It was the hole from hell.
The Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most important race in a very important year with a lot of eyes on how the racing would go, was delayed twice Sunday for a total of more than two hours because of a track surface problem in the second turn.
Two red-flag periods – one hour and 40 minutes, followed by 44 minutes – were needed to repair the approximately two-foot by one-foot hole, which was located in the lower racing groove.
Among the results was a checkered flag at 7:30 p.m., voiding NASCAR’s plan of starting and ending races earlier. Thousands of fans in the packed grandstands left during the second delay, trimming the original crowd of more than 150,000 for what eventually was a sensational finish and tight victory by Jamie McMurray.
NASCAR chairman Brian France blamed the surface problem on excessive moisture and colder-than-normal temperatures in recent days.
Track work crews tried three compounds to plug the hole during the first red-flag period, but cars passing over it when racing resumed wiped out the patch and opened the hole again, leading to the second red flag.
The race resumed for the second and final time with 32 laps remaining.
Racing over the closing miles was remarkably close and as exciting as fans could have expected, and the final two laps (on a second green-white-checkered) were sensational, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. staging a tremendous charge in an attempt to chase down McMurray.
Allen Carmichael of Atlanta was among the fans that didn’t see it. He headed for the exits at the start of the second red flag.
“That’s it for me,” he said. “I sat through one. The whole thing is ridiculous. If they restart it, I’ll be listening on the radio on the way home.”
Track president Robin Braig apologized for the problem on what he called racing “hallowed ground” and said any problems with the track will be examined by engineers and corrected.
“We’re the world center of racing,” Braig said. “This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen. I take full responsibility. But we can come back from this. We know how to fix it.”
Braig said the track was inspected prior to the race Sunday morning as part of the speedway’s standard race-day procedures.
The speedway, one of NASCAR’s biggest, has been repaved only once – in August 1978 – since it was built in 1959. But Braig said repaving probably will not be necessary.
“I’ve been told by drivers and crew chiefs and Goodyear officials that our surface is unique and that they like that uniqueness,” Braig said. “It might not need repaving. We don’t want to repave. Why paint the whole house when all we have to do is a little touchup?”
Braig said the track will respond to fans’ concerns about the delays.
“We’ll reach out to them and speak to them individually,” he said. “We’ll hear their concerns and make sure they understand that we will fix the problem.”
Braig said the hole ultimately was fixed with a mixture that included Bondo, a filler material frequently used by race teams.
Many of the speedway’s prime frontstretch seats were empty as the race ended with a display of thrilling racing.
NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said fans hopefully will remember the day’s good racing and great finish. “From the racing perspective, you couldn’t wish to get your season off to a better start,” he said. “The red flags – no one wants to see that.”
Although this was a very embarrassing surface problem because it occurred in NASCAR’s marquee event at its “home” track, it was far from the first such dilemma at stock car racing’s highest levels.
The track surface at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke apart during its first race in 1960, and teams put wire in front of the car grilles to protect the radiators from asphalt chunks.
In 1961, a surface problem at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in the mountains of North Carolina resulted in a near-riot. NASCAR officials stopped a 500-lap race about 240 laps short of the scheduled finish because of repeated asphalt breakup. A huge crowd of disgruntled spectators gathered near the infield exit and refused to let drivers and team members leave for several hours before order was restored.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.