While the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum looms closer on the calendar, the regular season itself doesn‘t linger far behind.
Of course, the start of the regular season cannot be mentioned without discussing the Daytona 500, a crown jewel synonymous with the commencement of a new NASCAR year. Since the race‘s inception more than 60 years ago on Feb. 22, 1959, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss NASCAR without bringing up the annual 500-mile thriller.
You wouldn‘t have to tell any eager NASCAR fan this factoid, especially those spanning 50 states and more than 40 countries who contributed to a sellout crowd in the camping and grandstand areas for the 65th annual Daytona 500 scheduled for Feb. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET (FOX, MRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio).
The occasion marks the eighth consecutive grandstand sellout and the second year in a row the “Great American Race” sold out immediately following the new year. For fans who were unable to snag a ticket, the track will offer other ways to experience the race live, including the UNOH Fanzone, Harley J‘s and the brand-new 31 DEGREES Hospitality Experience.
Selling out a month before the green flag could be seen as a win in itself. But to Daytona International Speedway President Frank Kelleher, the statement from the sellout means much more.
“As the president of the property, selling out early is the best scenario as a promoter that you hope for because now it frees you up,” Kelleher said. “It frees you up to focus on all of the other little things that make AdventHealth Speedweeks so special.
“So, until the Daytona 500 is sold out, that is your No. 1 priority. Once you are there, it really gives us an opportunity to make sure that the guest experience not only delivers but it exceeds what our fans are expecting.”
Kelleher, who previously served as NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Sales Officer, has noticed firsthand how much enthusiasm comes from fans at the track. After all, Kelleher sees himself as a racing fan too: Coming from a working-class background, the Scranton, Pennsylvania native has been around cars all his life, whether from changing tires and selling racing fuel to picking up wins in the World Karting Association.
From working on cars to racing in karts, Kelleher has harnessed a passion for racing, and a crown jewel at Daytona certainly ignites that drive just as much as it does for the fans harbored at the track for the occasion.
“I think now with the Next Gen having its rookie season in the rearview mirror, the drivers being more comfortable with the car, the close finish that we had this past year, I think it takes it to a whole other level that any of these drivers can show up and win,” Kelleher said. “That‘s kind of always been a story line of Daytona, and the history books have proven that, but I think the intensity behind the wheel is only going to up another level knowing that we had 19 different winners last year, the margin of first to second place was right around a second that I think the intensity on track is going to be on a different level.”
Every Daytona 500 brings vibrant energy toward an exciting season ahead, and the 2023 campaign should be no different. However, with 2023 being the sport‘s 75th anniversary, the occasion might bring more festivity to a track already rich with history.
Dating back to his time as an intern with NASCAR and watching Jeff Gordon and others battle during Kelleher’s inaugural Daytona 500 experience in 2002, the third-year track president understands the excitement that comes from each occasion. This year in particular will look to bring a unique flavor to add to the legacy.
And so, the 2023 version of the race should begin what looks to be a memorable start to NASCAR‘s 75th anniversary season.
“I think of 75 years ago … racing on the beach to where we are now, thinking about the industry of a whole of celebrating 75 years,” Kelleher said. “I think this is going to be one of the Daytona 500s that, in 20 years if you went, you are going to look back and say, ‘I was there for the 75th, and I remember how unique and how special that event was.\””