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In the Daytona garage, the drivers, owners and tire-changers mingle, buzz and chat. In the media center, the writers do the same.
Sitting in lawn chairs in the shadow of Turn 1, fans take part in the same activity, conversing and debating as they marinate steaks and crack open beverages. No matter where you stroll on the grounds of the Daytona International Speedway, tongues are wagging. And the topic has nothing to do with restrictor plates and bump drafting.
"The economy, brother," one shirtless resident of the infield replies when asked to reveal the subject of the impromptu six-man six-pack meeting convened around his Coleman stove. "The good news is, we're all in the same boat. The haves are gone. All we got here is have-nots."
"Yep," one of his friends interjects, pointing toward the NASCAR Nationwide Series garage, where sponsorless race cars rolled in and out between practice laps. "There's a few of them over on the other side of that fence now, too."
Like those teams that have chosen to take the green without much green behind them, race fans are making do and somehow making it work while attending this year's Great American Race.
"Like squeezing blood from a damn turnip"
Jack Reynolds has been coming to Daytona Speedweeks for more than fifteen years. For twice that long, the self-described "60-ish graybeard" sold cars at dealerships across the Midwest and made annual trips to both Cup series races at the Michigan International Speedway, as well as the Brickyard 400 and "sometimes even the Indy 500" in Indianapolis.
Reynolds retired two years ago and had intended to spend his post-showroom days knocking out a checklist of racetrack visits.
"That was before my dollars got shrunk," he said with a laugh and a shrug, adding that he wouldn't be adding any new facilities to his '09 itinerary. "But I wasn't going to miss the 500, and I'll still make it to Michigan. I just have to alter my usual plans a bit now."
Such as the decision to trade in his RV for a minivan and to sleep in a tent instead of a motor home -- both moves aimed at cutting back on fuel costs. He also has forgone his annual "five or six meals, at least" at the nearby Outback Steakhouse, replaced by a 100-quart cooler packed with dry ice and food he bought at the local grocery store back in Ohio. "I might splurge and go get a margarita over at the Fan Zone today, but other than that, I'm sticking with what I carried in here. It's a helluva lot cheaper that way."
Fans all around Reynolds have spent Speedweeks on the same self-rationing plan. They're buying their T-shirts and ball caps for ten bucks at the local Kmart or at beachside drug stores and supermarkets, instead of forking over $30-40 for items in Souvenir Alley. "It's always crazy in here during Speedweeks," a Kmart cashier said as she scanned a stack of white T-shirts. "But this year, people are buying more of this kind of stuff."
Over in the Midway Corporate Display area outside Turn 4, fans seem satisfied to take home a plastic grab bag of tchotchkes from the likes of Coca-Cola, Ford, Sprint and the National Guard.
"We told our kids that they had a choice," said Hannah McDaniel, a mother of three from Atlanta. "We could buy tickets to the Truck series race on Friday night, or they could buy one nice souvenir. They chose to go to the race and come out here and get some free stickers and prizes. We even took their picture with Speed Racer's car."
"You can spend as much or as little as you want out here," added McDaniel's husband, Dan, revealing that his family had switched hotels at the last minute when they found out that a nicer facility had announced that it was filling rooms that normally cost $350 a night for just a shade over $100. "You have to get creative with your dollar. It's like squeezing blood from a damn turnip, but if you really want to be here for the races, you can do it. Just maybe not like you're used to."
Tickets now available
What looked like a bleak fan turnout for the Great American Race just a few weeks ago is shaping up as a sellout -- with an asterisk. On Wednesday, Daytona International Speedway president Robin Braig reported that the 500 was within 1,000 tickets of peddling its full allotment of 159,000, although he was quick to add that 9,000 seats had been taken down since 2008 and that midlevel ticket prices had been reduced by nearly half, from $99 to $55.
"As you've learned, the fans have taken measures to get themselves here," Braig said. "It would be irresponsible for us not to do our part. We're all in this recession together."
Braig's fire sale is not unique. No fewer than a dozen representatives from other tracks were making the PR rounds at Daytona on Thursday morning, touting their own ticket pricing specials, from Atlanta to Texas to Darlington. "This is a big week for us all," declared Darlington Racing president Chris Browning.
As of late Thursday night, Boston-based AceTicket.com -- a big player in the booming secondary ticket business -- still had a couple hundred Daytona 500 tickets and parking passes for sale, ranging in price from $30 to $1,215. Competitors from StubHub to RazorGator had similar numbers up for grabs, and an eBay search turned up another 269 listings.
In a slightly less formal setting -- in this case, the parking lot of the Volusia Mall -- a man who wished to be identified only as Tank held up a homemade "I NEED TICKETS" sign as traffic crawled by leaving the track after the Gatorade Duel 150s. Here, on the edge of International Speedway Boulevard, Mr. Tank has been running his own secondary ticket business since "before Earnhardt got killed."
This year, he has more Sunday tickets stuffed in his pockets than usual, but he doesn't expect that to last. "A lot of people have been pulling over and asking questions," he said as he fanned out a handful of tickets for seats in the Barney Oldfield Grandstand that overlooks Turn 4. "But not a lot of them have been buying yet. They're waiting on the prices to drop. We're all expecting a rush on race day."
He pointed up the highway with a sweeping motion toward his fellow entrepreneurs. Then he sighed heavily."We hope so, anyway."
"Dude get down here"
As hotels continue to slash rates and word circulates that tickets are available for reasonable prices, fans already at the beach are burning up the phone lines to beckon friends from back home. That's what Jack Reynolds did.
For nearly a decade, Reynolds parked his RV beside that of a buddy he calls "Tim from Kansas City." Over the years, the two men have cooked up a friendship over campfires, Bud Light and a running debate over Dale Earnhardt vs. Richard Petty.
This year, Tim decided not to make the trip to the 500 because he expects to lose his factory job to cutbacks this spring. But on Wednesday evening, Jack took a stroll over to the mall and brokered a deal for his friend, calling him up and saying, "Dude, I got you a ticket. Now get down here." A rejuvenated Tim scored a cheap plane ticket from K.C. on Priceline.com, and is scheduled to land in Daytona on Saturday morning. He didn't bother reserving a rental car or a hotel room.
"I told him just to walk over here from the airport and I'd meet him outside the tunnel with his ticket. Then he can sleep here in the tent with me Saturday night. Unless he snores. Then he's going to the minivan. I'm just glad he's coming. I need someone to talk racing with."
Finally, a reason to change the topic of conversation.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.