News & Media

Caraviello: Plenty of lessons learned during Speedweeks

February 29, 2012, David Caraviello,

Where to begin?

It was the Speedweeks that had a little of everything and sometimes seemed it would never end, an eventual 13-day festival that began in bright sunshine, ended unexpectedly under the lights, and featured every element from fire to water to earth. There were plenty of big crashes, a few surprising winners, one frightening fireball and a driver tweeting about it all while still inside his car. There was an impressive degree of resiliency shown by both the Daytona International Speedway staff and one of sports' hardiest fan bases, all of it wrapped up in Danicamania.

Goodness. Just imagine -- what if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won?

OK, perhaps that would have been too much. It was sensory overload as it was, all of it capped by Matt Kenseth spraying champagne in Victory Lane sometime after 1 o'clock ET Tuesday morning. There was something appropriate about Kenseth, one of the best drivers on the best team of Speedweeks, winning the big prize. But there also were plenty of lessons to be learned during two sometimes-waterlogged, almost-singed weeks along the Central Florida coast. Such as:

The SAFER barrier continues to amaze. How did they ever race without it? Day upon day of watching cars rocket into the system that protects most of the walls at Daytona only entrenches the belief that the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction barrier is a lifesaving miracle of modern automobile racing. Danica Patrick's thunderous crash during last Thursday's qualifying race -- it's difficult to grasp how different the outcome might have been only a few years ago.

It wasn't just Patrick's crash (watch). There was also Miguel Paludo's in the Camping World Truck Series event (watch), and Kyle Busch's in the Nationwide opener (watch). Those were big, big hits. Patrick's slammed the backstretch wall with so much force, you could see the barrier actually buckle. But still, it did the job. In each case, the vehicle involved was destroyed. In each case, the driver walked away. Even the man behind it all is amazed.

"I continue to be pleasantly surprised," said Dean Sicking, director of the University of Nebraska's Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, which developed the barrier. "I just hope and pray that we're not shocked anytime soon. ... I've been pleasantly surprised that it's gone this far without any serious injuries."

The SAFER barrier has been around for a decade now, first going up at Indianapolis in 2001. Sicking said the foam on the inside is different now than from the beginning, and the foam blocks are replaced about every five years. (Daytona's were changed during its recent resurfacing project.) The barrier takes less time to repair now after impact, Sicking said, because the current NASCAR cars have fewer sharp corners to rip it up. Regardless, it's absolutely indispensable and needs to be on every wall of every track, and never once taken for granted.

Brad Keselowski will tweet from anywhere. The resident social-media expert among NASCAR's driver corps has always been quick to fire off a few posts on Twitter, the service that allows competitors and fans to correspond in short, 140-character messages. But Keselowski took it to another level during the Daytona 500, evidently stashing a mobile phone in his firesuit, and tweeting almost any time the field was stopped.

Keselowski was at his best during the two-hour red flag caused by Juan Montoya's collision with a jet dryer (watch), posting cell-phone photos of his view of the blaze, as well as other drivers milling about during the delay. Fox television picked up on it, and the result was an influx of about 130,000 new followers to the driver's account (@keselowski). Later, minutes after the accident that knocked him out of the race (watch), Keselowski was at it again. "Nothing we could do there ... Never saw the wreck till we were windshield deep," he wrote.

Immediately after the race, there were some questions over whether Keselowski was breaking a rule. "I heard he was in trouble for having a recording device in his car," Earnhardt said. "But I think that's how Brad is, man. That's what he makes and what he enjoys. I thought it was pretty funny."

No worries, NASCAR announced Tuesday that Keselowski would not be penalized for his use of Twitter during the Daytona 500. "We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others," the sanctioning body said -- naturally, on Twitter. Predictably, Keselowski responded with a post of his own.

"Alrighttttt," he wrote. "Guess I get to keep tweeting."

Joie Chitwood III is cool in a crisis. The Daytona International Speedway president grew up in a family of stunt performers, so he's been around some crazy things. But Monday night, with 200 gallons of spilled jet fuel burning his race track, he would have been excused for wondering if a career in high-wire walking or motorcycle jumping might have been easier on the nerves.

"I would say at some point in the [control] tower when we were dealing with the incident, I thought, it's probably safer risking my life as a stuntman than being the president of the Daytona International Speedway," he said after the race. "There's been a lot of activity here the last couple years. We've had our ups and downs. But at the end of the day, tonight validates what we do. We train, we prepare. This is the World Center of Racing."

Between the rain delays, the historic first weather postponement of the Daytona 500, and the fire, Chitwood might have set a record for most appearances in the media center by a Daytona president during a single Speedweeks. Every time, he struck just the right balance between contrition and confidence, making it clear that what was happening was unfortunate, but he knew his team would deal with it, and in the end everything would be all right. Which it was.

It was all a stark contrast the last crisis at Daytona, the pothole that marred the 2010 running of the Daytona 500, when former president Robin Braig responded by acting like absolutely nothing was wrong with the race track. Chitwood had a lot dumped on him in the past two weeks -- some of it literally, from the sky -- and never once seemed like he wasn't in control. Guess that stuntman's confidence never goes away.

A prime-time Daytona 500 was electric. Television ratings can be confusing. According to Fox, the first prime-time airing of NASCAR's biggest race drew ratings slightly down from last year's event (an 8.0 compared to an 8.7), likely because of the long delay. But the extended broadcast was watched by 36.5 million viewers, the biggest audience ever to see a NASCAR race on the network.

Here's what numbers can't tell you -- the place was absolutely electric. The combination of a first Daytona 500 to start under the lights, mixed in with all that nervous energy stored up over a day and a half of waiting around, made Daytona pop with a vibrancy and a sense of anticipation like it had not seen before. It helped that the fans came back in droves, and when the cars finally rolled off the grid shortly after 7 p.m., they let loose with an ovation that made your hair stand up.

Evidently, it all translated through the television, the scene burnished by the spectacular image of the jet dryer fire. "It was the most entertaining Daytona 500 in years," host Jim Rome raved Tuesday on his nationally syndicated sports-radio program. "That was like a blockbuster movie that dropped on Memorial Day weekend. That race was one Will Smith appearance away from being a Jerry Bruckheimer production."

And indeed, it was spectacular. But it was also long, and draining, and made for a rushed and trying work week for everyone in the industry. This vote is to stick with that early afternoon starting time, which just makes the race feel more like the Daytona 500 we've always been used to.

Days of Thunder still holds up. A hat-tip to Daytona media-relations staffer Andrew Booth, who made things a little easier during the interminable weather delays by playing the NASCAR-themed Tom Cruise film Days of Thunder on the media-center television screens Monday afternoon as we were all waiting for the rescheduled 7 p.m. start. Motorsports scribes who have the movie basically memorized were spouting off lines before they were uttered by the characters, and fans followed suit on Twitter.

It made the wait a little easier, and served as a reminder of the movie's connections to today. Yes, the Rowdy Burns character does indeed drive a No. 51 car as Kyle "Rowdy" Busch occasionally does now. Over the radio during this year's Budweiser Shootout, Kurt Busch once used the line, "We ain't getting faster, Harry, they're getting slower," which main character Cole Trickle says to fictional crew chief Harry Hogge as he's going for a win at Darlington. Evidently, the Busch boys saw that film a lot.

After the final scene in which Trickle wins the Daytona 500, NASCAR media-relations staffers placed a "Cole Trickle" name placard on the stage where the top finishers usually sit, and playfully announced that the new Daytona 500 champ was on his way to the media center. It was a nice bit of levity during a long day, and at the end of a long two weeks.

Workers pass around a box of Tide used to help clean and repair the track after a fire burned across the racing surface. (Getty)

Tide detergent cleans race tracks. Who knew?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.