Wednesday, March 14, 2012

NASCAR Newbies go to Daytona

In early January I got a call from our Safety-Kleen representative telling me that I had been entered, as one of their customers, in a drawing to win all- expense paid trip to the Daytona 500, and that I was one of four winners nation-wide (little NASCAR pun there). While my ears were hearing this, my brain was silently responding—what the hell is he talking about? Safety-Kleen has been a vendor that we have used for years here at Charles River Saab. That “Environmental Services” fee that you pay on service repairs goes, in large measure, to pay them. They do things like pump out my oil-water separator and sand-pit; remove waste oil, oil filters and used anti-freeze; they also handle “universal waste” like fluorescent light bulbs. Do you know it costs almost as much to dispose of those bulbs as to buy them? As I realized what I was hearing, I tried to act effusive so that I could make Joe feel good about telling me the good news, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty that with all the NASCAR fans out there, that I was the one to win.

Still, I am a car guy, and I know enough about NASCAR to realize that the Daytona 500 is part race, part spectacle—not unlike the Superbowl—and who doesn’t love a good spectacle? It was decided that youngest son Marcel, who has held an SCCA membership longer than a driver’s license and who I believe is currently ranked fourth in SCCA RallyX (FWD stock) for New England, would accompany me to Daytona to see the race and participate in the festivities. What 16 year old wouldn’t have a good time at Daytona, right? Truth to tell, I wish my wife, Susan, could have come, too. Having two sons who race, she has developed an interest in racing and probably knew more about NASCAR than the rest of us combined when I came home with the news. Still, she (and I) both wanted Marcel to have the opportunity, so a father and son excursion to Daytona it was.

For a variety of reasons, Marcel had not flown since he was very young so even the plane rides were an adventure for him. We flew out of Manchester to Charlotte, and then on to Daytona. While Charlotte is a good-sized airport, I felt it important to point out to Marcel that Manchester and Daytona are cute little places, and not at all like flying through Hartsfield or O’Hare, or Logan for that matter. The planes (Ebraer 170?) were similarly cozy—not unlike a Greyhound bus with wings. In all, the flights were on-time and incident free.

Upon arrival in Daytona on Friday afternoon, and after securing our rental car, a Hyundai Sonata, we went over to Daytona Beach to meet up with old friend Mark. Mark lives in Jacksonville where he is a horn player in the Symphony. He and I were roommates back in our university days, and each other’s best man (I did the honor twice for Mark). He treated us to a barbecue lunch and a long walk on Daytona Beach. Though we had spoken only infrequently over the years—neither of us likes talking on the phone and he is averse to email—it was amazing for me to see how a person can stay so unchanged for nearly three decades, save diminished hair and augmented girth.

When we said goodbye to Mark it was off to Lake Mary and our hotel. I don’t know Florida well, I’ve only been there a few times, and it is a big state. Still, from what I’ve seen, it is a dreadfully stupid place. Someday, I do hope to make it to parts of Florida which will change my mind, but that did not happen on this trip. The ride to Lake Mary was uneventful. The Sonata was pleasant and comfortable. I did not thrash the car at all, but know that if I was in the market for a Camry sort of car, I’d have to take a hard look at the Sonata: there were no glaring shortcomings, and it was almost the perfect car to drive on I4. It was quiet, tracked straight and had working XM radio. Given that it tracked straight, and having determined that in the 40 miles to our hotel the road had but two slight turns I surmised that the entire journey could be completed without hands on the steering wheel. Of course, that would just give you more time to look out the window and see the unending scrub-pine, thus furthering the perception that Florida is dreadful.

What was not dreadful was the Daytona International Speedway. We got to Daytona early on Saturday to attend the “COPD 300” which fielded about 40 cars. We were brilliant regarding our rental car and parking. Hot tip: if you ever go to Daytona for a race and rent a car, take the rental back to the airport and park in the rental lot and walk to the track. Free. Easy. It didn’t feel bad doing it, especially where we were paying the usurious rental fee of $156 per day. That’s the cost of going on a weekend which sported NASCAR’s biggest event AND the NBA All-Star game just up the road in Orlando.

We spent some time in the “midway,” which was not unlike a state fair, only catering to car stuff. Of all the manufacturers, Toyota had the best setup. Sprint, the largest sponsor, also had an impressive display and was giving away caps and coolers to Sprint customers. I showed my phone and got some swag! 3M was giving away the most stuff, but did I really want to stand in line for a free roll of painters’ tape and a bottle of glue? No, but lots of others sure did. The display with the coolest toys was New Holland, the tractor company. I’ve only lived in New Hampshire 18 months and already I’ve got tractor envy!

Going to our seats in the “Sprint Tower” which overlooks the start/finish line, we got to watch and hear some of these beasts in practice. Even with ear plugs, the snarl of those engines at full throttle is impressive. There were some new significant changes for 2012 which we learned about. This is the first year that NASCAR is running fuel injection, which will very much simplify engineers’ and technicians’ lives. Though the art of getting high horsepower from antiquated carburetors had long ago been mastered, there were lingering dynamic limitations such as the tendency for fuel in the intake tract to get thrown more to the right bank of cylinders than left because of centripetal force. Also, to avoid two-car “bump-drafting,” radiator openings have been reduced to a mere slit which will force overheating if there is too much time spent sniffing someone’s bumper. The result, we were told, is that instead of ending up in pairs that cars would be racing in larger bunches. And so it was.

For those who watch NASCAR for the crashes, the COPD 300 was a race not to be missed. I can’t remember how many yellow flags there were, but there were a great many. Under sunny skies, we tried to make sense of some of the particular rules like the “free pass” during yellow flags, but I’m not sure we really understood. Our seats had a great view of the full track, and we were only 100 feet past the finish line, itself turn 5 on this tri-oval track. Toward the end of the race, with perhaps 10 laps to go, there was a big crash and another yellow flag. It was clear that this would take time to get cleaned up, and in fact they red flagged the cars in order to save some laps for a real finish. Still, by the time the grid reassembled and the race restarted, there were only two laps to go. The first lap was completed without incident, with all the cars closely bunched. The last lap started. Turns 1 and 2 were uneventful. Then, as they got into turn three the jockeying started. On a track that is barely three lanes wide a fourth lane started to appear as the pack entered turn 4, where virtually all the crashes had occurred. Everyone in the stands knew it was going to happen. And then, it did. CRASH! A car near the front of the pack touched off a chain reaction, and lowly driver James Buescher tiptoed his way through the debris going from tenth to first place for the win.

We weren’t so lucky with the Daytona 500 itself. The morning started with a tour of the pits and garages in the infield. It was so strange just walking on the track. The banking is so steep! Lenny Kravitz was the pre-race entertainment, and he was rehearsing. As much as I like him, he seemed an odd choice for NASCAR, but he hit all his war-horses and the crowd loved it. In the pit area, as I viewed technicians gluing lug-nuts to the spare wheels shod with slicks, I asked our guide, a gentleman from Safety-Kleen who runs their operations at the races, where the rain tires were, since it was raining steadily, and he replied that they don’t run rain tires in NASCAR. Wow, I thought—these guys and gals are crazier than I thought. Later, while observing a tech-inspection, I noted the lack of wipers. I asked about that, too, to which our guide said (with an incredulous look), “Boy, you don’t know anything about NASCAR, do you? These cars don’t race in the rain!” Oh. I figured that if F1 and Indy ran in the rain, and they don’t have a roof, or windshield, never mind wipers, that these “sedans” could.

In the end, the race was cancelled that day and run on Monday night. It featured its share of spills and thrills, none more spectacular than Juan Pablo Montoya’s crash into a track-cleaning jet engine during a yellow flag. We couldn’t stay, and walked back to the airport in the rain late Sunday afternoon. Disappointing as that was, the pit tour was perhaps the best part of the trip, and we did get to see a great race on Saturday. I’m not sure I’ll ever be a NASCAR fan, but to see one of the preeminent spectacles in Americana was oh so worth it!

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