DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Standing on pit road, with cars lined up and drivers posted nearby, everybody faces in the same direction toward the national-anthem singer and the start-finish line. There are a number of poses and a variety of people. Some have one hand placed on their heart, while others hold both in front or behind their back. Parents grasp onto children. Men and women hold removed baseball and sun hats.
Almost in sync, heads tilt upward and turn to the left. Shielded eyes track down the six-jet squadron and follow its Delta formation across the sky. Only the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly from south to north at Daytona International Speedway, passing over the middle of the superstretch, infield and frontstretch in order.
By the time the jets clear the grandstands and tower, the final note of the national anthem is falling to a close.
“It’s unbelievable what it does for the fans,” said Brandon Igdalsky, NASCAR’s managing director of event marketing and promotion. “No matter how many times you sit through them – and granted, you know it’s coming – the hair on the back of your neck still stands up and you get a little bit of goosebumps. It’s just badass.”
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Unlike other sports, flyovers are not a rarity when it comes to NASCAR. Almost all – if not all – Cup Series events feature one during pre-race festivities.
The season-opening Daytona 500 had the Thunderbirds last weekend for the 10th consecutive year and 11th time overall. This Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX/FOX Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will have four aircrafts fly over from the Nellis Air Force Base, which is three miles from the track.
“Flyovers just really put a period on how patriotic our sport is,” DIS president Chip Wile said. “To have a military flyover at the end of the national anthem is something every race track is really proud of, and it’s really hard to do because of all the things that have to line up.”
Timing is everything.
The perfect flyover crosses the track at “brave,” the last word in the national anthem, and there are three parties involved in making sure that is timed correctly. There is the singer, the on-ground contacts and the pilots themselves. Everyone has to be on the same page at all times.
“Doing a flyover is really easy,” Thunderbird No. 1 Lt. Col. John Caldwell said. “Doing a flyover well is very difficult.”
In the Thunderbirds’ case, No. 7 Lt. Col. Kevin DiFalco and No. 8 Maj. Jason Markzon are on the ground with the national-anthem singer, whose sole job — as it relates to the flyover — is to be consistent. DiFalco already has the singer’s line-by-line timing from rehearsals and is following along to make sure everything matches up. Markzon then relays the updates to Caldwell up in the air since he leads the formation.
Those updates coincide with the TOT (time over target) since the jets start their run about 20 miles away at 500 mph.
“He’s got a little airspeed carrot, if you will,” Markzon said. “It’s just marking the airspeed he need to fly to hit the time that we pass to him. … If we get down to it and the singer is like three seconds ahead, for example, ‘Boss, new TOT, speed up.’ So, he gets that new time, he plugs that in, and it changes his airspeed carrot.”
Caldwell then shares that information with the other pilots. He’s also telling them when he’s going to make a turn or change his speed – anything and everything, so that there is no ripple effect and the jets stay in a clean formation.
The Delta formation looks like a V with one aircraft – known as the slot – flying behind the leader. There are then the left and right wings, along with the lead and opposing solos.
“My job is, I say, super simple and complicated at the same time,” said No. 6 Capt. Kyle Oliver, whose first flyover as the Thunderbirds’ opposing solo was the Daytona 500. “It’s very simple in the fact of being in this exact spot, three feet from another airplane. That in and of itself, though, is a fairly difficult and demanding task.”
The flyover itself lasts maybe 10 seconds from a fan’s perspective, then it’s on to the command for the main event.
Unless it was obvious, a normal spectator wouldn’t be able to tell if the pilots even hit their mark. Daytona looked like it was perfect.
“Literally I’ve never been more nervous during a national anthem than during a flyover for a national anthem,” Markzon said. “It’s just I can see the jets and know what’s all going on. I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want them to screw it up. I was us to look good, make sure the timing is good and get the crowd to go crazy. My heart races when that happens, as I see them approaching and am counting down the time. I’m watching them – is it going to work, is it not going to work – and they crush it every time.”
The Daytona 500 has added to its prestige by pairing with the Thunderbirds’ elite squad of flyers. Other tracks tend to have relationships with local flying communities to replicate the pageantry on a smaller scale. NASCAR heavily supports the military as a whole, too.
Flyovers are usually planned anywhere between 90 and 180 days out from the race. NASCAR uses a third-party sports marketing and entertainment company called CSM Production to help coordinate the logistics with the tracks. There’s not a specific budget set aside for flyovers, but they’re accounted for in each event’s overall cost.
All those involved in the pre-race ceremonies don’t truly relax until the green flag waves.
“It’s the cool behind-the-scenes stuff in this sport that fans don’t really get a chance to witness and see – how much work actually goes into everything to pull off the day,” Igdalsky said. “It’s part of the addiction I have for this sport: seeing all that, putting it all together and working with all these great folks internally and externally to make this stuff happen.
“At the end of the day, when it all goes off seamlessly and you can look around and see those smiles on the fans and the excitement in their eyes, that’s when I know we’ve done our job and it’s time for the boys on track to do theirs.”