Ten years later, I still remember the deafening but exhilarating engine roar as the cars made their first pass around Turn 3, where I was watching from the infield of Daytona International Speedway.
I didn't know much about racing. My only interest in NASCAR was that it seemed like a fun assignment for a young reporter new to Volusia County.
But when Dale Earnhardt Sr. crashed at the end of the Daytona 500 that day, I knew the sport was irreversibly changed.
Less obvious at the time was how the business of stock car racing would change, too. In the decade since the sport lost its biggest star, NASCAR has gone from reaching far beyond its Southern moonshine-running roots to the penthouses of Manhattan and back again.
The sport's sprint to a new level of popularity — followed by a sharp fall to a new low — happened for several reasons. To this day, no other driver has emerged to become the kind of larger-than-life figure Earnhardt was for so many.
To make matters worse, the housing bubble and its fallout hit NASCAR fans hard. Suddenly many of the working-class men who made up racing's loyal base were no longer working. And as the unemployment problem continued to deepen, they stopped traveling to races and buying merchandise.
To understand just how intensely the sport was affected, consider that the year after Earnhardt died, a NASCAR survey showed that the sport picked up 12 million new adult fans in 2001. And they seemed to have all the right characteristics to keep multiplying: they were young, affluent and spread out all over the country.
The enormous publicity surrounding Earnhardt's death happened to coincide with the beginning of multibillion-dollar contracts with Fox and NBC, which for the first time meant the races would regularly air on major networks, exposing millions more viewers to the phenomenon.
After years of television ratings increases, viewers have declined in recent years. In 2010, ratings for the Daytona 500 dipped to the lowest level in 18 years. Matters weren't helped by long pothole-related delays. (This year the track has a brand new surface.)
And revenue from ticket sales decreased 18 percent last year from 2009, International Speedway Corp. said in its annual report last month.
In the past couple of years, NASCAR and ISC, which owns 14 race tracks and is controlled by the France family that founded NASCAR, have begun to move back to their roots.
Gone are the Big Apple ambitions to build a track on Staten Island, where ISC had bought land and once aimed to capture even more affluent, urbanite fans. Politics and other issues scuttled those plans and now the real estate bust has left the property sitting empty and still on the company's books.
Gone too is the focus on selling hospitality packages, such as passes to a catered air-conditioned tent known as the Fifth Turn Club. The high-end options still exist, but are not the same big growth sector they were when fans felt richer thanks to home equity and stock market gains.
Last year, the cheapest tickets to the Daytona 500 went for $55 rather than $90, the lowest price in 2009. The story of this weekend's 500 is how the track is trying to add even more value for fans.
Seats at Daytona and the company's other tracks are being widened from 18 inches to a more comfortable 20 inches, or at some tracks 22 inches. That means fewer seats, but the company hasn't sold out an event since 2008.
Fans will be allowed to bring in larger coolers that hold 32 cans of beer rather than the smaller variety that held just a single six-pack that was once the rule. Also new this year, fans can bring in backpacks, meaning they can bring their own food as well.
"A few years ago we were skewing too much on the higher end and we weren't very good at making sure we had the entry level price point," said Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway.
Never mind the up-sell, the goal this year is just to get people to the track.
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