer screens as they monitor a constant stream of test results. They see live performance statistics on the car, weather reports—any and all information they can get ahold of to give themselves an edge. They use that information to tinker and perfect, tune and change. Day after day.
The day before the race, the garage, each team’s car squeezed in by two others, is loud. Everyone seems in a hurry, despite the 30 hours that remain before the green flag. A pair of legs sticks out from beneath #95 like the Wicked Witch of the West—a technician making adjustments to the suspension on Matt DiBenedetto’s Toyota. Dials and gauges flash and jump. Three team members peer beneath the hood of a car, the heart of the machine, looking at read outs from a tablet and checking with literal laser precision to make sure every aspect of the car, from the suspension to the engine to the aerodynamics package, is where it should be—that tiny sliver of Venn-diagram overlap between where teams want a car to be and where officials say it has to.
In a relationship that’s unique to racing, among the teams—peering over shoulders at flashing screens, asking for lugs nuts as souvenirs, their elbows splayed as they stabilise point-and-shoot cameras a foot from their faces—are the fans. They’ve bought this inner-sanctum access, and they’re going to take advantage. They wander into testing areas, barely aware of the whistles blowing and yells of “Get out of the way!” as they push past cars to nose into pit areas and touch tires and tool boxes. The crews aren’t thrilled by it, but they’re used to it. Just one more challenge on race day. Some teams put up small barriers, like lanes at a movie theatre, but for most it’s all they can do to politely ask people to step back, to stay behind the line, to not touch that thing right there, yes that one, please stop touching that
At 20 laps the feeling changes. The air around the racetrack gets dense—a hot humid excitement rising from pit row, setting in from the grandstand and hanging over the race. It makes the cars, as fast as they are, seem to slow down a bit. The drivers get more aggressive. Cars slide past one another with what looks like millimetres to spare. Every spot matters. Every inch you can close matters. (In 2016 Denny Hamlin won by a bumper.)
With ten laps to go, the big one unfolds. Paul Menard in car #21, in a push towards the front, hits the back of Matt DiBenedetto in #95, who led the race for 49 laps, sending him sideways. He collects a few cars, who spin out as well, until almost all of the track is blocked. What had been tightly packed race cars turns into a whirling, screeching heap of multi-million-dollar metal going sideways. Only a handful of drivers sneak out in front of the crash. The high-tech brakes, the laser perfected suspension, the meticulously tuned engines, all mean nothing now. It’s a light show. The sparks from metal chasses and rims cover the track with the light of 1,000 angle grinders. Some cars farther back see it unfold, they try to work through the wreckage like Han Solo in the asteroid belt. For most it is hopeless, but a few sneak through, relatively unharmed.
What follows is the stuff of cerial boxes. Hamlin spins his car cross the infield grass in front of the fans. He wedges his car on the track and does a burnout, white smoke rising from the rear tires. He gets out and pumps his fists at the crowd who cheer for him, a gladiator celebrating amongst the wreckage of his opponents. Then there is Victory Lane. Hamlin inches his car in, surrounded by his awaiting team ready for the presentation of the trophy and its accompanying photos, confetti, cheers, and sprayed drinks.
Its all over. Race day is over. Speedweek is over. All of the rising energy and tension is finally let out, exhausted. Fans pull ear plugs out and shout to one another in the new silence. All around the speedway, minivans and pickup trucks line up, bumper to bumper, and inch their way out. Other fans wander back to the infield, sit in their chairs, crack another beer, and wait for tomorrow. The thunder is gone, the race is over. But the season has officially only just begun.