DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- So NASCAR up close wasn't what I imagined from afar.
Years ago as a rookie reporter, one of my close friends covered racing in Delaware and was writing a column. She called me to get my gut response to NASCAR culture.
As a 20-something African-American woman who fancies college football and basketball and is a self-described hip-hop head, I gave her exactly the negative response you might have guessed.
The sport has long gotten a bad rap, as folks like me have had preconceived ideas about its following. Their clothing? Tight T-shirts, exposed midriffs (that shouldn't be) and cutoffs. Their hair? Chemically damaged and styled in an outdated way. Their politics? Scary, and depending on who you ask and how bluntly they answer you, racist and sexist.
Sunday, I experienced my first Daytona 500 with virgin eyes. And, because I'm a fair journalist, I was determined to give this 55th annual event a fighting chance.
In the years since that impromptu interview with my friend, I have covered some of the biggest and most watched sporting events -- the Super Bowl, MLB All-Star week, the NBA Finals, the Final Four -- and all the souped-up celebration around them. As an entertainment journalist who gets pulled in to cover celebrity where sports and pop culture intersect, I'm used to being in places that I don't necessarily belong.
But maybe this was not one of those places.
Diversity in the crowd
The most telling moment? Hours before the race, I discovered that recently retired Super Bowl champion -- who happens to be my favorite pro player of all time -- Ray Lewis would serve as the race's honorary starter. Rappers T.I., 50 Cent and comedian Bill Bellamy were also milling about the Daytona 500 hallways for NASCAR's season opener.
"I think it's time to rethink that," Lewis said before the race, when I asked him about the traditional -- and often unflattering -- stereotypes of NASCAR fans. Lewis hinted that he'd nudged T.I and 50, and they'd had a laugh about heating up social media with the fact three impossible-to-not-notice famous black dudes dared to attend the Daytona 500.
"The things that we indulge in [are] overwhelming at times because we're just real art fans. We like everything: basketball, lacrosse, hockey -- anything that really challenges a person's athletic side and their mental capacity," Lewis said. "Being here today is an awesome experience for all of us. We're getting into a totally different world; our world is just different."
Lewis talked about texting racer Brad Keselowski, with whom he's become friendly, earlier in the day. Keselowski finds solace in Lewis' spiritual conviction.
But hip-hop and NASCAR?
"We told 50 Cent if we won the race, he'd have to change his name to 55 Cent for the day," Mark Martin, who drove the No. 55 car, joked after the race.
Statistically, there are few minorities watching NASCAR -- approximately 8.6 percent of NASCAR fans are African-American and 8.3 percent are Hispanic. Admittedly, I wasn't expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised by the racial diversity and the large number of female fans that turned out for the race.
It's not that I'm completely disengaged from the sport. My godson -- much to his mother's dismay -- was named after Kyle Busch (and yes, my Kyle's parents are black; his father, Kevin, is a South Carolina native and a longtime fan of the sport). In the week leading up to the race, I was surprised to discover many women and people who look like me are closet NASCAR fans -- including my aunt, who earned her undergraduate degree at Talladega College.
Hours before the race began, fans started piling into the speedway and the excitement was undeniable. Ditto with the diversity -- it was noticeable, mostly because it stands out at an event like the Daytona 500 -- and that's OK. I spotted native Spanish speakers decked out in Gordon gear; black dudes wearing NASCAR branded clothing and people who looked as if they'd feel more comfortable hanging out in the fan grandstands of the Academy Awards, waving at actors, than chilling under the overcast sky in Florida.
Danica on the pole
Also buzzing Sunday was the Danica Patrick factor. As much as it trended in the world outside the pits, it was not as much a topic among the fans here as you might imagine.
"You can't just root for Danica because you're a girl," drawled one fan, who asked me who I'd like to see win.
He laughed and waved me off with his hand jokingly, but other than that, much of the Patrick excitement stayed in the media center. Several reporters commented about how rows of media center seating that sat empty last season were full solely because of Patrick being the first female driver to start in pole position at Daytona.
Nothing? Many would beg to differ, starting with her competitors.
"She's gonna make a lot of history all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "She's got a great little head; she's a racer. She's smart about her decisions. I enjoy racing with her and look forward to more all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun having her in the series."
Martin echoed the sentiment.
"It's great for the sport," he said. "She did an incredible job today, as well as an incredible job a number of times last year. There will be more of that to come."
Patrick thanked her contemporaries, but said she would be hard on herself later for not taking advantage of a lead.
"I would imagine that pretty much anyone would kick themselves and say what [they] could of should of I done to win. I didn't know what to do exactly," Patrick said. "Maybe that's just my inexperience. Maybe that's me not thinking hard enough. I'm not sure. I'm sure I'll watch the race and there will be other scenarios out there that I'll see."
Racing is just different
But there's more to the 2013 Daytona 500 story than race and gender. (And truthfully, we'd need to write a dissertation to even begin to tap into it.)
Other novice race journalists marveled at the access fans -- and journalists too -- get at Daytona. It's incomparable.
"Fans can really get to us; I hope they really appreciate that," Patrick said post-race, noting that this experience is like no other sport.
Ticket holders have access to almost everything and can wander almost everywhere. Many watch from the tops of their motor homes -- the thing to do is tailgate and camp out near the perimeter of the speedway. It's an annual vacation for many race enthusiasts and they stay here for days. Others watch in the grandstand or in the center where there are flat screens set up just about everywhere in the outdoor space's openings.
Racing fans are rewarded for their loyalty. Before the flag goes down, fans can hang out on the field right next to the drivers and get right up front in the action -- so close you can almost touch the famous, fastest driving folks of all time.
You'd never see anything similar at, say, the Super Bowl, where the closest a fan gets to the field is the nosebleed section (and in many cases, it's often just better to stay at home or go to a bar and watch).
On the tram on the way to the speedway, I met a couple from Virginia Beach who said, at 8 a.m., they were ready for their first beer. Turns out, fans can actually bring their own drinks and coolers inside.
Again -- advantage Daytona 500.
Not that concession prices here will break the bank. A grilled chicken sandwich and fries costs $10. You can find that kind of a deal at other major sporting events.
True, NASCAR may have a ways to go before it's thought of as something more than a sport consumed and celebrated by white men. But this former hip-hop critic is encouraged by what she saw and experienced Sunday in Daytona.
Take that, 20-something Kelley.