The Daytona 500, the first race of NASCAR’s elite (Sprint Cup) series, begins today at noon Eastern.
No sport does an opening ceremony as well as NASCAR. Expect a prayer mentioning U.S. soldiers, someone belting out the words of the national anthem like they really mean them, and a booming flyover of military jets just as the anthem ends.
Next come the most famous words in motorsports, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” Except today they will differ slightly, as female driver Danica Patrick will be one of the racers. Today marks her debut as a driver in the Sprint Cup series.
One of the most attentive fans today will be Rick Santorum. His campaign is the main sponsor of Tony Raines’ No. 26 car. Santorum’s campaign messaging will appear on the hood and quarter panels of the car.
The favorite to win the race is last year’s Sprint Cup Series champion, Tony Stewart. But his chances to win, approximately 10 to 1, are still not very likely. One reason is the special nature of the Daytona 500. Because the track is so large, cars reach especially fast speeds. This makes them vulnerable to going airborne if they wreck, which is a danger to the fans. As a consequence, NASCAR requires each car to have a restrictor plate attached to the carburetor. This restricts the car’s oxygen uptake, which in turn restricts the speed of the car.
The result is in some ways a socialist’s dream—all cars and drivers are nearly equally-abled. Like an actual socialist economy, it also means that a driver’s success depends greatly upon cronyism and his or her networking skills with other drivers. Specifically, the most successful drivers will be the ones who can work with others to "draft" to lower wind resistance. The restrictor-plate rule even affects pit-stop decisions. Drivers will try to pit only when they can entice another driver to pit with them. The reason is that they need a partner to draft with them as they try to catch the field after pitting.
All these factors make the race more unpredictable and a driver’s success more dependent on luck. Less established racers, like Patrick and Raines, have a real chance at winning, which will make the race today especially exciting.