When in Rome you do as the Romans do. When in Florida, you watch the Daytona 500. This year’s race was a beauty, postponed by rain for the first time ever for 24 hours, then postponed nine hours the next day. I don’t consider myself a NASCAR fan, but this race started with a crash on the second lap, with pinup driver Danica Patrick sent to the repair shop.
Later Pablo Montoya slid sideways at about 100 mph into a truck which was using jet fuel to dry the track. A spectacular fire ensued and both drivers escaped, somehow. Now, you don’t see a fire like that every day. The race ended after midnight. FYI, someone named Matt Kenseth won.
This year’s edition lacked the spectacular finish of 2007 when Clint Boyer in the Jack Daniels (naturally) car slid across the finish line, upside down and on fire. But it wasn’t bad.
Even the word “Daytona” will always send chills down my spine. In 1993, the very first trip to Fort Myers and the Red Sox spring training ritual included a quick stop at Daytona during Bike Week. Cobb Manor resident Mark Preston had his very first Harley and simply had to have authentic T-shirts, so I made the stop.
Found the T-shirts. Lost my car.
No one believes me, but not a drop of alcohol was involved. Walter Griffin doesn’t believe me, but no biker babe was involved, either. This is a true story.
I don’t know about you, but a daylong drive from Rocky Mount, N.C. to Daytona will leave me dizzy. I dutifully parked my Honda Accord and walked downtown, through the biker madness to get the damned T-shirts. When I came back an hour later, my car was gone.
As a responsible citizen, I walked to the police station and reported the car stolen. The young cop laughed out loud.
“Listen. This is bike week. No one would steal a Honda Accord. A softtail, maybe, but not a Honda,” he said. But he took the info anyway. I assumed it might have been towed since I parked illegally in a closed gas station.
I retraced my steps 50 times (seemed like it) to the point where I got blisters from my sandals. I never found the car. I had about $300 in cash and various credit cards. It did not matter. There was not a room to be had in Daytona during Bike Week. I asked in one hotel if I could sleep on the lobby sofa. “Rented,” he said. I even asked if I could sleep in a jail cell. No.
Someone, it might have been the doubting police officer, suggested the youth hostel. Sounded good to me. It was a flophouse, really, but my T-shirts and I needed a place to flop. I think it cost $5, cash. No credit cards. The place was filthy and consisted of about 20 mattresses and box springs spread on a cellar floor. I didn’t care at that point, probably 2 a.m. I slept on my back with my hat and shoes on, clutching those damn T-shirts as assorted criminals, maniacs and escaped convicts (I thought) straggled in to join the fun. The motorcycles never stopped roaring down the highway about 6 feet from the hostel-hovel. That jail cell looked mighty good, by comparison.
It was a night to remember.
In the morning, I checked myself for stab wounds and headed off to the police station.
“We found your car,” said my new Florida pal. “It’s at the gas station, right where you left it. And it’s about to be towed.”
I “ran” on my bloody, blistered feet to the gas station, still clutching those damn T-shirts. Just in time. The tow truck was working on another customer as I gratefully slid into my lovely, lovely Honda Accord. I decided to keep all this information to myself.
“Too late” said another police officer. “We already called your house in Maine to tell you we found the car.”
I have two theories. Someone stole the car, drove it around all night while I speed-walked the Daytona sidewalks, and then put it back. But a crisp $50 bill was still folded in the ashtray, my emergency gas fund. Maybe not.
My other theory is I am a complete idiot who walked by the Honda (with those damn T-shirts) at least 25 times, convinced that I had parked much further away.
“Happens all the time,“ the cop said.
I found out much later that the hostel-hovel was the birthplace of NASCAR, back when it was a habitable hotel. Big deal.
I am much more careful where I park these days, noting cross streets and sometimes even writing them down. No matter what happens in the rest if my life, I will always have Daytona.
I have never been back to Daytona. Never will.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at firstname.lastname@example.org.