At first, the shirtless man walking in front of my car was not unlike any other that had crossed International Speedway Boulevard over the weekend.
The road, which serves as the main drag in Daytona Beach, separates the Daytona International Speedway from the shopping mall and restaurants across the street. It's an odd setup -- on a non-race weekend, it'd seem natural to go check out the speedway after stopping at Target for laundry detergent -- but the shops on the north side of ISB serve as the main parking avenue for many fans attending Speedweeks.
But as he got closer to the car, it was evident that he was carrying something. Something large on his shoulder. "What the heck could that be?" Geoffrey Miller and I wondered.
It was a cross. Yes. A wooden cross, approximately 10 feet long. A shirtless man wearing jorts carrying a cross in the middle of Daytona Beach, Fla., where it seemed that we were the only two people who thought this scene was out of the ordinary.
Was it a sign on this unpredictably long race weekend of my first trip to Daytona? The perfect mashup between the calls for divine intervention to stop the rain and start the race and how many -- correctly or not -- view the stereotypical race fan.
Either way, I felt like I had seen everything I thought I'd ever see, and the Daytona 500 still was hours away.
The weekend started off at the Streamline Hotel, the place that has experienced a (r)evolution since Bill France was there in 1947. There was a reason that rooms were so cheap at the Streamline on race weekend while other, just slightly better hotels were charging four times as much -- and no, it wasn't because of the drag show or the signs advertising the amateur hot body contest Saturday night.
But yet, it wasn't the most testosterone-laden place we visited over the weekend.
Just a few blocks down A1A resides the Cruisin' Cafe, a race-themed establishment with plenty of "vintage" racing relics, from firesuits to the 1990s era cars that served as booths for patrons to eat in. At the front of the Cruisin' Cafe was a sign that counted down the days to the Daytona 500. On Saturday night, it read "3 Days until the Daytona 500."
While the sign ended up being only inaccurate by a day, it seemed more oversight than foresight.
Inside the Cruisin' Cafe that night, classic rock and country blared, Dale Earnhardt Jr. apparel outnumbered every other driver three to one and men outnumbered women by two or three times that -- a ratio that could be extrapolated even further if you removed the all-female staff in their faux-sexy spandex outfits.
Tucked away in the side of the joint was a bar game with the sole purpose of hitting a punching bag as hard as possible. It was two parts brilliance and one part stupidity, allowing for weekend "warriors" to unleash their aggression at the cost of dollars and sobriety while saving each others' faces and the Daytona Beach Police's time and notepads. If the staff spent as much time practicing their Coyote Ugly inspired hourly dance routines on the bar as this group of a half-dozen men spent punching the punching bag, they would never have to worry about tips again.
Oh yeah, there was the race too, which itself was solid but not spectacular, except when Juan Pablo Montoya smashed into the jet dryer. On my fourth day in Daytona, I figured that nothing could surprise me at that point. The track catching on fire proved me wrong.
I came to Daytona wanting to see something unexpected and take in the scene of the biggest race in the U.S. Man, were my expectations surpassed. It's the perfect place for a NASCAR festival -- cheap entertainment abound, and people watching opportunities plentiful. If you're a race fan and have never been to Daytona, start to book your reservations now. It's an unmatched experience, and that's not even counting watching a race, as seeing the pack hurtle off turn four at full-speed for the first time is guaranteed to blow your mind. Which, in all honesty, is not unlike some of the things you'll see along the beach.