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Daytona 500: Here's your race tune-up
DAYTONA BEACH — It's called the Great American Race, but to us it's known by a more familiar name: the Daytona 500.
Either way, it's a cornucopia of noise and speed, from pre-race music to high-powered engines, with colored flags waving on the track and the American flag all around.
Even if you're not a NASCAR aficionado — even if you've never heard of bump drafting or don't care about Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. — you might have some interest in Danica Patrick.
Buckle up and have no fear. We're here to help.
First tip: Sunday's 500-mile, 200-lap race starts at 1 p.m., and full-field qualifying is today at Daytona International Speedway.
What does NASCAR stand for?
National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, formed in December 1947 with the help of Daytona Beach's Bill France Sr., who ran a local service station and promote local races.
There are three divisions: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Camping World Truck series.
Sprint Cup is the top tier. The other two are developmental series.
The Daytona 500 is arguably NASCAR's biggest race of the year, the sport's Super Bowl. What's up with that?
Tradition, history, weather and marketing. Because the sport was founded in Daytona, the race has always been first on the schedule.
The first race attracted 41,000 fans on Feb. 22, 1959, and it took three days to declare a winner. Officials had to inspect a photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp. Petty won by 2 feet.
As the sport grew, so did Daytona International Speedway. It was the first with high banking and was the first superspeedway.
Although NASCAR won't crown its annual champion until November, the Daytona 500 is considered the hardest race to win for many drivers. Sunday's race punctuates more than two weeks of racing events and activities.
What's the hubbub over Danica Patrick?
Popularized by GoDaddy.com commercials, Patrick is an accomplished Indy Racing League driver. (She is the only woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and owns the highest finish by a woman, fourth in 2005). But she'll make her NASCAR debut when she drives in Saturday's Nationwide race (the DRIVE4COPD 300).
"I think it's all good for the sport," defending Daytona 500 champ Matt Kenseth said. "I think you'll have people come in and watch her race who maybe have never watched a NASCAR race in their life just because she's in the race."
She drove in another series in Daytona last week, and television ratings were up 59 percent versus last year. So NASCAR officials are hopeful the petite, raven-haired driver will help them gain more fans at the track and on TV.
However, Patrick isn't driving in the Daytona 500.
Are race-car drivers considered athletes?
This is a detail that sparks major debate.
"Damn right, we're athletes," Elliott Sadler said. "If anybody doesn't think I'm an athlete ... come on and get on board and drive a race car."
It takes intense focus and endurance to race a car for 500 miles.
The temperature inside the race car can reach 130 degrees. Sadler said he can sweat about 10 pounds during the four-hour race. His sits in saunas to get his lungs used to breathing hot air. He does upper-body strength work, which helps when turning the car going 200 mph.
"Sitting in an oven for four hours with no break takes a different kind of training," he said.
What happens if drivers have to go the bathroom during the race?
That's the No. 1 question fans ask, drivers said. And, yep, they go in their suits.
"I have only done it a couple of times in my career," said Casey Mears, who has driven 252 Sprint Cup races. "You don't get out and go to the bathroom. It doesn't happen frequently."
Veteran driver Jeff Burton agreed.
"If you've got to pee," Burton said, "you just pee."
Want to sponsor a car?
Check your bank account. It just takes a few million. Depending on the driver, primary sponsors reportedly can dole out $18 million to $28 million.
Some sponsors split the races — the car is decorated with one sponsor's logo for some races and another sponsor's logo for the rest. For example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. races the No. 88 Chevrolet sponsored by both AMP Energy and the National Guard.
Minor sponsorships are available for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. For that you get patches on a driver's suit or a smaller decal on his or her car. A tough economy — and some corporate mergers — has caused some companies to leave NASCAR.
Why aren't there any Hondas or Porsches
This isn't international racing, although Toyota has stock cars. Top racers drive only only a Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Charger, Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry.
And these aren't your father's sedans.
•Weight (without the driver): 3,450 pounds.
•Top speed: 200 mph.
2 words to remember: Bump drafting
Drafting — when two or more cars race nose-to-tail — is common. The first car breaks the air, giving the second and third cars less resistance and making them all go faster than a single car.
Bump drafting occurs when one race car taps the back end of another car in front. That propels the first car ahead — and the draft pulls the second car along, too. Done right, it's racing at its most skillful. Done wrong, it's an accident waiting to happen.
NASCAR instituted a no-bump-draft rule to make racing safer. But drivers and fans complained about how it made the races major snooze fests.
Last month, NASCAR lifted the regulation against bump drafting. It should make for more fun. And more wrecks.
"If you don't bump draft the guy straight in front of you, it will cause a wreck. If he has his wheel turned to the left and you hit him, he can spin out," said driver Elliott Sadler, a 12-year Sprint Cup veteran.
What do the colored flags mean?
Green flag: Go. It comes out at the start of the race and when caution period is over.
Yellow flag: Caution. Cars must slow to near-minimal speed. This comes out because of a hazard or a crash.
Black flag: Get off the track. It's used when a driver breaks the rules or is driving a dangerous car.
White flag: One lap to go.
Checkered flag: The race is over ... and we have a winner.
What makes the race so fun to watch?
Nothing is more exciting than seeing a pack of cars going 200 mph — legally, explained 38-year-old Dasha Johnson, a Miami pastor from Miami and 18-year NASCAR fan.
Angela Brumbaugh, a victim advocate at the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office and a 20-year-plus fan, likes the feel of the race.
"It's the roar of the engines, the smell of fumes and the way the stands shake when they go flying by at 190 miles an hour," she said. "You don't ever know what's going to happen."
For other fans, pulling for their favorite driver is the thrill.
"I'm an Earnhardt fan," said Chuck Barnoski, 45, who is in town from Kentucky and plans to attend the race.
His wife, Angie Barnoski, 45, said she cheers for Tony Stewart.
"I didn't know that," her husband responded. "Ugh. ... She's not coming home with me."
Where's the best place to watch the race?
Depends on your goal. If you want to follow the race, watch on TV or buy a ticket for the grandstands. If you want to have a good time, try the infield. Because there, the party never stops.
Sarah Lundy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6218.