Jason Kapcala lies about his age to beat death on the Daytona racetrack.
Read the first story in the series, “The Bike.”
All bodies accelerate at the same rate regardless of their size or mass.—Galileo Galilei (De motu [On Motion], unpublished, 1589-92)
Next to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona is probably the most famous racetrack in the world, so when my family decided to take a trip to Florida during the summer before my freshman year of high school, I begged my parents to detour so I could see Daytona USA, the brand-new visitors-center-turned-museum. Driving into the parking lot that afternoon, the banks of the track loomed large and white, and from where we parked, I could hear the sounds of racecars whizzing around inside—the noise strangely reminiscent of a nest of hornets at first, then too loud to talk over as the cars flashed in front of the grandstands at top speed.
Inside, the museum was also loud—people talking, the sounds of racing videogame machines near the doorway, race-casts broadcasted over the speaker system, and the zzzzt zzzzt noise of air wrenches at the 16-second Pit Stop Challenge where crowds gathered to watch visitors try their Nomex-gloved hands at changing out the sixty-pound race tires. At the next exhibit, guests took turns stepping onto what looked like an oversized rubber tire chock—the wedge set an angle of exactly thirty-one degrees to simulate the banking of the turns on the actual track. On television, the banking looked so gradual, but up close it was far too steep to stand on.
The black car that Dale Earnhardt had used to win his first and only Daytona 500 earlier that year was the first display I noticed walking through the door. Though Earnhardt was the winningest driver at Daytona, he had been blanked in nineteen previous attempts to win the 500, stopped short by blown tires, engine troubles, accidents. If you looked carefully through the window-netting, you could see where his crew had glued a “lucky penny” to the dash—a charm given to him by a Make-a-Wish child before the race. You could also see the scuffed black doughnut marks on the quarter panels where his car had rubbed against the tires of other cars during the race.
As my parents, my brother, and I waited in line to take a tour of the track, I kept thinking about those tire marks and what they meant. When I used to bike race with my friends, we never competed in a group. It was always a single rider vs. the clock. This was something else entirely.
Eventually, my family and I climbed aboard a long, multi-car tram with a canopy, and rode down a long tunnel that dipped beneath the fourth turn. Our tour guide talked about the history of the racetrack, how many tons of earth it had taken to build the banks, but I didn’t listen to a word he said. I was too fascinated by the sheer size of the track, its black and white checkered grandstands, the deep green of the infield, and (most of all) those shiny cars whizzing by. When our driver received notification that the track was clear of cars, he pulled us across the flatter portion of the tri-oval and down into the midfield toward the pit stalls and victory lane where Darrell Waltrip had once danced the Icky Shuffle after his 1989 Daytona 500 victory. Four stock cars sat on pit row, their engines idling. They were fitted with a seat on the passenger side, and people had lined up for a chance to be passengers. A large sign at the ticket booth read: “Price $100. The Richard Petty Ride-Along Program is available to guests ages 16 and older. 16-18 yr. olds will be required to provide valid photo ID and have a guardian signature in order to ride.”
“I have to do that,” I said, turning to my father and pointing at the cars. I was fourteen years old.
My father looked at the sign and looked back at me. He shrugged. “You can try,” he said. “But don’t be surprised if they ask to see some ID.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My straight-laced father, Mr. by-the-book-exact-follower-of-speed-limits-I-most-certainly-can-and-will-drive-fifty-five, was suggesting I lie about my age. When I looked back up at him to make sure I had heard right, he had his fingers laced in the mesh fence behind the pit wall, watching the cars squealing out of pit lane, the tires smoking.
“In fact,” my father said. “I might want to try that myself.”
When I stepped up to the ticket counter, my vacation money in hand, a man in a white polo shirt printed with the track emblem grabbed a sign-up sheet. He held it out toward me and then stopped, letting the paper hover just out of my reach.
“So, like, I just sign?” I asked, trying to seem casual when in reality it was all I could do to keep the pen from shaking in my hands. Looking back, I know the man at the ticket window must have suspected that I was underage. Excitement must have been painted all over my face, from my stupid grin to the way I kept darting my eyes. He smirked and then set the paper down in front of me. He didn’t ask for a photo-ID. Instead, he told me to sign on the waiver line.
“That your dad?” he asked me, pointing to my father who was standing behind me in line.
“Okay, well, Pops, what your son is signing there confirms that he is sixteen years of age,” the man said. “You both understand the risks involved in getting into that racecar, and he waives his legal rights in the event that something should happen out there. Make sense?”
My father nodded.
Years later, my father and my mother would both admit that neither of them had considered the possibility of an accident—a tire could blow; the car could spin or tag the wall. It wasn’t something that would have crossed my mind either. That’s the illusion of safety created by seeing those cars on television, flipping and spinning and barrel-rolling, the drivers walking away unscathed, waving to the fans. Even the horror stories—Richard Petty barrel-rolling seven times and having glass shards picked from his eyes later by EMTs, Bill Elliott hobbling around on a cane after landing nose first in an airborne crash that shattered his hip, Earnhardt sliding down the front stretch on his roof and breaking his clavicle—are told with a chuckle and a grin, like “war stories” or that scene from the movie Jaws where the characters drink and compare scars. And yet, the sport is obviously more dangerous and painful than it seems on TV. And sometimes it’s deadly, as we were all reminded three years after my trip to Daytona, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in an innocuous-looking last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.
I would feel troubled by Earnhardt’s death for weeks, even though I didn’t know the man; I had never met him, and he wasn’t even my favorite driver. But on that day, at Daytona, three years prior to his fatal accident, as I stood getting fitted with an oversized open-faced helmet like the one that Earnhardt always wore, a helmet that provided little protection in a head-on crash, I wasn’t afraid. I was excited. When it was my time to hit the track, I stepped out from behind the pit wall and followed a crew member over to the black #3 car, painted to look just like Earnhardt’s Chevy Monte Carlo, and I knew that in a mere matter of seconds, I would be traveling faster than I had or ever would again.