A sold-out grandstand packed with more than 100,000 people erupts in a loud roar, drowning out the National Anthem. This is meant to be The Great American Race, bigger, brighter, louder than anything else. An incoming rumble and the ground shakes as six fighter jets streak into view. The cheers are drowned out by the jets, flying so low you swear they could hit the tops of people’s heads.
But I can’t get caught up in any patriotism, standing next to my red, white and blue Toyota Camry race car. Too many nerves are pulsating through my body, because I’m about to compete in the 2019 Daytona 500.
I’ve been racing in NASCAR for years now, but doing this was far from guaranteed this time.
Before you can race, first you must qualify. The Daytona 500 has a unique form of qualifying the weekend before the 500. We do a single lap by ourselves, where the fastest two cars are locked onto the front row. Then it’s on to a set of races called “The Duels” that where the field is split into two races. Everyone races to figure out where they start.
Except for my team. We were one of four cars that were not locked into the race and had to race our way in. My anxiety meter was pegged at full. The Daytona 500, for smaller teams like mine, is so lucrative that it can make or break a team financially. Dead last still pays roughly a quarter of a million dollars, which is about four times more than finishing last any other race all season.
Finish 20th and you’re looking at a payday closer to four hundred thousand. To put that in perspective, there is a Monster Energy Cup race on the schedule that only pays roughly a quarter of a million to win.
We had to beat two specific cars in our race to be able to make the Daytona 500. Which made Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the longest days in human history. One of the drivers we had to beat happened to be my best friend in the field: Ryan Truex.
This was incredibly awkward. So we created a social media feud as a joke, which turned quite serious and then went back to funny again.
Once we finally got to racing Thursday night, it came down to the last two laps, I bobbed and weaved my car to keep Tyler Reddick and Ryan Truex behind me and just beat them at the finish line to get into the Daytona 500.
My team radio as we crossed the line was a cocktail of jubilation, relief, and excited screams.
Most team radios will have some form of inspiration said on the pace laps of races. But before the Daytona 500, it’s a requirement. “We can win this!”, my crew chief radio’d over.
On this picturesque sunny day, I’m starting 25th, also known as mid-pack. It’s a nerve-wracking place to start in superspeedway racing, spend too much time there and you’re just asking to be wrecked.
Up through the gears and by the time we head into Turn 3, we’re at full speed around 200 miles per hour, where the wind and exhaust pipes fight inside your eardrums for dominance. I am on the bottom line, and it’s two by two from first all the way to the cars in 30th.
It’s about 85 degrees out, which means the track is hot and slick. You can visually see this as the surface of the track has an oily shine to it as we go through the corners.
As we come to complete lap three, the lack of grip is clearly evident. I’m following Ryan Newman and its obvious his car is not handling well because its tail is wagging like an excited golden retriever. We are lifting off full throttle in the corners and having to balance the cars in a pack inches apart. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
A couple laps in I decide to move to the top lane. Easier said than done, as no one wants to let you into the top lane. Eventually, I find a hole in front of... Kyle Busch, where I discover my car is very loose. (Every form of racing has a different word for it. It means the back end wants to spin off past the front).
First, a super quick massive-turn-of-the-wheel to the right in the center of Turns 3 and 4, and my heart is pounding out of my chest. Mind you, I also have the modern day Intimidator on my tail.
If you were wondering who’s the worst to have behind you at a time where your car is handling poorly, it’s Busch or Kevin Harvick. They are the two drivers who you know when they sense even the slightest weakness, will use it to their advantage.
Then off Turn 4 I have a completely sideways I-am-going-to-wreck-the-entire-field-moment. I keep sawing the wheel back and forth before the car finally comes back straight. Which is the precise time I came on the radio to say we are super-super-super (three times makes my crew chief know it’s bad) loose and I am heading to the back of the pack.
Initially, I think that was almost the dumbest thing I have ever done. But about a lap later I thought, I hope the TV cameras caught that because I bet it looked badass! Us racers are a dramatic sort if you didn’t already realize that.
One thing that happens in the Daytona 500 is green flag pit stops. This involves groups of cars maybe 20 or more at a time all trying to pull off the track in unison with the ease and grace of a pack of elephants falling down a hillside. All of these cars are over 3,300 pounds and have tiny little super speedway brakes.
Those help them go fast on the track, but they are almost useless in the slowing down department. But you must get on the brakes as late as possible to bleed off about 150 mph just to slow down to the pit limit’s 55 mph. That’s in a very short stretch of road.
My first green flap stop is on lap 15 and it’s in a gaggle of cars. As we all jump to the apron of the track off Turn 4, drivers are locking tires and wrestling their cars—it’s chaos.
Later on in the race, a couple cars wrecked getting onto pit road, including seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who would get his left side torn off by a car out-of-control sliding into the pit lane.
See, the wild thing about the Daytona 500 is it’s a constant struggle between wanting to beat your competitors, but also knowing you need to work with them to stay in the draft. It’s a balance no one gets right every time because it goes against your natural instincts as a race car driver.
So what happens when it goes wrong? Well, many times it involves a crash, but for us, it went wrong when we missed the chance to pit with our draft pack. We had lost the draft. Meaning I was all alone on my portion of the track. This is devastating because you will be going way slower and you’re now at the mercy of caution coming out to save you. Or hopefully, there’s a group of cars behind you that you will try to join.
There was. My spotter let me know there is a pack of six cars behind us. If we play our cards right, we can latch onto this pack and not go a lap down to the leaders.
Now, this is where it gets incredibly tricky. They are going a couple seconds a lap faster than me, which means maybe a 10 mph difference in speed and they are in a tight line. So you need to find a way to slot in. Imagine trying to jump into the break in two train cars as it passes by you at high speed. (Don’t try this at home, kids, or ever.) That is what we are trying to do, just with cars and at 200 mph.
The pack of six gets to me and a break in the line forms behind me. My spotter says “after this 40 car there are three car lengths to the last car in line, the 27.” So as I hear this and see the gap in my mirror my spotter says “quick clear, quick clear.” I move up.
At this time the driver of the 27 car says what I can only imagine was “heelllllll noooo” and jukes to the left not wanting to have to lift off and help me join their draft line. As he does this, he loses control of his car and spins right towards the outside wall. He catches my left-rear quarter panel and suddenly I am backward heading into Turn 1. Somehow through spinning the wheel and stabbing the brake a lot, I get the car straight and going forward. All of this happens as the lead pack of cars enters Turn 1 and almost runs us over.
Many expletives and that guy-can’t-drive-a- hot-nail-into-a-snowbank may have been said. I was not happy with the 27 car and let him know it. With hand gestures. Very informative hand gestures. This all had damaged our hood, so we had to pull in and tape it down.
We went a lap down in this fiasco.
At this point in the Daytona 500, we’re in the home stretch. For us, we’re playing damage control.
Unfortunately, this incident hurt our speed. After the restart, it becomes apparent it is going to be hard for us to stay with the pack. After a while, we lose the draft. Eventually, we pit and over the course of the run, we find ourselves alone again trying to outrun the pack.
As they get closer and closer. We are hoping and praying for a yellow flag to no avail. Soon it’s all but certain a good 25 or more cars all side-by-side if not three-wide are going to try and go around me. It’s much like a category 5 hurricane heading toward a small rudderless sailboat.
You feel helpless, ashamed, terrified they are not going to be able to get around you and suddenly the Twitter videos will all be “Parker Kligerman wrecks whole Daytona 500 field as they LAP HIM.”
“Stay low, Stay low” my spotter says. As the pack goes by the air pushes and pulls the car left and right violently. But in the matter of a single straight away, it’s over.
We survived. But the most notable action of this race was yet to come.
If you’ve seen the highlight reels where millions of dollars worth of cars, get turned into a pile of useless scrap metal, and carbon fiber, chances are you were watching a wreck at either Daytona or Talladega.
As Tony Stewart once remarked in jest after a Talladega race in 2012, “I’m just sorry we couldn’t crash more cars today... Honestly, if we haven’t crashed at least 50 percent of the field by the end of the race, we need to extend the race until we crash at least 50 percent of the cars.”
So my team assured me on the radio as we got into the late stages of the race running in 34th place that “wrecks were coming.” They were right. As we entered Turn 3 with less than 10 laps to go, an explosion of sparks, fire, smoke, and fluids erupted.
I slammed on my brakes to slow down before piling into the wreck. Thankfully I was able to slow down; as I tried to sift my way through, I started to slide in a bit of oil on the banking.
Suddenly I was about to slam into Kyle Larson in the slowest crash in NASCAR history. Right as I was about to hit him, the front tires gripped up and I was able to turn to avoid him.
We shot from 34th to 20th in that single wreck. Sorting out the mess would cause a lengthy red flag, when we all come to a stop on the track so the safety workers can clean the track.
You sit there drenched in sweat, unable to move, your ears ringing from the constant noise. The safety workers handed us all water bottles, which I used to pour down my suit to try and cool down a little.
There would be another massive wreck with six laps to go and another with two laps to go, sending the race into overtime. In total 35 of the 40 cars in the race had some form of damage. I think we over-delivered on Tony Stewart’s request.
We crossed the finish line 15th, well over four hours after the green flag. It was my best finish in Cup to date.
Eventually, you get back to the hauler to change and you can assess the damage, not of your car but your body. Sweaty, sore and bruises on the collar bone where my HANS device sits with the belts tightly on top of it. There is no denying that over four hours in a very hot, brutal environment will take its toll.
The best recovery juice I’ve found starts with a “T” and ends in “equila.” So later that night I went into the infield to visit one of the fan “tent-bars” that are set up by fans all over the track. (More drivers should do this.) They will serve you drinks but they cannot charge you. Donations only.
I ordered a tequila soda and we hung out there until it was announced over the speakers that they were going to have to shut down. To end the night, they played a rock version of the national anthem and held their hats on their hearts.
Hearing it felt different this time. Grass under my feet, infield lights beaming through the night, I couldn’t help but join in.
Parker Kligerman is a NASCAR driver, Jalopnik contributor, NBC Sports Network analyst and co-star of the car show Proving Grounds. We can’t attest to his singing voice, though.