The 63rd annual Daytona 500 will bestow the same prestige that always comes with winning it, but its pre-race pageantry will feel much different this year.
COVID-19 has forced track president Chip Wile and his team to get creative with how they will lead into the race. One of the most notable sights will be the grandstands, which are not allowed to be sold out. Instead, a crowd of roughly 30,000 will be admitted.
Driver introductions will also be different. In the pandemic, NASCAR has been introducing drivers as they stand next to their cars on pit road, forgoing the traditional walk across the stage while greeting VIPs and other dignitaries before a ride around the track in the back of a pickup truck, waving at the fans in the stands.
But driver introductions for the Daytona 500 is a different experience. It’s an electric atmosphere.
Tradition calls for drivers to be introduced by their row with dramatic music, smoke bombs and fireworks, and a long walk down a stage. The stage starts at pit road and goes straight through the infield grass, surrounded on both sides by fans, and it takes the driver to a pickup truck waiting in the tri-oval.
Not this year.
“The drivers will get loaded into trucks at their motorhomes; they’ll never actually go out of the bubble,” said Wile. “They’ll go through a path where they come out of a gate and go out onto the racetrack, and there’ll be a presentation there, and then they’ll walk down pit road.”
Country music star Luke combs will perform the pre-race concert. That, too, will have a different look and feel.
“The pre-race concert where we’re used to seeing tens of thousands of fans on the ballfield, they won’t be there, but we’ve moved the stage so that Luke Combs is playing to the venue versus playing to the ball field,” said Wile.
“Just things like that where we know these are important parts of the tradition of the Daytona 500. We don’t want to lose them but recognize we’ve got to do it a little differently. We’ve worked hand-in-hand with John Bobo (NASCAR vice president of racing operations) and that team to ensure everybody is on board and we are doing it safely.”
The fans at track and at home create the energy of the #DAYTONA500.
While we can't have everyone here with us in 2021, your support and passion fuel The Great American Race. pic.twitter.com/962w0NswHv
— Daytona International Speedway (@DAYTONA) February 14, 2021
Wile said Daytona is fortunate to have fans in the grandstands, going as far as to say it’s a privilege. The speedway has hosted several events over the last eight or nine months, giving them practice at pulling off a successful and safe gathering. And, going back to some of the creativity around this weekend, it involves areas not being utilized as they usually would.
“In Turns 3 and 4, you’re used to seeing a lot of our tent campers that come in for the week,” said Wile. “Unfortunately, because of COVID we can’t have tent camping, so we’ve turned that into kind of old school, and we’ve sold car parking. So basically (someone else) and I could come to the race together, we buy two tickets in our car, we sit in our designated space with a spot to the right of us, and we can come and enjoy the race like you did in the ’70s and ’80s. But again, we’re just trying to safely put as many people in the venue as possible to enjoy one of sport’s biggest days.”
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will once again perform the flyover (pictured in 2020, top). Grammy-winning singer Pitbull, also the co-owner of Trackhouse Racing, is the Grand Marshal and will give the command to start engines.
WWE Superstar and Smackdown Women’s Champion Sasha Banks is the honorary starter for the Daytona 500.
The National Anthem is to be performed by Technical Sgt. Sam Allen, USAF, Joint Base, Anacostia – Bolling, Washington, D.C.