It's Saturday morning at the Daytona International Speedway, 11 hours before the green flag drops, and the infield is buzzing with anticipation before an approaching storm. There's an armada of pimped-out RVs in a fenced-off area. Next to one with a rooftop satellite dish, a bearded, bathrobed dude grills a rib eye. My stomach rumbles. Or is that thunder? All at once a dozen or so rebel flags come alive with the wind. Someone's taken a black marker to the sky. The scene is biblical, and I'm going to be smote before I have any fun. Like a kid before the big game, I offer up a prayer to the Almighty-"God, please don't ruin my day of fishing!"
That's right, fishing. The race, believe it or not, is an ancillary benefit. I'm here to put some bass in my cooler. A few years ago, the bigwigs at Edgewater Boats thought it would be a cool perk to send its employees to the races at Daytona. One thing led to another, and Edgewater boats were soon roaming Lake Lloyd, the 30-acre lake smack in the middle of the infield, during race days. Then last year some genius put a line in the water and caught a six-pound bass. Fishing, boating, and motorsports in one day, in one place. Except for the torrential sideways rain that's pelting me in the face, this might be heaven.
I figured I'd get here early-around 9 a.m.-and check out the scene, mingle with the fans, and try to get a handle on this whole NASCAR thing. I take refuge in my rental while the storm passes. The cool air in the storm's wake lasts for a full 34 seconds before the furnace that's Florida kicks on again. It's either crank the a/c or get the hell out of the car. I choose the latter and hope the fans haven't bugged out and gone home because of the rain. No chance. My rental is parked next to a garbage can brimming with empty Miller Light cans. Fear grips me: Could I have missed the action? Then I hear a clink and see a crumpled can hit the pile and bounce off. Ah, tastes great and is less filling.
How popular is NASCAR? As of last year, football now takes a backseat to auto racing as America's favorite spectator sport. And NASCAR is its governing body. With thousands attending races and millions watching from home, NASCAR is big business. Trying hard to shake the redneck label, stock car racing bills itself as a family sport, and from what I see, it is. Dozens of kids run around the infield or play Marco Polo in blowup pools behind the RVs. There are country folk here, too. Like Dave and his pals, who proudly proclaim they've made the trip from 'Bama to Florida in a rusted Chevy pickup. The truck's bed is rigged with 10'-high scaffolding, which provides a better view of the track. One of Dave's buddies is passed out on the couch atop the dubious perch. With southern hospitality, they offer me a cold one and throw a tarp over their friend as another round of downpours commence.
Under sky spittle, I head to the lake's dock to find my ride and hunt bass. Onboard an Edgewater 26 CC with my guide, Capt. Don Dingman, we scope out the manmade lake. It may be small, but sources tell me it's stacked with largemouth. Capt. Don is here today filming a segment for his cable show, Hook the Future, which teaches kids techniques at world-class fisheries. He's good, but for the rest of the day our calls of "Here, fishy; here fishy, fishy, fishy" go unanswered. We try for hours but can't buy a bite. Tall tales are traded of fish practically jumping into the boat, and Capt. Don assures me they're true. The lake has sat here for years unfished. He even has some trophies in the fishbox from earlier in the day when the kids were onboard. But my line remains limp. Sometimes it's not the prey but the predator that's the problem. But now it no longer matters. It's dusk and the show's about to start, so we bring in the lines and angle instead for a spot close to the action. Easy to do, as our floating seats are 30 feet off the tarmac. But the race is a no-go-it's raining again.
Minutes later the skies break and the largest lighted sport complex in the world puts our boat in the spotlight. Capt. Don makes a run down the length of the lake. Starved for action, the fans go crazy. We're a halftime show, without the possibility of a wardrobe malfunction, while the crowd waits for the track to dry. It seems as if every fan in this 168,000-seat arena is on his feet. They love us. I'm Maximus at the Coliseum, Ruth at Yankee Stadium, the 1980 U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid. On the water, there is no speed limit. It's 24/7 nailed throttles. Wheels and rubber are for the track; here it's fiberglass and wave chop. Another kind of wave rises in the stands. The show goes on-another high-speed pass, 5 or 10 figure eights, a few cutting S-turns… but fame is fleeting. The natives get restless and are easily bored. They want what they came for-race cars.
The stepchildren of Appalachian moonshine runners, stock cars are far and away the most popular segment of auto racing. To call these beasts "stock" is misleading. You won't find one of these $200,000 cars on your local dealer's lot. The frames are a web of steel tubes, and the bodies are thin hand-rolled sheet metal. The engines produce 800 hp or more. To hear this power and see the decaled demons hurling around the 2.5-mile oval at 200 mph is why I'm here. When the Edgewater starts to vibrate beneath my bare feet and a deafening howl emanates from the stands, I'm sure the moment has arrived.
But no. It's only more pre-race entertainment-two F-16s launch through the airspace above the complex. This brings a huge cheer from the masses, and as if the planes have angered the weather gods, down comes more rain.
An hour and a half past the scheduled start time and I'm trying to stay dry at the bar next to the boat docks. I'm in a head-on collision with a guy named Jack Daniels. Next to me, two guys with huge earphones look as if they should be directing jets at the airport. Turns out they're listening in on their favorite pit crew. I ask if they know when things will get started. "Any minute" is the reply. An hour later, the skies clear and stay that way. On the bar's television, the Grand Marshal, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, says the words everybody has been waiting to hear: "Drivers, start your engines." I make a mad dash back to the Edgewater for the best seat in the house.
The eruption of power from 43 mechanical monsters coming to life is a sound everyone should hear at least once. The rumbles pass through my body-feet, torso, ears. But that's only the prelude. They're merely warming up. The pace Vette's yellow light holds them back, harnessing them for the crescendo, which occurs when the Vette pulls off 11 laps later. Instantly, what was merely loud becomes a thunder that could shame any tropical storm. For the next few hours, the forces of nature shut up and take notice.
There's a lot of jockeying around, but no one makes a move on the leader. A hypnotizing effect sets in and a question comes to mind as I watch the cars bank around the turns. How fast could a bass swim from one end of the lake to the other? I'd better catch one and ask it. Out of the running but not beaten, I grab the rod for one last try.
Then at lap 35, the other thing we're all here for happens. My guess is a guy trying to pit forgot his blinker. There's a major pile-up not far from where I'm anchored. Sparks, screeching metal, burnt rubber-and no one's hurt. Cool.
The Finish Line
There's a collective sigh as the race comes to an end. What started out as an adrenaline-fueled free-for-all turns into a Sunday morning drive. Literally. The checkered flag rolls out at 1:40 a.m., with Tony Stewart in the Home Depot Chevy declared the winner. He led for almost the entire race. Still, that doesn't diminish the excitement, and few went home early to beat the traffic-even here on the lake. Tying up at the dock gives me time to reflect. I'm now a fan, converted, convinced of this phenomenon called NASCAR. I want to study the teams, memorize the drivers, smell the rubber, feel the rumble. I can see why, like bass fishing, this is America's sport.
Talk about having my cake and eating it, too. Motorsports and bass fishing go together like Jack and Coke, apple pie and ice cream, peanut butter and jelly. What could be better?