The sights, sounds and smells of the 2022 Daytona 500

Caleb MillerCar and driver

NASCAR boldly proclaims the Daytona 500 as “the great American race”. Surely that moniker could apply to the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 24 Hours instead, but attending the Daytona 500 – the opening round of the NASCAR season – reveals just how fitting the moniker is. The Daytona 500 is pure spectacle, offering endless amounts of action; the 200-lap contest follows a week of on-track activity that includes qualifying races for the top-tier Cup Series and races for NASCAR’s lower divisions, the Truck Series and Xfinity Series. We joined Toyota Racing this year for a long weekend of high-speed competition. Here’s what we found on the ground at the Daytona 500.

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The Daytona International Speedway is a colossus. The main stand can accommodate over 120,000 fans and dominates the tri-oval track. The infield, which had hosted fearsome GT car battles three weeks prior at the 24 Hours of Daytona, was now filled with fans and their caravan of RVs. The sprawling motorsport campus dominates the surrounding area – everyone attends the race or works to keep the show going smoothly.


Unlike road racing, such as Formula 1, fans from the grandstand can see the entire track, providing uninterrupted live viewing action. While gigantic screens are always useful for replays, fans have to rely on monitors far less than in other forms of motorsport.


This year sees the introduction of Next Gen race cars for the Cup Series; they sit lower and wider than before and feature body shells that more closely mimic their road-going counterparts. Other major changes include revised aerodynamics, a new five-speed transaxle and a switch to center-lock wheels from the previous five-legged setup.


The NASCAR Cup Series field is huge. Forty drivers enter the race, and as the field of cars pass the pits, their 5.8-liter V-8 engines clang like thunder, sending seismic vibrations rippling down the pavement and into your bones. Ear protection is a must.


Your ears get a brief respite as the cars hit the back straight, with the din of cars now a muffled roar. Frantic commentary from the announcers echoes through the loudspeakers before the field passes again, the fire-breathing howl of the engines permeating every fiber of your being.


In the garages and pit lane, tires are everywhere. Before the start of the race, piles of fresh rubber are lined up outside the garages. At the start of the race they are transferred to the pit lane and distributed around the pit, ready to be mounted on the car when the drivers enter. You must be on high alert if you watch from the pits, as the burly crew members constantly plow through the crowd rolling laps of fresh tires.


Pit stops bring chaos and excitement. Drivers often hit the pits in groups of 10 or more cars, vying for position and sometimes injuring a bumper. When they arrive at their stand, the crew rushes in and the wheel cannons begin their shrill mechanical scream. A crew member dons a silver flame-retardant apron and hoists a Sunoco fuel canister that can weigh nearly 100 pounds, feeding gas into the bellies of the stock car beasts. The pungent smell of race fuel lingers in the air long after the cars have squealed their tires back onto the track.


In addition to side-by-side races, the Daytona 500 is a celebration of American cuisine. In the infield, the appetizing aroma of barbecue wafts from the grates next to nearly every camper, making stomachs rumble. In the suites, there’s the greasy, fried goodness of onion rings, fries, hot dogs, and burgers.


For most of the race, the drivers do their best to keep their noses clean, racing in packs and working together to use the draft to stay ahead. But as the race draws to a close, the drivers get angry and the warning flags start to pop out. Cars smash into barriers and each other, crumpling bodywork and shredding tires. As the safety team scrambles to clean up the wrecked cars, the chemical spice of burnt rubber floats to the pits. While some fans are bound to leave the race disappointed that their favorite driver didn’t make it to the finish line, for those who just want to witness some close, fierce racing, the Daytona 500 delivers.

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Freeda S. Scott