THE 50TH RUNNING OF THE DAYTONA 500 IS A GOOD TIME TO REMEMBER HOW VITAL FANS have been to NASCAR's success, and Speedweeks, the fortnight of races leading up to the 500, is a great time for fans to soak up the NASCAR experience. "The sport was built on access to its stars, but it's become more difficult for the average fan to get access," says Dave Hickson, president of the Official NASCAR Members Club, a fan organization. Here, some of the ONMC's members share how they make that connection at Daytona.
WHAT MAKES Daytona special is that it's the mecca of NASCAR and the race draws fans from all over the nation. There's not a fan out there who would disagree that Daytona is the biggest race. I go to 13 or 14 races a year, but Daytona is the only time my friends and I can get together in one place.
There are three things that I always do when I go to Daytona. On the Thursday night before the race my friends and I always meet at Froggy's. On Friday my other group of friends always meets at Tijuana Flats, a Mexican restaurant outside Turn 1. And on Sunday, no matter when the race ends, we always meet outside the gates in front of the statue of Bill and Anne France to talk about the race.
I've attended every Daytona 500 since 1990, and one of my most thrilling moments was meeting Rusty Wallace in a Mexican restaurant. It was just after the race in 1991. He was having dinner with his publicist when I approached him, and he was nice enough to sign autographs and talk to us. He talked a little about the race outcome and what he happened to see during the race. I'd been following him since 1984, and he was my idol; so that's my coolest memory.
I have more than 80 NASCAR jackets and 500 die-cast cars. Whenever I get to Daytona, my big priority is to look for new cars because of driver changes, etc. So this year I'll be looking for a new Dale Earnhardt Jr. car.
Michael Murphy, Lake Villa, Ill.
I'VE BEEN to Daytona four times since 1999. It's the most phenomenal sports experience you can have. It starts in the early morning with a rock band, the fans start to come in and the cars warm up. It's a tradition to make sure my son and I stand on the finish line and take a picture. My son always signs his name.
The most exciting 10 minutes of my life was in 1999 in the pits the morning of the race. I first met Dale Earnhardt, then I turned around and met Rick Hendrick, then I turned around and met Jeff Gordon. They were all so genuine and so kind. They understood the role of a fan and of a sponsor. (I worked for the company that makes the NASCAR Heat video game.) They looked you in the eye, and you felt they genuinely cared about you.
DAYTONA IS just a fabulous place to be during a race. It's the commonality of people, and people are what makes the racing. It's the tailgate parties and meeting the drivers, everything combined. When I'm tailgating, I just wander. People are so friendly. I say, "How are you doing? I'm from northwest Indiana," and go from there. Before you know it, you're playing beanbags or just talking racing. I've made lasting friends that way.
I'VE BEEN going to the Daytona 500 since 1985, and I like to see all the pomp and color and excitement at getting another racing season started. My favorite moments were attending Jeff Gordon's first race  and the first one that he won ['97].
I taught driver's ed to Gordon when he attended Tri-West Hendricks High School in Indiana. It was great. He was a good student as well as a good driver. I really didn't teach him all that much, but I tell him I taught him everything he knows. He was always there and always on time. Even though he was already racing he still needed the certificate to get a better rate on his car insurance.