Cars and COVID: Daytona proves our lives are back on track

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DAYTONA BEACH – If you didn’t have a ticket ahead of last Sunday’s Daytona 500, the only way you could have gotten into the Daytona International Speedway is with a subpoena.

Every seat, every chunk of sod in the infield was sold six days ahead of the Great American Race. For the first time in the 64-year history of the race, every spot in the spacious infield was sold before the first stock car hit the track.

The success of the Daytona 500 is the result of a lot of factors. A new generation race car and fans, expansive diversity and, most importantly, a need to get our lives back on track.

COVID-19 won’t ever go away. Like the flu or a cold, a variant of some type will emerge every year. But what the Daytona 500 proved is we can adapt and evolve. We can be smart and safe, and yet be happy and entertained.

And it’s not only about racing.

Audiences are returning to the Thrasher-Horne Center for concerts. Reserve tickets are sold out for next month’s Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach. People are back on the beach and hotels are starting to flash their “no vacancy” signs. Big crowds are expected for this weekend’s Seawalk Music Festival at Jacksonville Beach, featuring band with Clay County ties like Molly Hatchet, The Curt Towne Band, Duval County Line and The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus.

At Daytona, that also meant long lines at the beer stand and restrooms. Go figure.

After nearly two years of coronavirus hibernation, we’ve emerged from a worldwide slumber. And we’re ready to be alive again.

“We’re definitely seeing folks coming out again,” said Thrasher-Horne Executive Director Bob Olsen. “We’d still like to see a couple hundred more at each show, but we’re still getting good shows.”

There were nice audiences for Samantha Fish and Bill Engvall. Olsen said tickets are going fast for upcoming shows with Aaron Lewis and the Oak Ridge Boys.

“It’s definitely getting there,” he said.

As we learn to cope with COVID-19, we now are faced with the kind of inflation many of us have never seen. The need to feel free again, however, is priceless. If a steak cost $5 more today than it did a year ago, it’s worth it – for now. Let me eat steak. At the racetrack. At a tailgating party ahead of a football game or a concert. I’ll let MasterCard figure it out.

I’m also ready to get some sun on my wrinkly pale skin. So is everybody else.

According to the governor’s office and Visit Florida, a record 118 million visitors came to Florida last year. That’s the same number of people who live in California, Texas, Florida, New York and Tennessee – combined!

More than 150,000 of them were at Daytona last Sunday. And they were treated with plenty of sunshine, good racing and the freedom from being scared.

“I think it says a lot about our sport, to your point about a lot of races under COVID over the last two years,” said 500 winner Austin Cindric. “The funny thing is a lot of my success in the Xfinity Series, especially in 2020, came in an incubator. And when we got fans back at the racetrack, all of a sudden everybody knew who I was, and that was really weird for me.”

Legendary car owner Richard Childress has been coming to Daytona for 50 years. He said last weekend’s race was like no other.

“I’ve never felt this kind of energy here,” he said. “You see it with the fans, in the garage area. Everybody is excited to be at the racetrack.”

Said Daytona 500 winning car owner Roger Penske: “I think we’re on a great trajectory.”

Kurt Busch was making his 22nd start in the 500. Since 2001, he’s seen record growth in NASCAR, and an equally surprising collapse. He said the sport is headed for a second renaissance.

“I’m proud to be part of this next (generation) here. You can feel it. It’s something with the cars. The youthfulness of it. The crewmembers. The fans. The racetrack feels like it was built this off season. It feels new,” he said.

“It’s about people. A lot of things changed because of COVID. You can throw that in the mix, too.”

All I know is, it’s good to be back.

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