Looking at a sea of crew-member faces Sunday morning, backlit by a splendid Florida sunrise, hours before the 46th running of the Daytona 500, a question emerges: is Speedweeks just too long?
Yet they carry on, and starting as early as 6:10 am this morning, gaggles of race fans decked out in their Earnhardt paraphernalia were swilling down beer as they erected an elaborate sign tower sporting No. 8 flags and peppered with small degrading digitally enhanced photos of Jeff Gordon.
These particular three gentlemen travel to Daytona every year. They leave the wives and children, and make their pilgrimage to Speedweeks to enjoy the racing and get in some much needed male bonding.
"I'm pretty tired," said Greg Brewer, an electrician from Burkett, Georgia. "We've been down here for two weeks, we wanted to see everything, but it definitely gets to you. I think I ran out of money two days ago. All of the prices are so high during the races here, it's the vendors chance to make stick it to you. I love the Daytona 500 and the Bud Shootout, but if they could whittle this back to four or five days, that would be awesome. I'd sure have more money at the end of it."
But, that's the point isn't it? For race fans to spend a blurred two weeks in Volusia County throwing their hard earned cash after t-shirts, hats, pins, and the other 1,000 merchandising items for sale around the speedway.
International Speedway Corporation has invested millions of dollars in making Daytona a profitable tourist destination. In the early 1990's, ISC opened Daytona USA, a 50,000 square foot attraction that cost $20 million. All in an effort to drive race fans, and help stock car racing grow even faster.
The attraction is one of many pinnacles in a race fans trip to Daytona. That in combination with a cluster of events, dragged out over ten days, is a simple formula for people to spend money.
It's not just ISC that is cashing in, the entire Metro-Daytona area benefits from the open wallets of die-hard NASCAR fans. Hotels are exorbitant. The Radission Oceanside, which usually rents out for $49 a night, is selling rooms for $189 a night during Speedweeks. The price gauging is out of control. A bottle of water, the same you could purchase at 7-11 for .89 cents is a staggering $3.00 at the infield concession stand. The Volusia Mall, situated across the street from the speedway, is charging $30 to park. A gas station further West on International Speedway Boulevard, was garnering $40.
As expensive as Speedweeks is for race fans, it is equally as expensive for the teams. Opening the season with its premier restrictor plate race is no cheap affair. Every racer in the garage wants a Daytona 500 ring, and there are plenty of race teams that can afford to throw the kind of high-dollar cash after reaping a win.
Most teams arrived in Daytona Beach on February 5th, a full ten days before NASCAR's platinum product, the Daytona 500. The 5th is a hectic day, all in itself, mechanics, tire specialists and various other key team personnel begin at 10:00 am preparing to take their Budweiser Shootout cars through inspection.
The next day, Friday, brings no relief, as the garage opens at 7:00 am and closes at 8:00 pm, as the teams ready their Daytona 500 rides. Saturday is even worse.
The Nextel garage opens at the eye-drooping time of 7:00 am and closes after the Budweiser Shootout at 11:00 pm. A sixteen hour day for most crew members, track workers, and team personnel.
It just keeps getting worse. Add in sponsor dinners, team meetings, and late nights (albeit some self imposed) -- by the time the morning of the Daytona 500 rolls around, people are pooped. Caffeine is practically IV- dripped into needy arms, as people long for the days of the Stacker 2 sponsorship as they look for that ephedra-like jolt at the bottom of Pepsi cans and Starbucks cups.
It's not the drivers that suffer, as they have private planes and helicopters that lift them out of the crushing infield traffic and into their beds, long before any of their teams or fans have cleared the infield tunnel.
"It's all rather anti-climatic," laughed Rick Morningstar, a race fan. "I wait all year for this, but by the time the 500 rolls around I just wish on was on my couch with the remote. I'm spent."
With Nextel on board as the new series sponsor, and Brian France at the reigns of the family business, a new era is emerging in NASCAR Talk has mushroomed out of control in the garage, that their may be a schedule realignment next year that would have the Nextel cup series close and open with Daytona.
Wouldn't that be the perfect point in time to lighten the Speedweeks load?
NASCAR needs to take the opportunity now, while fans have already braced themselves for impending change, to keep stretching.
"Do I want to spend two weeks in Daytona? Hello no," said a crew member who preferred to remain anonymous. "But that's just how it is. They want people to come down here and spend money. They're killing us. I can't believe we have to go to Rockingham on Thursday. We haven't even run the race, and I feel like I am going to die."