Cranked - Daytona 200 Revisited

They're running the Daytona 200 on Friday night this year. None of my friends want to watch, but I feel obligated. The new guys are trying so hard!

I haven't seen a 200 since they switched to Superbikes and Freddie Spencer took the Big One in 1985. Maybe I got old, but the Sunday-afternoon race finish conflicted with the Lusty Ladies Creamed Corn Wrestling Grand Nationals held the same day.

Years ago, when I finally turned away from the 200-miler, it cost 55 bucks to get into the infield. Today an infield ticket--including access to something called the Fanzone--costs 45 bucks. Adjusted for inflation, that's like Bill France giving me $3 to attend tonight's race. Score one for the new guys.

The 4:00 p.m. support race is just beginning as I settle into the bleachers. Two classes I've never heard of--GT1 and GT2--are scheduled. The only rider I know is Jay Springsteen, who's running a Kawasaki Versys-cum-Ninja 650 twin in GT2, which must be the AMA's new commuter division. GT1 seems restricted to motorcycles with manual transmissions. Regardless, I've found my wily veteran to root for.

Both classes start together and I'm confused already, with the track holding everything from Rotax/Buells to a Honda Accord. After one lap I need the big, red position towers to keep things in order. The Accord is not actually racing; it's the "safety car," a NASCAR-inspired pace vehicle for the new rolling-start format.

Nearing the end of the 2-hour race, a couple of the lead bikes run out of fuel. One determined rider goes rubber-legged pushing his empty motorcycle to pit row. A huge crew member shows up to help. They take turns pushing as fast as they can, buckling, almost dropping the bike from exhaustion. The slow-motion drama plays out in real time on the Jumbotron. Springsteen outguns everybody in GT2 and gets third place overall.

I wander over to the Fanzone during the break. A trials rider is doing impossible stunts on a skinny little motorcycle and the band is doing good work with Guns & Rose's "Paradise City." Young guys who look like red-shirt vampires in a teen romance movie wander around in factory-logoed coveralls. Fanzonians watch the vampires as they trim their soul patches, pierce their bodies and tinker with the racebikes.

There are almost 80 entries in the Daytona 200, starting in two waves of around 40 bikes each. The safety car takes them around twice, then drops the hammer. The bikes charge into Turn 1, red taillights glowing. It's an unrelenting stream giving no indication of head or tail. I'm too close; the bikes are leaned over so far and go by so fast I can't see the numbers. I learn to recognize Ben Bostrom by the green neon light on his left front faring.

A rider goes down on lap 38, bringing out the safety car. Everyone comes in for tires and gas. The bikes bunch up behind the safety car. You can't pass under caution, so one rider holds up 20 others. Someone goes down in the chicane and the lights go out. Things are getting hairy, so the officials stop the race completely.

Back under green, the race gets more interesting with the top-five riders clumped together. The safety car comes out again, and after a bit the Daytona 200 ends. I guess some of the caution laps counted, but I'm not the only one mixed up. One rider says he thought there were two laps to go when he saw the checkered flag.

The weather for the inaugural nighttime 200-miler was cool and dry--perfect for racing. The equipment is still 600cc sportbikes; a good rider could buy a stock streetbike, qualify for the race and finish mid-pack. Some of the stuff I thought was stupid, like the safety car, actually made the racing more interesting by closing up the field. Luck played a large part this time due to the cautions, but I can see where the pit crews will be rock stars in the future. Anyway Bostrom was fastest all night long and won the race, so everything worked out in the end.

The new guys have earned a second chance. In '85, when I made that final turn away from the speedway gates, an era was coming to an end. Sitting in snarled exit traffic after tonight's race, I feel an era is just beginning...