Over the past 15 years, perhaps no NASCAR event week has changed as much as that surrounding the summer Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway.
The race, known for many years as the Firecracker 400 (the name itself is one of the big changes, from one of the coolest race names on the tour to one driven by sponsors), was moved to an evening start time in 1998 as Daytona followed the major 1990s track trend by adding lights to its race course.
The conclusions then were that the potential television audience would be bigger and the temperatures would be cooler. Traditionally, the race had been held at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. on July 4, and it was billed as one of the country’s biggest Independence Day celebrations.
But the switch to summertime evening racing at Daytona did much more than move the race from day to night. It upset the applecart for the whole week at the World Center of Speed.
Prior to the change, many teams treated the Daytona summer week as a vacation of sorts. Activities at the track during race week typically were limited, and some drivers, team members and their families were on the beach east of the track by late afternoon, tossing footballs and Frisbees and playing in the sand and surf.
Before drivers and other top team members moved into motorhomes at virtually every track, many stayed in beachfront hotels and mingled with fans during the week. Beverages – adult and otherwise – were consumed on pool decks late into the evening as many of the world’s problems were solved in intense discussions.
The high-rise Inn on the Beach was a favorite lodging spot for drivers, team members and much of the news media corps during those years, leading to more than a few afternoons and evenings of frivolity and devilment around the pool or on the beach.
No one who was sitting poolside on one particular day will forget Darrell Waltrip’s first appearance on the pool deck. A typical race car driver of that period, he was outside a lot – obviously – but spent much of that time wrapped in a firesuit, most of his body immune to any hope of tanning. His legs apparently had never seen sunlight. When he stepped poolside on the first day of that particular race week in shorts, he looked for all the world like the whitest man in America.
Sometime during the week, drivers and other team members typically scheduled a run to the pier area of the beach to ride go-carts, people-watch or slam down a few funnel cakes.
On race day, the 400 generally ended in early afternoon, giving fans in town for the festivities a chance to hit the beach afterward, long before the sun went down. Fireworks, beachcombing and food followed.
The switch to the night race changed all that – and dramatically. Now, the days – and nights – of race week are mostly jammed with scheduled activities, and there is little time for freelancing. Instead of dodging waves on the beach, everybody is dodging the late afternoon-early evening thundershowers that visit Daytona Beach on many summer days, delaying schedules at the track.
Once the race finally begins, it’s a dynamic atmosphere, but there’s something to be said for the way things were.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.