When you think of motorsports in any capacity, specifically in America, the word “Daytona” will most certainly spring to mind. The place is steeped in history, from the IMSA’s Rolex 24 Hour race in January to being the very birthplace of NASCAR as we know it. Indeed, this beach town on the Atlantic coast is a pilgrimage for any hardcore stock car fan. I may be partial to the road racing in IMSA and IndyCar, but this annual father-son trip is something I always look forward to. Not only do we finally see some cars on track after months of waiting, but it’s also a chance to escape the long Wisconsin winter for a few days. While my co-hosts were off gallivanting at the Chicago Auto Show this past weekend, I was doing some real field work in the bright Florida sunshine. 4 days of track action awaited my dad and me: the Duel Qualifying Races on Thursday, the Gander Outdoor Truck Series season opener on Friday, the Xfinity Series 300-miler (featuring friend of the podcast and future of NASCAR Josh Bilicki) on Saturday, and of course, the one and only Daytona 500 to cap it all off on Sunday. Below is my day by day report of what went down at Daytona 2019.
Thursday – Duel Qualifying Races
Plot twist: We didn’t go to the qualifying races! Gotcha! We have gone plenty of times in the past, but these races have become kind of stale in the past few years. The Daytona 500 is different than any major auto race out there. The Sunday before race day, single car qualifying is held. But the only 2 positions locked into the race at that point are the fastest two drivers. Everyone else is split into 2 qualifying races that are held the Thursday before race day. You want in? You gotta race for it! Exciting concept, right? Yeah! But in reality...The problem is that teams are now allowed to buy full-season “charters” that lock them into every race they show up to. Think of it as an entry fee for all 36 races, paid up front. Another issue is that if you do any damage to your car between qualifying and the race and need to switch to a backup car, you have to start in the back of the field. These rules mean that most of the teams with a starting spot guaranteed by their charter will just ride around to conserve their equipment for Sunday’s big race. A wise decision on their part, but not very entertaining. So this year, my dad and I switched it up and went to a local track for some grassroots dirt track racing instead.
Volusia Speedway Park is about a half hour inland from Daytona, where literally ALL of the alligators live. Every year around the same time as Daytona hosts the beginning of NASCAR’s season, this ½ mile clay oval plays host to the Dirt Car Nationals: 10 days straight of sprint cars, modifieds and dirt late models, all of which boast 700hp engines that can rattle your ribcage and shatter your eardrums. The sprint cars were parked for the night, but we got experience both the late models and modifieds, and the field of cars was MASSIVE. The modified cars were the support class, with 34 participants, and the late models had 52 entries! And these late models were super quick, averaging 95mph in a half mile! That would be quick even if they were on pavement. And at that speed, when they come directly right at your seat with their right rear corner poked out in what can only be described as a controlled spin, it is quite the spectacle to behold.
There was just one problem…we didn’t bring any eye protection. When these cars roar past the grandstand a massive cloud of dust and dirt specs wafts it’s way right into your eyeballs within about 3 seconds. Because we didn’t bring any sort of eye protection, we were both forced to either close our eyes or look away each lap, which means we missed about half of the races. I had never seen these cars on track before and I definitely want to go back, better prepared, so I can make a better overall assessment of the sport.
Friday-Gander Outdoor Truck Series
Friday night gave us our first look at the big 2.5 mile tri-oval that is Daytona International Speedway. No matter how many times I’ve been there before, I’m always taken aback by the enormity of the facility when I first walk through the gates. How big is it? Well, 15 professional sports stadiums could fit in the infield.That doesn’t include the grandstands, the concourses, vendor village or parking. When I eventually pulled my jaw back up to my face I was able to focus on the task at hand: truck racing.
As we talked about on our “Ask Dr. Nick” episode, the truck series is a developmental series that gives top tier NASCAR teams’ young drivers a chance to prove themselves on the national scene prior to getting “called up” to the bigger leagues, racing Chevy Silverados, Ford F-150s or Toyota Tundras. Think AA baseball. Mix in a few veterans in the twilights of their careers and you get a mixed bag of talent and experience…and it showed.
As soon as the green flag dropped, a demolition derby broke out. I didn’t verify the actual number, but I would bet they never finished 10 consecutive green flag laps before someone wrecked. The race had no rhythm, no flow and it was really hard to maintain interest. Alas, half of the laps completed were under caution and only 5 of the 32 starters finished without major damage. There were a few stragglers barely putting around, so total trucks on track totaled maybe 12 at the end. Not fun. As our group left, we all looked at each other and summed it up pretty succinctly, “That sucked.” But, I have to give a hearty congrats to Austin Hill, who navigated through all the wreckage to claim his first career win. First wins are always huge, but they are amplified times a bajillion when that win comes at Daytona. We were just hoping that the next day would give us a better show.
Saturday – Xfinity Series
We didn’t get a better show.
Before I get into the race itself, this was the day when we showed up early to wander through the vendor village. Teams had their merchandise trailers set up, sponsors had their activation tents, bands were playing, and Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet had set up massive booths to peruse. Chevy and Ford had a bunch of trucks and SUVs because that’s all they make anymore. Toyota used the platform that Daytona provides to introduce the new Supra to the masses, and dear GOD is it awful. It’s way worse in person than any pictures could let on. The front looks like some sort of mosquito. They didn’t have any performance figures to share, because they know it’s awful. And the car doesn’t come close to fitting the Xfinity Series body template! The race version is literally a Camry with new decals. Just pitiful…anyway we had a race to go watch, or so we thought.
The Xfinity drivers must’ve seen the race from the previous night and decided, “Well we’re not going to get THAT crazy.” This race had one yellow flag the whole time. Most cars stayed in a single file line from start to finish, just like the qualifying races we thought we avoided by going to the dirt track two nights before. No one did anything. Ever. If someone was brave enough to attempt something as bold as a pass, they were left out of the draft because no one would go with them, and they fell towards the rear of the field. I was really looking forward to the Xfinity race. It is normally the best race of this weekend, and our pal Josh Bilicki was stepping up to some competitive equipment. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to the hype.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well Nick, you don’t like it when they crash, and you don’t like it when they don’t crash, so what do you want here?” What I want, is good racing. Good racing doesn’t mean crashes. Action doesn’t mean torn up equipment. I want to see the skill of these drivers as they maneuver and out strategize one another in pursuit of the trophy. They are in this position at the top of the racing world for a reason: they’re damn good! So show me that. Don’t ride around waiting for the end, and don’t turn your vehicle into a battering ram either. Just race somebody. Sunday’s group was bound to deliver, right?
Sunday – Monster Energy Cup – Daytona 500
Finally, the big day was here. The headline act. The Daytona 500! The super bowl of the sport, with the 40 best stock car drivers on the planet competing. And for a vast majority of the race, these guys delivered a great show.
For 190 laps, the 40 racers were slicing, dicing, making powerful passes, bouncing around between drafting partners and leaving us all in awe. At some points, varying pit strategies split the field into smaller groups that were pretty spread out, but that didn’t bother me that much because I was curious to see which strategy was going to play out the best. This was a legitimately fun race to watch for multiple different reasons, until lap 191…
With 10 laps to go, everyone’s brains fell out of their skulls. First, a massive 21 car pileup that I’m sure you’ve all seen by now took out over half the field. This resulted in a red flag due to the massive amount of cleanup required. And that was just the beginning…crash after crash, yellow after yellow flag, even one more red flag caused the last 10 laps to last over an hour in real time. By the time the dust settled, there were only 3 cars that hadn’t received some type of damage. Two of them, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, are the two drivers that I hate the most and they ended up finishing 1-2. For sentimental reasons, this was a big moment because both Hamlin and Busch, along with 3rd place finisher Erik Jones, drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, whose president J.D. Gibbs passed away earlier this year at only 49 years old. To have J.D.’s team finish 1-2-3 at Daytona, in the first race since his passing, was a huge deal. But while that’s a great story, I was still pissed that my least favorite drivers did so well and that the end of a really good race turned into such a mess.
While the racing on all 4 days left something to be desired, I have to say that all in all this was a great weekend. I got to spend some quality time with my dad and some friends, I forgot about work for a few days, and I wasn’t freezing my ass off in Chicago with my cohosts! I’ve been back in Wisconsin for less than a week and I already can’t wait to go back.
Hello CEP readers! I’d like to talk, for at least a little while, about road trips. Actually, I’d like to pose a question to you all. I don’t know I have an answer myself. I think I MIGHT, but, with this post, I’d actually like to get some thoughts from all of you! “Now, what is the question?”, I can hear you all asking! Well, here it is: Why do people like road trips so much?
Now, a little background, because I’m sure that question is a little shocking from someone who co-hosts a car podcast... I recently returned from a road trip that went all the way from Southeastern Wisconsin to Central Florida. My family and I have a long history of making this particular pilgrimage. This time, it was just my girlfriend and me. We went from the Milwaukee area to Savannah, Georgia to visit my sister and then to Orlando. This made for a leisurely, 20-some hour trip, spread out from Friday evening through Monday afternoon. Not too bad, right? Except by the sheer luck of deciding to sleep in one day, we missed a lovely bout of freezing FOG (something that I've never even heard of, much less seen) in Indiana. We just missed a large-ish landslide in Kentucky, and a multi-car pileup in South Carolina. This type of luck wasn't unique to the trip down. On the way back up, I miscalculated the distance to one of our stops, and that allowed us another morning of sleeping in, which saved us from a horrendous ice storm that had the interstate looking like a semi-truck graveyard. Truck trailers looking like they had been hit by RPGs with cargo strewn all over the road, 5th wheel campers flipped over and destroyed, etc. And all of this was what we missed by an hour or two. If we had been one day earlier, it would have been widespread flooding we would have had to deal with.
Now, some of that can be attributed to simple bad or good luck (depending on how you look at it), and that's certainly a part of it. However, I am still in search of why the road trip has been idealized so much. On previous podcast episodes, we've made a road trip music playlist. We discussed some dream road trips. The road trip I just went on was a particularly tough one weather-wise. However, there are some features of all road trips that are present, no matter what the weather: In general, most road trips east of the Mississippi go through a fair number of large metropolitan centers. My co-hosts know that I have a particular... fondness... for the Rust Belt Region (northern Indiana, around the tip of Lake Michigan, for those of you not from around here) and Atlanta. The first one is the home of every possible inclement weather and the second one is the Land of Eternal Rush Hour. If the road trip is a means to an end and you're not lucky enough to have the vacation time to go on a journey for the sake of the journey itself, then the road trip is a monotonous affair (if it decides to not be harrowing). 70 mph droning and no real road curvature to be spoken of. Even in my particularly shift-happy WRX, the torque band is wide enough to put it in 6th and leave it there. For hours. So, there's very little joy in the actual act of driving. What else could it be? Could it be the scenery?
Sometimes. Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia. Those can all be quite beautiful to drive through, much less some of the majestic stuff out west... but what do you have to drive through to get there? Indiana and Illinois to the east and every flat state from the Dakotas to Texas if you head west. I dare say that they bring the average scenery enjoyment to a negative number, despite the beauty of where you end up. So, at the very least, the scenery is an inconsistent lure to the road trip. Could it be the food?
Again, sometimes. If you have the time to take the journey for the journey's sake? Then yeah, you can seek out interesting local stuff to eat. However, of the people that I've spoken to about this, most people don't have the time to do that. Most of them feel the need to turn and burn to their destination as quickly as possible. That leaves either fast food or car snacks. As one who has lived that 18-hours-to-Texas-in-one-run life with Nick, I can tell you that a life of fast food, energy drinks, and beef sticks (if Nick doesn't eat them all...) leaves you with an ACTUAL hangover. Even the more sedate run I just completed to and from Florida was so awash in fast food that I felt uncomfortable upon arriving at my destination. My girlfriend was "chickened out" we had eaten so much Southern fast food. So, it's not that.
That only leaves one possibility that I can see: the company. Now, I’ve made road trips with my CEP co-hosts (alone and all together), my family, and my girlfriend. I think, to sound like an old man for a while, the enforced togetherness that a road trip demands is something that we only get, otherwise, when the weather is so cold that we don’t want to go outside and the internet starts to freeze (which I’m sure is what happened a couple weeks ago in Wisconsin). Talking to people, sharing music with people like Andrew talked about in his blog, sharing favorite podcasts or audiobooks with people, having your navigator look up what the weird landmarks on the brown signs are, all the little things that add up to filling 5, 10, 20 hours of road trip time. All of these things let you make connections in an environment that would almost seem cruel if it weren’t framed as a vacation instead of being trapped in a small space for hours on end.
Even when you’re traveling alone, the company is a factor. You get a relatively rare chance to just sit, alone, with yourself. Sure, you may have music on, a podcast playing, or an audiobook narrator droning along in the background. You may also have the good luck of having people who are willing to talk with you on the phone for a little while during your drive. However, it won’t be the whole time, they’ll have other things they’ll need to run off and do. You? You won’t. You’re stuck in the car with just you and your thoughts. And snacks. This environment is where I’ve made some pretty big life choices, like going back to college part time. Again, for some, being alone in a room, without access to various entertainments like video games, movies, social media, even texting, would be seen as torture. But hey! It’s fun! It’s vacation!
So, we’ve established that, barring some special circumstances of the road trip as vacation scenario, being stuck in a car for hours is physically uncomfortable, boring, and potentially quite dangerous. Therefore, my only hypothesis as to why the road trip is something that people seek out is this: The road trip slows down life and gives us the opportunity to accomplish something while not really having anything to do. You do end up arriving at your destination and going on vacation and arriving home at the end. However, while you’ve done this, you don’t have access to any of the normal diversions available to us when we’re not driving. Even the passengers might only have limited access to some of these things, dependent on cellular plans, coverage, etc. So, instead, you get to spend time on things you wouldn’t otherwise. Talking to your friends and loved ones. Getting to know yourself. Big, important, and, often, otherwise neglected things. I think we crave it and often don’t get it. And THAT is why people like road trips so much. What do you think?
While I was driving to our last recording session, I was listening to my 60s playlist and trying to come up with some songs that would be good for a future music-centric podcast episode. It suddenly hit me that with perhaps a handful of exceptions, all 252 songs on that playlist - all 12 hours and 20 minutes of it - are songs that both Tristan and I know from memory. The Beatles, The Turtles, Mel & Tim, The Supremes, Sam Cooke; all the hit makers and the one-hit wonders too. It's not that we just know these songs, we know them well enough to sing harmonies together. In my mind, that's an extraordinarily rare thing for two male friends to do together when they're driving in a car. Toxic masculinity dictates not only that men shouldn't sing, but that men shouldn't sing together, and even IF two men were to sing together, it should never be in harmony. But we did it all the time. On road trips back home from college, singing the songs from Fallout 3 together was how we passed the time, and it was great! What's weird is that I don't sing like that in the car with anybody else, not even with my wife. That's weird, right? I have no idea where other people are on this, who sings with whom in the car, but I certainly am wondering. Maybe I'm the weird one, and everybody out there is just singing with everybody else, like on Carpool Karaoke. And speaking of that...
Is it just me, or is Carpool Karaoke the single worst talk show idea ever? This is an unbelievably late rant, I know, but the point still stands. This is SO late that I actually had to check and see if the show is still on, and it is, so we're full go. Directly relating to my first point, Carpool Karaoke is a miserably inaccurate portrayal of singing in the car. I'll bet that even if I did own a Land Rover, my celebrity friends would not sing in the car with me. And it's enough with James Corden. Send him back to London, and send his thin concept with him.
A fundamental problem with every list of "Best Driving Songs" is that they all include songs that are objectively terrible. For example, Bat Out Of Hell. That song is awful. There's no excuse for it. It's about dying in a car crash, number one, number two Meatloaf never even rode a cool motorcycle, and number 3 the song has aged exactly as well as bananas on Mercury. Plus, every single person who ever liked that song is dead now, so lets just agree to get rid of it, okay? I'm pretty sure that Meatloaf is dead at this point, too. I think he died on stage while trying to sing the national anthem, I saw it on YouTube. That means we are free to Atari his whole catalogue and the world will be just a tiny bit less miserable than it was before. Let's finally update the list of commonly-accepted good driving songs by burying some of the old ones.
Most driving playlists don't include many songs from after like 1996, if they include any at all. It's like whoever is making these lists, whoever the arbiters of car culture are, they just stopped listening to music when hip-hop became the primary cultural influence in America. Of course, we already know who these people are, and we already know that's exactly what they did. But fuck them, there is some stunningly good driving music that was made after my 8th birthday, gobs and gobs of it, and it needs to be brought to the forefront. Who even WANTS to hear Panama again, I mean besides Nick? I guess my point is that I'm just bored. I'm bored of the same songs, and I want to hear something new.